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A Dandy of a New Theater

TheatreWorks to open their new Bon Vivant Theater with Romeo and Juliet

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Try talking to TheatreWorks artistic director Murray Ross about his new digs in the Bon Vivant Theater, and see how long it takes before you get an eloquent disquisition on community. Give it 45 seconds.

Ask a question, for example, about how the new 4,000-foot space will improve the quality of the plays presented and you'll get something like this: "Theater is a collective art, an ensemble art, and although we've been doing theater for 25 years, this is the first time we've worked in a theater. All of the physical aspects will be of a higher quality now."

Last year, the Colorado University Foundation bought the former Compassion International building at the northwest corner of Union Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway to house the Beth-El School of Nursing. When the school had leftover space in the former chapel, UCCS offered the space to TheatreWorks, which had been putting on plays in the cramped confines of Dwire Theatre since 1975.

As beloved as the tiny Dwire Theatre may have been for some theatergoers because of its black-box flexibility and its intimate scale, there was no rehearsal space, no proper dressing room, green room or scene shop. Actors, students, teachers and set designers all had to vie for the few available square feet in Dwire.

"We made costumes in whatever condemned space they let us use," said technical director Drew Martorella, on a recent tour of the Bon Vivant. "They gave us a cottage, then they tore it down. They gave us the top floor of Main Hall before they moved us to renovate. They gave us Bennett House before they tore it down for a parking garage." Now the costume shop is directly across the hall from the theater space, with military costumes on tailors' mannequins in front of big windows.

The choice of Romeo and Juliet as an opening play, said Ross, was dictated by the new space.

"We wanted to open the Bon Vivant with the Shakespeare festival," Ross said, sitting in the corner of the new rehearsal space known as the Osborne Theater (named after longtime board member Ed Osborne and his wife Mary). "Romeo and Juliet is all about light and darkness, and we can light it much better now, show off the theater. We can bring in a lot of power. It has high ceilings."

"For the first time, Juliet can be more than four feet off the floor."

As good as his word, a balcony is in the process of being built a generous 8 feet or so off the floor in the former Compassion International chapel space where tech director Martorella is busy showing off all of the theater's new tech capabilities.

There's a sprung floor with three sets of internal beams so there is no contact with the concrete floor below, perfect for dancers. A tech booth hovers above the space, loaded with AV equipment.

And don't forget the public spaces. Like Ross, Martorella can't go long without waxing energetically about the space. "There's a real place to take tickets," he says, "people can feel like they're really entering a theater." Not to mention restrooms and an outdoor patio for gathering between acts."

As excited as everyone involved in the project is, Murray Ross is all too aware of the work they've had to do in recent months, and the work that's sure to come as the group breaks in the new space and all of its equipment.

"It's a serious challenge putting on a new production and opening a new theater at the same moment," Ross said. "We're anticipating that everything will be better, but this is going to be our learning year."

And incidentally, what's with the name? Ross lights up again: "In addition to the hundreds of donors who made this possible, we had three special donors -- one who wished to remain anonymous, Virginia Haganauer, and Kathy Loo and her family. The family wanted to name it after Dusty Loo, who died a year and a half ago -- a guy with considerable resources that he shared with this community ... he was a bon vivant -- he loved to travel, he enjoyed good cigars, good food. So we've called it the Lester B. Loo Bon Vivant Theater."

-- Andrea Lucard

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