GOLDEN – This is the dawning of … not Aquarius, but rather an awakening in the national performing-arts community. And there is no more evident microcosm for just how fast things are changing than in Miners Alley Playhouse’s current staging of the 54-year-old pro-love, anti-war musical “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.”
The creative process for this production was unlike any of the hundreds of “Hair” stagings that have preceded it. Because in 2022, creative teams are now asking more, different and better questions than have ever been asked before – and it is showing up in what is ultimately being presented onstage.
“There was a lot of soul-searching that went into every moment of this show,” said Director Len Matheo, whose multi-ethnic and multi-gender cast is not only more authentic than most, it is perhaps even more true to the gender-fluid spirit of the original than the original itself with two non-binary actors among its cast of 12.
When one of them, assigned a male identity at birth, burns their draft card in a climactic scene, it means something more here than anywhere else. “In 1969, the government would not have cared about that person’s gender identity, and they would have been going off to war,” Matheo said. “That’s just one of the many things that add a poignancy and a beauty to what we have put on the stage.”
Before #MeToo, actors everywhere were expected to pretty much say or do (or have done unto them) whatever any given story called for – with little consideration to any ideological reservations or personal traumas that might come up along the way.
But since #MeToo, theater companies have been challenged to do better in every aspect of the creative process, which means truly taking into account input from actors when it comes to being touched, kissed or pretend-violated. Or saying uncomfortable words (like “tribe”) that have had evolving connotations over the years.
There is no bigger trigger word than the n-word. And in this production of “Hair,” they’re simply not saying it. Even though it was written for a specific, intentional and provocative intent in the iconic anti-war song “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”:
“Prisoners in (n-word) town, it's a dirty little war. Three Five Zero Zero. Take weapons up and begin to kill. Watch the long, long armies drifting home.”
The song takes its title from Allen Ginsberg's 1966 anti-war poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," in which he cites Gen. Maxwell Taylor proudly bragging up to the media the number of enemy soldiers killed by the U.S. in one month. He famously repeated the number, digit by digit, for effect: "Three-Five-Zero-Zero."
The song has been performed as written tens of thousands of times since 1967, but Matheo said he’s not only uncomfortable hearing White people say the n-word, he’s uncomfortable hearing anyone say it. After talking with his team, he decided to keep the song, but cut the word.
“This entire show is marked with landmines throughout – and we talked about every one of them,” he said.
“I could not do ‘Hair’ in 2022 without complete buy-in from my cast, and so I gave my actors full agency in the words they say and in the things they do. I told them, ‘I will never ask you to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, or that makes you feel like you are hurting another human being.'”
You know: Words that, until recently, said no director ever.
Most people were not alive when “Hair” first attempted to visit Denver for a scheduled one-week touring stop in 1971. But Denver police would not let the sunshine in. When the company arrived, police invoked a never-before-enforced nudity law and refused to let the show open at what is now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. That’s because “Hair” contains a scene in which some of the actors briefly strip. It’s a central and non-negotiable story point, Matheo said – but stripping is not something everyone in the cast must do in unison to make the greater point.
“The context of the nude scene is that they are having a war protest, and they are sick of being invisible to the world around them, so they finally take their clothes off as a way of saying, ‘We will not be ignored,’” Matheo said. “I made the decision that it is up to each individual actor whether they get naked in that moment or not – and that they can change their minds on a nightly basis.”
This is the new creative world that many have been clamoring for. Coming out of the pandemic in the awakened era of Black Lives Matter, several Broadway creators responded to charges of racial insensitivity by making previously unthinkable script changes to established shows like “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon” – where Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided that the lead female Ugandan villager would never again attempt to send a text using a typewriter. It’s a funny joke, but at the expense of an African woman’s perceived intelligence, and it’s gone forever from the show.
“Things are changing because the times are changing,” said Matheo. “I made the best choices I could in this new, changing world, and I stand by my every decision.”
These are the changes, it is hoped, that are leading to healthier and safer creative spaces.
Nora Lynch: This is no time to kid
This may sound antithetical to a comedy show, but Denver’s Nora Lynch says there is nothing funny about her headlining appearance next Wednesday (Aug. 31) at Comedy Works South.
The Colorado Women’s Bar Association is holding a benefit titled “Don’t ‘Kid’ Me,” an evening of comedy, drinks and discussion about reproductive justice in a post-Roe world.
“I don’t think any of this is funny,” said Lynch, a graduate of Marycrest High school and a writer of sit-coms on every major network with her husband and writing partner, Phil Palisoul. In fact, the proliferation of political comedy, from streaming specials to late-night talk shows, is actually part of the problem, she said, because comedy is not solving anything in the real world.
“We’ve just had 25 of the best years of satire in comedy history – and yet, as a society, we are further down the wrong road than we ever were,” said Lynch. “What’s funny about taking away a woman’s fundamental right of self-autonomy? It’s not funny. It’s terrifying. I don’t want to make people laugh. I want to wake them up. These fascists have every intention of rolling right over us. And while we try to reason with them, they just take more power. Fascists must not be reasoned with. They must be defeated.”
The benefit will begin with a panel on reproductive justice issues featuring Colorado Sen. Julie Gonzales, Katherine Riley of COLOR (Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights), Dr. Julie Winkle M.D., and moderated by attorney Kiki Council from The Forefront Project.
If you couldn’t tell, this is personal for Lynch, whose pioneering mother, Suzanne Harvey Lynch, was a legend within the Colorado Women’s Bar Association for her 60-plus years as a practicing attorney.
