ELEVATED | Plays Old and New in Telluride, and Gershwin in Ridgway
by Leslie Vreeland
Jul 17, 2013 | 2001 views | 0 0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CLASSIC JAZZ DUO – Pianist Doris Merrit and her bassist, Roger Johns, in concert on the Front Range. The pair will play Ridgway's Sherbino Theatre Saturday evening. (Courtesy photo)
CLASSIC JAZZ DUO – Pianist Doris Merrit and her bassist, Roger Johns, in concert on the Front Range. The pair will play Ridgway's Sherbino Theatre Saturday evening. (Courtesy photo)
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Telluride Playwright’s Festival

There’s a festival every week in this town come summer, but only one makes the audience such an integral part. The show literally would not go on without the input of the audience at the Telluride Playwrights Festival, because the whole point is to help writers hone their works based on feedback from the people watching the performance.

Over the years, works incubated in Telluride – with the advice and suggestions not from professionals, but from passionate onlookers –– have gone on to make their debuts on bigger stages in New York, Chicago, Denver and Detroit. In the process, Telluride has become known not only as a nurturer of films, but of plays, so much so that, increasingly, theatre companies have been approaching Playwrights’ Founder and Artistic Director Jennie Franks for help. The reason, says Franks, is budgetary. “Other theatre companies don’t have the time or the money to put into refining and developing plays these days,” she says – and that is exactly what the Playwrights Festival was designed to do. This year, for example, the Festival will present, for the audience’s consideration, two works slated for production later this season by the Bloomington (Ind.) Playwrights Project: The Banana Tree, a wacky comedy by Dan Castellaneta and Deb Lacusta, award-winning writers from The Simpsons (he’s the voice of Homer and other characters), and Sequence, a scientific thriller by Arun Lakra. Also on the schedule: Chatting with the Tea Party, a play based on a series of interviews by writer Rich Orloff, a New Yorker who travelled the country interviewing members of the Tea Party. “We’ve invited members of the Tea Party in Montrose to attend and offer their comments,” Franks said, “and we really hope they’ll come.” There’ll also be an Improv Night, a performance of Me Rich, You Learn, a recent hit at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and a “coffee talk” gathering of all the playwrights. Nearly half the events at this year’s festival are free. Single passes can be purchased at the door of each event for $15. A pass to see the whole thing costs just $57 (for  comparison, $57 will buy you the cheap seats to a single performance of Kinky Boots on Broadway; good seats go for $137). “We have something for everyone” this year, Franks says. What she doesn’t have, ironically, is control: imagine staging a festival where you’re not in charge of the outcome. All Franks and her visiting playwrights can do is rehearse, step back, allow events to unfold on stage – and let the audience have their say. The Telluride Playwrights Festival runs from Tuesday, July 23 through Sunday, July 28. For a complete schedule of events or to purchase tickets, visit playwrightsfestival.org.

Shakespeare in the Park

Plays brand-new and classic this week in Telluride, and what could be more timeless than a work by William Shakespeare?  Shakespeare in the Park begins its 22nd season this Saturday, July 20. This year’s production is the comedy Twelfth Night, staged by Telluride Theatre and directed by Buff Hooper.

Though Hooper has been with TT since 1998 (it was known as Telluride Repertory back then), and has acted in several Shakespeare plays, he never has directed one until now. “It’s a brave new world,” he said of his new role, “a totally different ballgame than just acting. My organizational skills are not the best, and that’s been a challenge. But I love the deciphering of the text and drawing out the humor. That’s been the joy of it.”

It probably helps that, like other members of his troupe, Hooper is a close student of the theatre. He will seek out the same production, and watch it again and again in different venues; he will obsess over a single phrase (“It took me six weeks to figure out the best interpretation of a line in Act V”). Hooper chose to direct this comedy, one of Shakespeare’s best-known and loved, on the basis of what he read in a book his wife gave him; the book was written by someone who had directed every one of the Bard’s plays. In it, “The author said [another Shakespeare comedy] was one where he always wondered: what exactly is so funny about it?” Whereas Twelfth Night was so straightforward and seamless, “It was the perfect play. It practically played itself. I thought, ‘This is the one to start with.” Directing a comedy about love, cross-dressing and gender confusion that is written in iambic pentameter when you are also busy building sets and memorizing lines (Hooper has a small role in the play) isn’t easy, but the director is employing the same close concentration he’s used for other comedies he has worked on, like The Underpants, by Steve Martin. He studied that one repeatedly, and he didn’t quit until he figured it out. “I saw it in Aspen, Philadelphia and Santa Rosa, California,” Hooper said. “In Philly they nailed it.”  

Classic Jazz in Ridgway

By now, the freshly renovated Sherbino Theater has pretty well re-established itself as a terrific place for dancing and modern music. But let’s not forget its larger purpose. This historic building was rescued from the threat of permanent closure in 2011 by the nonprofit Ridgway Chautauqua Society, a group of residents mindful of the original Chautauqua, an adult-education movement popular in the early 20th century that brought entertainment, culture and education to rural America. This Saturday night, the Ridgway Chautauqua Society and the Ouray County Performing Arts Guild will bring culture and swing to town, when they host An Evening of Jazz and Gershwin with distinguished pianist Doris Merritt and her longtime bassist, Roger Johns, in an intimate performance at the Sherbino.

Merritt has been performing for more than 30 years on the Front Range. Her style has been deeply influenced by Dave Brubeck, Andre Previn and Gershwin (among others), and she’s played classic jazz piano in everything from hotels and lounges to the Denver Center for Performing Arts. She recently entertained guests at the 20th Anniversary of the Bridge Project Gala, a soignée event at the Grand Hyatt in Denver that raised $475,000 for charity, where the guest of honor was Gov. Hickenlooper. (As the Denver Post put it, Merritt’s renditions of all the standards “kept the crowd in a mood to bid.”) At the Sherbino, Merritt will devote the first half of her program to the influence of jazz on the evolution of popular music from World War II through the 1970s, and the second half to Gershwin’s legendary music. Scott Dozier, head of programming at the Wilkinson Library and a fine musician in his own right, is organizing carpools from Telluride and Mountain Village for those who would like to see Merritt perform and perhaps enjoy a beverage without the worry of dodging deer and elk on the drive home. If there is sufficient interest, Dozier may be able to arrange a Galloping Goose or Telluride Transport Shuttle, with a group discount, to Ridgway.

The concert begins at 7 p.m; admission is $20 ($5 for ages under 18). For transport to and from Telluride, call Dozier at 970/708-7174.

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