Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Night I Fell in Love with Shakespeare

   I was eight years old when I experienced my first Shakespeare production.  My mother covered theatre and the arts for a small newspaper in Boulder, CO at the time, and she took me and my older sister to the opening night of a production of Romeo and Juliet.  I have a vivid remembrance of that night and the production we saw.  The show was set in modern day, 1984, and the rivalry was between two punk gangs, complete with torn up denim jackets and colorful mohawks. 
    They set intermission just after Mercutio and Tybalt are killed and Romeo is banished, and I remember sitting on my mother's lap in the theatre lobby, sobbing and sobbing onto her shoulder.  She told me we hadn't even reached the saddest part yet, and explained what the 2nd half entailed.  She asked me if I wanted to leave and I said no, I wanted to see the rest.  I wonder now if my mother was being judged by anyone witnessing my despair - if any of the other mothers who left their kids at home that night passed us by and shook their heads thinking, "I would NEVER bring a child so young to see Romeo and Juliet!  What is that woman thinking?"  Well, without consulting her on this before writing this blog post, I can probably guess what she was thinking.  She was thinking I was ready to experience art of this caliber and intensity; she was thinking that I was ready to learn a thing or two about the human condition; she was thinking that Shakespeare would introduce me to a world view I hadn't seen yet; she was thinking it would change me somehow.  I don't mean that she actually sat down before hand and weighed the pros and cons of taking me to the theatre that night and that these were her intellectual conclusions in these specific terms.  But this belief about art was so ingrained in my mother's thinking as I was growing up - when we visited art museums and saw violent depictions of historical events or nude portraits, when we went to the opera, and when we saw theatre - that I doubt it even crossed her mind to question taking an eight-year-old to a Shakespeare tragedy in which many character die horrible, violent deaths.  If anyone would have questioned her on why she would do such a thing, I believe she would have said in complete earnestness, "Why ever not?"  My mom always had a way of giving me complete artistic transparency. When it came to art, she never hid anything from me or thought I was too young to experience it. 
    Little did she know on that night in 1984 what this production of Romeo and Juliet would actually do for me and the depth to which it would sink into my being.  Yes, I cried for those characters out of sadness, but I remember so much more than just the crying.  I remember something brand new and wholly thrilling awakening inside me, like a curtain being drawn back from an open window and showing me a brand new magical world - a world in which art could make me FEEL.  This was the first time art took me out of myself and made me feel something so deep and visceral; this was the first time I truly felt the pain of another person as if it were my own pain.
    I may have turned out to be the same person I am today if I hadn't had that exact experience at that exact age, when I was in the active process of learning to become a compassionate, empathetic person, but I'm not so sure.  That experience was the flame that lit the fire.  That was the night that set me directly in front of my future - a future grounded in Shakespeare.  Here's what the last 30 years of living inside Shakespeare has done for me:
  • Shakespeare's plays have taught me to see all sides of an issue because he so clearly presents each side of whatever issues his characters are grappling with.
  • Shakespeare has taught me to see myself in everyone because he so masterfully shows us what it means to be human, so that we see ourselves reflected in his characters - from the kings and queens, to the soldiers and servants.
  • Shakespeare's plays have taught me to see light and meaning in even the darkest places, because his darkest places are never devoid of light and meaning.
  • Shakespeare's plays have taught me to see how seductive evil can be, and the consequences of being seduced, because his characters are often seduced by, but never recover from, evil.
    My mother may not have known on that night in 1984 that she was showing me my future, but she knew that children need to be exposed to great art in all its forms, in all its genres.  Art teaches us critical thinking, creative problem solving, empathy, and that there are whole universes outside ourselves.  Children need to be given every opportunity to learn compassion and to learn that there are creative solutions to every problem.  Children need to be given every opportunity for awakening. Children need art.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pick a Show, Hold Auditions

