Denver flirts with Curious company

Colorado co. launches major effort

DENVER –The mortality rate for theater companies has always been high. Every fledgling company’s dream is to create a niche for compelling fare, build audiences, attract talented actors and pay them Equity rates, not to mention commission new works. Of course, only a few achieve these goals.

So when seven-year-old Curious Theater Company in Denver recently announced its commissioning of an unprecedented multimedia event — “The War Anthology,” in which more than 100 artists will examine U.S. military intervention around the world in a series of short sketches — it’s worth noting how it got there.

Chip Walton, who started Curious and is its producing artistic director, arrived on the scene with a splash in 1996, using a decrepit warehouse to produce Edward Bond’s controversial social critique “Saved.”

A year later, he directed an award-winning production of “Angels in America” for established local company Hunger Artists in a renovated church in one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods.

Out of this production, the kernel of Curious was formed. Immediately, Walton turned heads with a gut-wrenching production of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “How I Learned to Drive,” establishing the tone that sets Curious apart from its more established rival, the Denver Center Theater Company, and a host of other smaller local companies striving to break through.

Not only was the play’s subject matter — child molestation — something few regional companies then were willing to tackle, but Vogel was not interested in licensing “Drive” to just anyone.

“It was both generous and risky on her part, but Robert Lewis Vaughan (director of professional rights at Dramatists Play Service) and she both decided that we showed promise as a company, and they took a huge chance on us,” Walton says.

Unlike regional powerhouse DCTC, whose political and cultural vocabulary is limited by the hands that feed it, Curious has no such restrictions. And unlike the edgy, strident black-box companies that shock for their own sake, Curious’ social criticism is consistently grounded and to the point.

Seven seasons later, the situation has remained much the same, with the DCTC passing up Edward Albee’s controversial “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and Curious having engaged noted DCTC director Nagle Jackson to helm its production in January.

Curious’ rise to the top was not without its trials, however. After three seasons of compelling work and growing auds, the company hit a dry spell in 2002-03, producing back-to-back clunkers from playwrights who had brought them early successes — Vogel’s “The Mineola Twins” and Vaughan’s “The Rest of the Night.”

This strategy generated criticism that the company needed to be more discriminating, even if it was showing loyalty to those who had helped it. But Walton was unchastened, insisting those were the best new scripts among the hundreds submitted and read that year.

What rescued Curious from its financial straits, though, was a proven commodity — David Auburn’s “Proof,” which had already received a regional premiere (albeit a short run) in Denver by the New York road company.

On solid ground again, Walton continues to go back to the well, and has achieved a decent measure of success doing it, revisiting Vogel’s work with last winter’s stunning production of “The Long Christmas Ride Home.”

But even as Curious weathers its share of misses between the hits, season subscriptions continue to grow. Walton says, “Our commitment to producing ‘entertainment with intellect,’ to provide audiences with high-quality theater experiences which also challenge them to consider, and often reconsider, their social, cultural or political surroundings has played a huge part in our success.” Those auds seem to be sophisticated enough to take a chance on the company’s risky choices, and their numbers are growing.

That growth is reflected in Curious’ geometrically progressive budget and growing staff, now two full-time and six part-time employees, including managing director Sarah Rutstein and associate a.d. Bonnie Metzger .

According to Rutstein, the company’s operating budget has grown from $170,722 in 2002 to $470,819 in 2004. Next season is projected at $650,000 and the company expects to top $1 million within the next three years. At present, all this goes to support an SPT2 contract with Equity.

Commercial success has fueled artistic growth as well, with recent addition Metzger instrumental in developing “The War Anthology.”

Curious also awaits a world premiere by Vogel, an uncharacteristic move for a Pulitzer recipient. Like the company’s subscribers, she shares an appreciation for Curious’ wide-open fare, explaining, “Chip’s commitment to adventurous new plays has made Curious a natural out-of-town home for me.”

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