“My mother came to believe in reproductive rights in the most personal of ways,” said Lynch, sister of noted film and TV actor John Carroll Lynch. “She had eight pregnancies in a decade: Five were live births, one died at birth and the rest were miscarriages. She came to believe very personally in the right to her own body because she didn’t have it. She was told her whole life that she didn’t deserve it.”
So for Lynch, who will be joined next Wednesday by the self-described “deaf, bisexual, Jewish, queer activist and stand-up comedian” Hayden Kristal, the point isn’t to make you laugh.
“It’s to spur you into doing something,” she said.
Breakthrough memoir on stuttering
John Hendrickson, who cut his journalistic teeth as a rock-music intern at The Denver Post in 2012-13, has penned a highly anticipated memoir called “Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter” that is now available for pre-ordering.
Hendrickson’s life forever changed nine months before the 2020 presidential election when he interviewed Joe Biden, one stutterer to another, for a remarkable essay in The Atlantic that allowed millions of people to reconsider Biden’s verbal stumbles on the campaign trail in a more compassionate light.
“It doesn’t — can’t —define who you are,” Biden told Hendrickson, a brilliant young writer who overcame his own, far more severe speaking challenges to become a Senior Editor at The Atlantic before he was even 30.
“I spent nearly 30 years trying to hide the fact that I have a speech impediment, and just as long repressing the pain and shame that accompany that truth,” Hendrickson said. “In writing this book, I’m attempting to understand the challenges, layers and nuances of living with a neurological disorder; how the struggle to communicate affects your day-to-day existence and every fiber of your being.”
The book’s official release isn’t until January, but pre-orders play an outsized role in the trajectory of a book's success – so anyone with an interest in the subject is encouraged to order now through the Tattered Cover Book Store.
'Freak Train' turning 22
Against all odds, Denver’s longest-running open-mic variety show, Freak Train, turns 22 on Monday night (Aug. 29) at the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo St. The format (and the $5 admission) for the last-Monday-of-every-month talent apocalypse have not changed: The first 12 freaks to sign up get five minutes to basically do anything they want as long as they don’t harm themselves or others.
The all-comers crapshoot draws freaks with ukuleles, freaks who juggle, freaks with glitter, freaks with cancer, freaks with serious performance dreams and freaks with alternatingly horrifying and bona-fide talents. It's hosted by Denver actor GerRee Hinshaw, who is set to star this October in her own solo musical play “Raised on Ronstadt” for Boulder's Local Theater.
What are newcomers who may not have been among the first 230 or so "Freak Train" audiences in for? "A new appreciation for just how short – or how long – five minutes can be," Hinshaw said. "But they won't regret it. It's good people … and there's cake." Tickets only at the door.
Denver Center casting news
According to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 48 of the 65 available roles in its five upcoming fall theater shows will be played by actors from Colorado, which would be an unprecedented commitment to the local talent pool.
The casting announcement includes big changes to the company’s seasonal "A Christmas Carol" offering, which will now be directed by Stories on Stage Artistic Director Anthony Powell, who was a longtime DCPA Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director back in the 1990s. There’s a new Scrooge in Peter Bradbury, who has to hold some kind of a record for being an understudy in a gobsmacking 24 Broadway plays. The most recent Scrooge, Tim McCracken, is the new Bob Cratchit. And the new Mrs. Fezziwig is longtime local favorite Emily Van Fleet, who faces the daunting task of replacing crowd favorite Leslie O’Carroll, who has played the role in 21 previous Denver Center productions. The other fall offerings are Theater of the Mind, The Chinese Lady, Much Ado About Nothing, and the new theater for young audiences musical “Little Red."
Maria-Christina Oliveras, who earned her master’s degree at the Denver Center’s former National Theatre Conservatory, is taking over a starring role of Persephone in the national touring production of “Hadestown” – but not until Oct. 4, just missing the Tony Award-winning Best Musical’s stop in Denver from Aug. 30-Sept. 11 …
The second annual ReelAbilities Film Festival Denver, which tells stories of people with disabilities, is happening now through Aug. 31 in Denver, Boulder and online. The lineup includes nine films showing in-person and 13 that can be accessed virtually, with “Imperfect” as the Aug. 27 in-person closing film at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center. “Imperfect,” an award-winning documentary co-directed by Regan Linton and Brian Malone, traces the making of Phamaly Theatre Company’s 2019 stage musical “Chicago.” Afterward, there will be a panel discussion with Phamaly actors and crew …
“Song Confessional,” a podcast started by artists who work with artists to turn recorded stories into songs, will christen its first permanent location with a celebration Sept. 18 at the renowned Mishawaka Amphitheatre in Bellvue, just west of Fort Collins. Patrons of “The Mish” can now record confessions year round, some of which will be curated and produced by a national artist for “Song Confessional.” The inaugural, biannual (and free) Confesst! Festival will kick off with performances by The Bright Light Social Hour, Esmé Patterson, Walker Lukens and others. Registration is encouraged.
And finally …
Last week, we told you that volunteers would be out in force last weekend working on the 131-year-old Elitch Theatre in northwest Denver as part of a $70,000 grant through the Lowe’s Hometowns community impact program. Lowe's employees helped to remove old landscaping, pour concrete for a new patio, made repairs to the landscape drip system and took on other painting and cleanup tasks. “After this, the theater really feels like it’s ready to open the doors and welcome the community in,” said Greg Rowley, President of the Historic Elitch Theatre Board of Directors.