TheatreWorks opens its next chapter with a season of unique storytelling


Measure for Measure opens at Rock Ledge Ranch on June 26 - ISAIAH DOWNING
  • Isaiah Downing
  • Measure for Measure opens at Rock Ledge Ranch on June 26

The stories we choose to tell, and how we choose to tell them, say a great deal about not only who we are as individuals, but also as a culture. In putting together UCCS-based TheatreWorks’ 2019-2020 season, artistic director Caitlin Lowans and artistic producer Lynne Hastings approached this theme a little differently.

“There are two different people whose lenses we are telling stories through, and they will not be identical to Murray,” says Hastings, referring Murray Ross, the late and beloved founder of TheatreWorks who passed away in 2017.

“We want to respect and carry on the legacy,” Lowans adds, “but we still have to have our own lens and our own voice, and stories that we tell. And we are two very different people from Murray.”

As they are very different from each other, as well. They are drawn to different kinds of storytelling that have made this upcoming season a grab-bag of diverse and unique styles of theater.

Coming from an acting background, Hastings looks for plays with strong character development — especially in regard to female characters. Lowans, who leans more on a directing background, tends to look for plays that have an element of surrealism and visual excitement. With their preferences and talents combined, the 2019-2020 season is looking damn good.

It begins with Measure for Measure (June 26-July 21), performed for TheatreWorks’ annual Shakespeare at the Ranch production. “[It is] so much more funny than anyone knows, than we even do a good job of telling people about. It's a very funny show. But it's a very funny show about very big, serious stuff,” Lowans says. This big, serious stuff? Power and leadership, gender and sexuality, and plentiful intersecting topics. But it kicks off the storytelling theme of the season in an interesting way.

“When two people go into a room, and one of them has all of the structural power, and they come back out of the room, whose story about what happened will be believed?” Lowans asks.

This theme of power in storytelling provides a through-line for the other works on the docket, peppered with both well-known and more obscure titles.

TheatreWorks’ August show, The Mountaintop (Aug. 22-Sept. 8), is a two-person play about Martin Luther King Jr.’s final hours in the Lorraine Motel, an overnight success after it was first produced in London in 2010. The TheatreWorks show will star Calvin M. Thompson, a TheatreWorks veteran who most recently appeared in the company’s 2018 production of A Raisin in the Sun; plus local powerhouse Marisa Hebert who knocked it out of the park in TheatreWorks’ American Prom.

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Lowans and Hastings say it should prove to be a powerful piece. It was written and originally performed in the Obama era, and its lessons — its stories — take on new meaning under our current administration, facing our culture’s current struggles.

Perhaps the most recognizable title in the lineup is Arcadia (Oct. 10-27), a Tom Stoppard classic. Lowans, who was shocked to see that TheatreWorks had produced very few Stoppard plays over the decades, says: “[Arcadia] deals with this question of history and time. And how the things that happened in the past are never truly knowable in the present, but it has this hopefulness that ideas and will, as they say in the play, ‘be rediscovered and carried through.’”

She has a lot of love for this play, and adds that it has elements of what she and Hastings both look for in a successful piece: roles for incredible female characters, plus an element of magical realism that makes it intriguing to stage. “And sometimes,” Lowans adds, “when I feel kind of nervous about the world and the way it's going, a play that says the great lessons of the past can be rediscovered makes me feel better.”

Of course, though each of these plays contains elements of comedy and elements of drama, the play they have chosen to fill the slot of their usual holiday special promises to be a generally straightforward rollicking adventure. Around the World in 80 Days (Dec. 5-22), adapted from the Jules Verne novel by the Lookingglass Theatre Company out of Chicago, calls for a small cast to play a world’s worth of roles. “Very physical, very madcap, a lot of narration. … It's the idea that we can listen to a story, and that many people can tell it. So the cast of Around the World in 80 Days is not going to look like the cast that's on the page of the novel, and that's part of the point.”

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(Jan. 30-Feb. 16) is set up to shock and awe local theatergoers. Both Hastings and Lowans say that this modern satire, set in your average American office space, took them entirely by surprise when they first encountered it. At turns hilarious, heartfelt and shocking, Gloria follows a group of writers struck by an office tragedy, each trying to take ownership of the story in their own way. Hastings emphasizes that, from a character perspective, Gloria proves particularly interesting because none of the characters are necessarily “good people.” This isn’t a play with a moral center, but rather a group of very human, very flawed individuals dealing with tragedy differently — and maybe not always in the best ways.

March of 2020 will bring another two-man show to the TheatreWorks stage, though it takes a village behind the scenes. An Iliad (March 12-29) tells the story of Homer’s Iliad the way it would have been told in ages past. The only two characters: the poet and the muse. “They, plus the audience's imagination, are creating all the voices, deepening the story. In the many millennia since [Homer], we have gotten away from that as a mode of storytelling. And now this play brings it back.”

The written play doesn’t come with its own music, but accompaniment is key, so TheatreWorks has enlisted UCCS music faculty power couple Jane Chan, a cellist who will play the muse, and Anthony Tan, her husband and an accomplished composer, to compose music specifically for this production.

You might say that Lowans, who will be directing the final production of the season, is passionate about this play. She says this one, titled Passion Play (April 23-May 10), will tie together the themes of the season and give audiences a lot to think about. Passion Play meets three different communities at three different points in time: Elizabethan England, 1930s Germany and South Dakota during the Vietnam War. Each community is putting on a production of the Passion of Christ, and the same actors play the same roles in every version.

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Hastings says the tension of the play falls on this question: “What happens when you have to tell the same story year after year after year? Regardless of who you are as a person?”

Lowans adds: “It has a great moral questions and ethical questions about like, if you do break out of those societal expectations, if you do move away from that role you've been assigned, and have to make your own choices, how do you know you'll make the right one?”

As always, TheatreWorks plans to enrich their season with town hall talks and prologues — community discussions that help deepen understanding of the works or the cultural context in which the works were produced. Though they have not yet solidified the entire prologue schedule, two have been announced: Curating The Political Divide and a panel discussion about updating controversial works with playwright David Henry Hwang.

They also aim to make their shows more accessible by hopefully opening up dress rehearsals for folks who might not otherwise be able to attend, or reaching out to local organizations and nonprofits like REACH Pikes Peak. Perhaps most exciting: They will be touring Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors throughout town this summer, performing in libraries and community centers for free.

So while Hastings and Lowans may be different from Murray Ross, and though the direction in which they take TheatreWorks’ upcoming season will be of their own choosing and making, they uphold the legacy of TheatreWorks: To present great theater, to educate the community, and to open doors for those who may not always have felt they had a place in an audience or onstage.

Michelle Winchell, UCCS Presents’ marketing and media relations manager, says: “Lynne [Hastings] has been a part of this community for such a long time, and then Caitlin [Lowans] has invested immense energy in getting to know people since she got here, and so it feels like we're, you know, we're asking people to come on this journey with us.”

A journey into the next chapter of TheatreWorks’ ever-evolving story.

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