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In a Small Mountain Town, a Beloved Theater Company Prevails

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CREEDE, Colo. — Last summer, I stumbled onto some of the singular — and joyful — experiences of my life: a small community, high within the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, that has been sustaining a thriving skilled theater company since 1966. And I didn’t even see the regular version of Creede Repertory Theater — due to pandemic, it had placed on a smaller season of down-to-basic productions on a makeshift outdoor stage.

Not only were the people uncommonly nice and the shows good, but here was a spot where theater was an integral a part of the civic fabric. As soon as I left, I dreamed of returning.

So there I used to be last month, on vacation. I desired to introduce the region to my spouse, but I used to be also curious to see a standard season, done indoors and in repertory (meaning that the resident acting company alternates shows). And I used to be really looking forward to seeing Creede Rep’s reigning divas, Christy Brandt and Anne F. Butler, do “Steel Magnolias.” (Brandt’s first season was in 1973, and that is Butler’s nineteenth season.)

We got here really near that plan tanking.

On July 18, I received an email from the theater informing me that every one performances had been canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak. The shows would “return in full swing on Tuesday, July 26” — just two days before our arrival. Admittedly, my stress level was nothing in comparison with what those on the bottom were experiencing.

“I’m glad I’m not in charge,” Brandt said once I caught up together with her in Creede. “Especially this summer.”

Mockingly, the very thing that has kept Creede Rep going for a long time also helped fuel the Covid surge: “This company is founded on everybody working together,” Kate Berry, the associate artistic director, said. “This becomes your community and your friendship circle.”

Berry and the manufacturing artistic director, John DiAntonio, looked visibly weary once I met with them, possibly because they’ve had to unravel one problem after one other for months on end. Since a number of the staff members live in shared accommodations, for instance, isolating throughout the latest crisis was difficult. “The community really stepped up to assist us in that regard,” DiAntonio said. “People went to guest rooms, apartment garage, hotels in South Fork,” he continued, referring to a town 25 minutes away. “A few of these were favors, but some were just additional expenses.”

Eventually the shows resumed, with a mask requirement for audience members. (Have in mind that Creede draws many visitors from states like Texas and Oklahoma, where mandates don’t go over well.) Brandt said that one night, before “Steel Magnolias,” a pair of ladies had yelled, in her recollection, “We wouldn’t have come to this silly theater if we’d known we were going to need to wear a mask!” They ended up staying for the show, but not before screaming out selection expletives within the restroom, ensuring everybody heard.

But they’ve been within the minority. DiAntonio identified that almost all audience members had gone along. “These are folks that perhaps haven’t worn a mask much within the last yr, or ever,” he said, “but they’re like, ‘I’ve seen a show every yr for 35 years, you bet I’m going to see one with my family this trip, and I’ll wear a mask if I even have to.”

The most important casualty was Marco Ramirez’s boxing drama “The Royale,” which was purported to hold its technical rehearsals throughout the temporary shutdown. Things became so logistically complicated that the show needed to be pushed to the 2023 season.

A minimum of I used to be capable of catch five performances during my three-night stay, a minimarathon not unusual amongst Creede Rep’s patrons.

John Gress, 59, and Gwen Farnsworth, 56, from Boulder, Colo., were on the town in 2017 to hike the nearby San Luis Peak, after they stumbled onto an unexpected sight. “I used to be like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a theater here. Let’s go!’” Farnsworth said. “And the play was so amazing. I immediately wanted to come back back.” The couple’s return was delayed by the pandemic, however the pair made up for it by seeing 4 shows in a weekend; they even brought along Farnsworth’s 87-year-old mother and a 91-year-old friend.

Packing one’s schedule is a terrific reminder of the fun of rep theater. I watched Brandt play half of a genteel couple battling their neighbors within the Karen Zacarías comedy “Native Gardens” at a matinee, then easily switch to the witty Clairee from “Steel Magnolias” that evening. Butler was also excellent because the perpetually cranky Ouiser in that show, but she truly killed as Prince John in Ken Ludwig’s rambunctious “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” wherein she delivered one flamboyant comic flourish after one other.

In other signs of a halting return to normal, Creede Rep’s Headwaters Recent Play Festival is back in person (Aug. 26-28), and the hope is that the actors within the Young Audience Outreach program will perform unmasked, unlike last yr. (The latter initiative is predicted to bring an original bilingual musical to rural and historically neglected schools in not less than seven states.)

Where the old normal will not be welcome anymore, nonetheless, is in some work practices. Like many other corporations, Creede Rep is reconsidering the way in which it makes theater: The corporate now has a free child care program, and it’s attempting to shrink the workweek — a challenge within the demanding rep format, but one dear to DiAntonio.

“Our vision statement is ‘CRT will probably be a haven for artistic excellence, belonging and intrinsic joy,’” he said. “It’s that mountain up there in the gap that we’re working toward.”

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