A Theater Far Off the Beaten Path

The Creede (Colo.) Rep succeeds at what few troupes would attempt. THEATER

THE Creede Repertory Theatre carved out a niche for itself 25 years ago in a volcanic ring high in the Rocky Mountains. One of the most successful small arts institutions in the state of Colorado, the company has won awards, received grants, and sold out its house night after night. Odd as it may seem, this summer company actually operates in the black. Odd because, off the beaten path as it is, one has to look for the little town of Creede to find it. The only settlement in southern Colorado's Mineral County, Creede is not particularly easy to get to, and it's not on the road to anywhere else.

Silver mining has waxed and waned in its 100-year history, and many of its resident families and miners had moved on. Like so many other boom-to-bust economies, Creede's was forced to cultivate a new source of revenue - tourism.

Little by little the town renews its sidewalks, cleans up its front yards, removes mining tailings scarring the landscape, paints its store fronts, and dresses for company. It has a character all its own, quite distinct from other mountain communities, and at least part of that character emanates from the Creede Opera House, where the repertory theater attracts locals from all over the San Luis Valley and vacationers - more and more of whom have designed their entire trips around the rep's programs.

The nonprofit company recently raised $300,000 in remodeling funds to save its dilapidated theater. But it isn't the new plaster walls that matter to the audiences; it's the quality of the productions - surprisingly energetic and engaging, if sometimes uneven.

Some of the actors have been performing in Creede for years. But most are young talents drawn from around the country when artistic director Richard Baxter makes his winter audition tour. The actors he chooses need more than talent to make it to Creede because the theater company has an important responsibility to the small community. ``If I don't think they can appreciate and co-mingle with the community I give it up. If it looks like they're too hooked on urban life - the excitement, the fast pace, the lights, and the 24-hour conveniences - if it looks like that's a necessity in their lives, they won't survive here.

``Some are just out of college, but most are making a living as actors,'' Baxter says, ``just not in Equity houses. [Our] roles attract actors. They are attracted to the variety of material we do here - the changing roles day after day. The modest salary helps, but it's not the big drawing card. I think the location for some of them matters a lot - the chance to get out of New York or Dallas and live here in the mountains.''

Baxter's formula for success lies in selecting plays and directors guaranteed to please an audience on vacation. And while the standard farce and the light comedy balance off against more serious fare, Baxter likes to take on a new play each season, too.

The formula works. The company brings in $1.7 million in tourist green to nurture not only Creede but the larger San Luis Valley: Theater patrons come to the restaurants, motels, and shops, and every night but Monday (when the theater is dark) the main street of Creede crackles with customers buying trinkets, treats, antiques, even art works before show time. Most of the Creede Repertory's budget is reinvested in the community.

``Since the mine shut down, we became the largest employer in the county,'' Baxter said. ``State senators from the area really respect the theater company. One of them is on the board of directors. The company has made a big difference in Creede since its inception 25 years ago.''

Barbara Neil, director of the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities, points out that the state did an economic-impact analysis of arts groups in the state, and Creede Repertory Theatre is held up as an example of what an arts organization can do for a community. ``Here is a case where the people decided in the mid-'60s that they wanted art for economic development. They wanted a theater. Now the theater is an integral part of the local economy and has contributed significantly to the quality of life in the region. And it's a strong, mutually supportive relationship between the community and the theater.

``They have a terrific responsibility,'' Neil says, ``to maintain a high level of production and keep costs low. But more, they must be very sensitive to the community and its arts needs. They don't do `cutting-edge,' but they must offer the same fervor and commitment as artists working on the cutting edge.''

The company's silver anniversary season offers a variety of work from goofy farce to serious drama. Included are Arthur Miller's ``A View from the Bridge'' and ``Lady Audley's Secret,'' a musical based on an 1860 novel.

The two productions I saw recently featured several solid performances and two really outstanding characterizations. ``The Piggy Bank,'' freely adapted by Baxter from a Eugene Labiche and A. Delacour play, finds a motley group of small-town Coloradans circa 1863 on their way to the big city of Santa Fe during fiesta. All goes wrong as the little company loses its money and ends up on the wrong side of the law. The actors have such fun with the farce that the silliness becomes contagious.

The most delightful surprise came in the form of actor Mark Nelson in the title role of a taut little production of Neil Simon's ``The Good Doctor,'' based on the life and work of Anton Chekhov. Obviously young for the title role, Mr. Nelson nevertheless presented a complex, intricate characterization, full of detailed gesture and expression. He may well be a young man to watch; after all, Mandy Patinkin once trod these same boards.

The real charm of a theater like Creede Repertory lies in its unexpected professionalism so far from the ``centers of culture.'' A hint of the Old West lingers in the mountain air, and a small theater with large ambitions suits the climate and the crowds.

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