I accidentally helped start a theatre company.  I’ve thought about it off and on over the years, but always brushed it aside as an impossible dream, a daunting task, a not going to happen scenario.  And yet, here I am introducing to you a new member of the greater Denver theatre family, The Foothills Theatre Company.  Born to the Littleton community in the Fall of 2013, it is here to entertain audiences, engage minds, and involve local artists.  It is here to offer great theatre to our neighborhoods, and bring talent out from hiding and onto the stage.  So how exactly was it an accident?  Well, I kind of stumbled over it when Regina Smith, Arts Department Specialist for Foothills Parks and Recreation District, left it lying around for me to trip over.   
          Smith and her good friend, Amalie Millhone, conceptualized the Foothills Theatre Company and decided to dive in.  With Smith's BA in theatre, plus all of her experience running a large arts department for a major organization, and Millhone's MA in theatre, they were ready to start something new and exciting.  "I kept saying, there are all these people who are just like me, who for whatever reason, stopped doing art and they need an outlet," says Millhone.  "They've got other lives and they've got jobs and they've got kids, and they're being practical, and I want to give those people a venue to be that impractical person they used to be or always dreamed of being."
         Millhone and Smith were students at Louisiana State University when they met and they worked on many shows together there.  They knew they worked well with each other, but they weren't sure how to begin putting together this new venture.  That's when they asked for my advice.  "We needed help," says Millhone.  "Theatre is a big thing, it takes more than two people."  I already worked for Smith as an acting teacher in her arts program, and I've been directing summer shows at the Arvada Center  and various other venues for many years.  "The two of us are actors. We didn't know how to put things together behind the scenes," says Smith of herself and Millhone. "So we contacted you because of your experience with directing and putting together productions.  We just said 'What do we need to do to get this started? How do we get our name out there?' And your advice to us was, 'Pick a show and hold auditions.'" And there it was.  I was involved, just like that.  I could take it or leave it, I could walk around it or step over it.  But I didn’t.  I tripped.  Once I tripped and fell, I couldn’t get back up.  I was in for good.
            Along with choosing a first show, we had to decide what we wanted our company to be about.  "We want to give people in this area a chance to perform, whether they've never performed before, or whether they retired from performing to have a family or a 'real' job, we want to give those people an opportunity to come back to the stage," says Smith.  "We want to offer really quality performances for people in our community to experience." 
            But why now?  When so many other well established theatre companies have closed in the last decade, what makes us so sure that we can make this happen?  "One of the benefits of being part of the larger organization of Foothills Parks and Recreation, is that we have the support of the district.  We have performance space that we can use right here in the rec center, we have rehearsal space, and we also have grant funding that we're already receiving from SCFD, and there are other grant opportunities as a part of Foothills," Smith says.  "So we have a little more flexibility than some of the other stand alone theatre companies.”
            "The economy wasn't my concern," says Millhone. "But what was?  An outlet for frustrations because of the economy." 
            We decided to take the “something for everyone” approach with our first show, and we settled on three one-act plays.  Blind Date, Inc, by Gerald P. Murphy, Trifles by Susan Glaspell, and Oh Night Divine - a short piece of mine.  All of these plays could be secured for little or no royalties - a bonus for a baby company with no money - and together they share the common theme of exploring human relationships in various forms.  The show title became Trifles and Other Plays. The three of us established our roles as well - I would direct, Millhone would be our stage manager/assistant director, and Smith would be our producer.           

         So what makes us think that out company will not only succeed, but stand out from the others in this area?  "I look at theatre right now and I see us doing the same old shows over and over because we're so desperate to put butts in the seats," says Millhone.  "I am so tired of seeing stuff that's tired.  You don't see people taking chances on anything.  I want a place where we showcase new work that is good.  It's out there. We have to be brave enough to put it on, and figure out how to do it economically."  
         Smith agrees.   "We want to make theatre accessible to everyone," she says.  “We're focused on collaboration and community involvement.  This is giving everyone an opportunity to share their work or their craft with this community.  We're really looking to highlight the local talent that we have," Smith adds.  
           My accidental role in this company is proving to be a very happy accident.  Foothills Theatre Company isn’t just about three women who wanted a theatre company – it’s about three women who want to bring the arts to our little ‘burb, and we want you to come with us.  Send us your script, come out and see a show, audition for us.  And don’t watch your step – just let yourself trip and fall in. 

The Foothills Theatre Company offers acting classes for children and adults.  You can see our class listings online at .  For more information about the Foothills Theatre Company, or to submit headshots, resumes, or scripts, please contact Regina Smith at 303-409-2612 or email