CREEDE, COLO.: How does a professional theatre thrive in a town with fewer than 400 full-time residents? If it’s Creede Repertory Theatre, it survives because this small former mining town in the San Juan Mountains (elevation: 8,799 feet) is an attractive summer destination for tourists from all over the Southwest and beyond. Located about 250 miles southwest of Denver, Creede Rep may also be one of the few theatres with “repertory” in its name that actually does a rotating rep.
We spoke to current artistic director Jessica Jackson about making theatre in an idyllic mountain town.
Who founded Creede Rep, when, and why?
The town of Creede used to be a silver mining boomtown (complete with outlaws and brothels), but by the mid-20th century, it became clear that the mines weren’t going to be around much longer. In 1966, a group of residents, including a theatre-loving preacher, drafted a letter and mailed it to various universities, hoping that some students would answer the call to start a summer theatre. One of those letters was posted on a bulletin board at the University of Kansas. Steve Grossman, a 19-year-old theatre undergrad, saw the letter and answered it. So basically, Creede Rep started as a far-fetched idea to save a town by creating a summer tourist season. And here we are about to do our 50th season.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to your theatre.
I was your typical actor living in New York trying to find a job for the summer. A friend dragged me, moody and unwilling, to an audition. Former artistic director and amazing mentor Maurice LaMee offered me a track in the acting company. I remember flying into Denver, and then making the five-hour drive to Creede thinking, “This is beautiful, but where does the audience come from?” That was May of 2004. I often ponder what my life would be like if I had skipped that audition. I would never have found my artistic home (or my husband).
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
Well, mostly our region. Our isolation is a marvelous gift. People come to Creede to find solace and human connection—a great mindset for attending live theatre.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
The Civilians, because my runner-up dream job is “journalist.” They combine journalism and theatre in such a galvanizing way.
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
I dip a weasel in ink and let it run over the Dramatists catalog. Actually, that sounds far easier than the real process. Our entire identity is dictated by rotating repertory. It’s important how the plays interact with each other, because our audiences can see up to six different plays in one week. The plays must all be very different, yet have threads that connect. Each play must resonate at its own frequency and hopefully form a compelling chord. I construct “tracks” for each actor that showcase their status as versatile rep actors, transforming from play to play, weaving inside and outside their comfort zones. It adds layers to the experience of our audience.
Who is your audience?
They are visitors to and residents of Creede. Some have been coming for decades and some have just discovered us. Some are seeing theatre for the very first time, while some regularly see shows in New York and London. They mainly come from Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Arizona. But we meet patrons from England, Japan and Russia, too. Our audience is probably more economically diverse than most theatre audiences.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?
We’re at $1.4 million, and we employ a regular season company of around 70 from May to September. We employ a smaller portion of our company through October as part of our partnership with the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in Denver. And our young audience outreach tour is on the road through November. We have a year-round staff of 10.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
A few days ago we announced our 50th season, which includes August: Osage County, Our Town, Guys and Dolls, Ghost Light (commissioned for our 50th season from Nagle Jackson) and I Love St. Lucy (a world premiere by John DiAntonio). Plus, our two company-devised improv shows, Boomtown and Pants on Fire: a totally made up musical for kids. And our education department will be producing two original TYA shows, one of which will tour to more than 20,000 kids in underserved areas of the Southwest.
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
So many choices…but I’ll bow to the rough days of CRT’s early history: Once, two guys got in a bar fight. One man had a gun and chased the other man out of the bar, into the street, through our lobby, across the stage (mid-performance!), down the other aisle and back to the lobby. The box office manager apprehended the dude with the gun. Actress Christy Brandt was onstage at the time. Next season will be her 41st with us.
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
Hanging with my two-year-old daughter. She’s pretty cool.
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
Theatre will be consumed in pill form. No…I hope not. Most of the time I find myself arguing against the “theatre is dying” theory. There will always be a need for the communal, ephemeral, fragile, unpredictable experience of watching humans tell a story. And watching them watch you back.