Doors are opening for women in the Colorado arts community like never before. But make no mistake, says first-time Artistic Director Megan Van De Hey. Those doors are not exactly being held open for them.
“We’re having to really push that damn door open,” said Van De Hey, an award-winning actor and now artistic leader of the state’s oldest theater company, The Little Theatre of the Rockies in Greeley.
Last month, Curious’ Chip Walton announced he will hand over artistic control of the celebrated company he founded in 1998 to Jada Suzanne Dixon, instantly making her a profound symbol of new leadership opportunities for both Black and female artists in Colorado. And at the Arvada Center, Lynne Collins’ role will expand to include the artistic direction of both plays and musicals – essentially absorbing the responsibilities held for 16 years by Rod Lansberry.
A Denver Gazette study of every theater-presenting company in Colorado found that 21 women are currently serving as Artistic Directors of theater organizations they did not found. In other words, 21 women who were specifically chosen for their jobs. And of those, 16 have been hired since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein began in October 2017 – a scandal that propelled the #MeToo movement into the national conversation like never before.
Significantly, five of those 16 newly hired women are now running not just theater companies but larger presenting arts organizations ranging from the Lone Tree Arts Center to the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts. These are significant, high-influence positions. Our cultural organizations, said Missy Moore, are clearly and proactively responding to the moment.
“You know, I think those numbers are just so effin' cool. I really do,” said Moore, who was recently named Artistic Director of the Thunder River Theatre Company in Carbondale, 170 miles west of Denver. “I love that our craft is ebbing and flowing with the changes going on in our society.”
In Colorado, those rapid changes have been fueled not by the downfall of abusers like Weinstein, but by an acknowledgement that it was time for a century-old gender imbalance to change.
Other key findings from The Denver Gazette’s study:
• Among Colorado’s 111 theater-presenting organizations, 31 are run by men who were hired to run their companies – but only nine since Weinstein (compared to the 16 women).
• An additional 24 companies are run by the women who founded them, while 18 are run by the men who started them.
• Twelve companies are run by mixed-gendered pairs (mostly married couples), and five are run by committee.
The bottom line: At least one woman currently has a say in the artistic leadership at 63 percent of our theater organizations, up from 42.6 percent at the end of 2017.
Perhaps most significant: Moore, Van De Hey, Dixon and virtually every other woman hired to run a theater company since Weinstein is a first-time Artistic Director. Before, the lack of comparable experience often was used as an excuse not to hire a woman. Now, it is practically a calling card.
“When we talk about strengthening the pipeline with more diverse people who are clearly ready for leadership positions, you have to remember that everybody had to get their first shot sometime,” said Shelly Gaza, who hand-picked Van De Hey to run the Little Theatre of the Rockies, the oldest summer-stock theater company west of the Mississippi River. “I think we have a bias that men certainly have the capability of rising to the occasion, but we don’t necessarily think of women in the same way.”
Van De Hey, a celebrated actor over the past two decades, was caught by surprise when she was asked to consider leading LTR. The company, founded in 1936, has presented up to five titles each summer through the University of Northern Colorado’s theater department – often by mingling student actors with professionals who have included, once upon a time, Nick Nolte.
Van De Hey first performed with LTR when she was just 13, “and that's how I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life,” she said. She graduated from UNC, performed summers with LTR, and was brought back a few years ago to give the student actors the experience of working alongside a professional. All of which has made the company part of her DNA. But none of which made her an obvious choice for the job.
Which is not to say she wasn’t the right choice for the job.
“I bring a connection to the community,” Van De Hey said. “I grew up in that town. I know that town. And I bring a connection to the faculty because I've worked alongside them for years now – and then I've got my professional credits as well.”
It’s probably no coincidence, Van De Hey said, that it was a woman who had the inspiration to make her the first woman to lead the program since 1965 – other than in 2019, when Gaza did it herself.
In announcing Van De Hey’s appointment, Gaza also unveiled a change in leadership structure that allows Van De Hey to focus solely on artistic decisions – the first of which was to hire Dixon to direct “The Revolutionists,” a play about women living boldly during the French Revolution. This was just a few weeks before Dixon was chosen to run the Curious Theatre Company starting in August. Rather prophetic, Gaza said.
“When it comes to budgets and marketing strategies and P.R., I felt confident that I could help Megan get there,” she added. “What I can’t train is vision – and Megan has vision. She is a part of this community, she has incredible connections and she already has demonstrated that she has great instincts. Megan was the first and most obvious candidate to come to mind because of all the new possibilities that she represents.”
Still, Van De Hey admits, this is all new to her. “I think my biggest fear is taking over a program that has such a special place in my heart – and what if something happens to it on my watch?” she said.
That won’t happen, Moore interjected, “because you're tenacious as (bleep).”
Moore has much in common with Van De Hey. Both require extra storage space for all their acting awards. And both were seeing decent roles for women in their 40s drying up at a time when the same companies that are now proactively looking to hire more women in off-stage power positions are also looking to tell stories that call for more actors of color onstage.
“I felt like I had hit my glass ceiling,” Moore said. “I was burned out, and I was tired. I was tired of chasing contracts and I was tired of continually having to prove myself as an actor.”
Van De Hey was coming to a similar realization: “For a Dutch Irish 44-year-old woman, the roles were not really rolling in as much as they used to, and that's a hard thing to have to face after you have built your career over 25 years,” she said. “But just looking at where we are at right now, I recognize that this isn't my time as an actor. This is the time when our focus as a society is finally where it should be, which is fostering new talent and encouraging new storytelling.”
And Van De Hey can be part of that change by what she chooses to put on the stage – and who she hires to create it.
“The cool part for us right now is that for the first time in our history, we are an all-female-run company,” said Van De Hey, meaning Gaza, herself and Associate Artistic Director Marena Kleinpeter. “Do I think that represents the times? Most definitely. But there are a lot of growing pains that come along with that. There are a lot of people who question, 'Why you?' and, 'What qualifications do you have to do this job?' But you've got to start somewhere.”
Last year, if someone had told Moore she would be Thunder River’s next Artistic Director, “I'd have said, 'I don't know what crack you're smoking,’ ” she said with a laugh.
Lon Winston founded TRTC in 1995 and, after an itinerant decade, moved the company into a jewel of a new home in the heart of downtown Carbondale.
Moore had moved to Los Angeles to join her sister, three-time Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mandy Moore, just before the COVID shutdown hit. “I fell flat on my face out there,” she said ... flatly. “I moved back home at the age of 41 and moved into my parents' basement and got a job at a liquor store.” That’s when she got a surprise call from now former TRTC Executive Director Corey Simpson offering her the interim A.D. title and a meager part-time salary of $1,000 a month.
“It was bonkers,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities for somebody with a bachelor's degree in theater performance to run a theater company. But at the same time, I do have the skill set to do this job. I have the knowledge to do it. I grew up in the theater, and I am going to prove myself. The trajectory is only forward.”
Moore is no longer an interim. Instead, she is just the third Artistic Director in the company’s history. “To be third to run an organization that has existed in this community for as long as it has is very exciting for me,” she said.
Thunder River is the opposite of LTR in that it performs year-round except for the summer months, when it focuses on youth education programs. Moore directed the current offering of “Eurydice,” which reimagines the Orpheus myth through the eyes of its heroine, and runs through June 19. Before that, she staged the plays “Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus and “Circle Mirror Transformation” by Annie Baker.
In their first few months on the job, Van De Hey and Moore have found themselves facing many of the same challenges pretty much every artistic leader anywhere is facing in 2022: Coming back from COVID, reconnecting with the community, knowing what people actually want to see right now and how to pay for it coming out of two years of virtually no revenue.
Already, Van De Hey has made hard decisions. She’s ruffled feathers. But she’s done questioning whether she belongs.
“I never imagined I would ever be in this job, and yes, maybe it's the times that's produced this opportunity,” she said. “But I also recognize the years that Missy and I have put into this craft. Does that prepare us for these jobs? Hopefully, somewhat. But, hey, this is trial by fire. You just have to try to do what's right for the company.”
And for Van De Hey, what's right for the company right now is focusing on diversity and inclusion, and bringing UNC alumni like herself back into the program – not as actors, but as directors and designers. “I really want the students to learn from people who were right where they were once. I think that’s an important learning tool,” she said.
In addition to “The Revolutionists,” Van De Hey's first summer season includes “Clue, The Musical,” based on the board game and directed by Jamie Ann Romero; and the Elvis Presley jukebox musical “All Shook Up,” directed by the trio of Gavin Mayer, Christopher Page Sanders and Victor Walters. She’s not pushing the envelope with that slate, she admits, because her first priority is to reconnect with the local audience base that was once its bedrock. That’s the job, too.
“For me, as a kid, LTR was always the summer entertainment mainstay in Greeley, but we have somehow lost our connection to the local community,” she said. “I don't know how that’s happened, but we've got businesses right across the street from the university that have no idea what LTR is, and we have to fix that. My whole thing this year is about reconnecting, rebuilding and reclaiming this program.”
Moore is facing the same problem. “We're right in the middle of downtown Carbondale and I've literally had locals say to me: ‘Wait, there’s a theater here in Carbondale? And I'm like, Yeah: It's that big pink box right there.”
For all the progress that has been made, it is also telling that these two new female Artistic Directors and erstwhile actors are taking on the most all-consuming roles of their lives – for off-stage jobs that are low-paying and officially considered seasonal. But Thunder River is working on a long-term plan to turn Moore’s $1,000 a month job into a $65,000, full-time, year-round position. Like, you know: A real job.
“This life that I am living right now is just full of endless possibilities,” Moore said. “I'm really loving the challenge of looking at the big picture and solving how do we throw the doors of this theater open and let it become a celebratory, vital institution for this community. Five years from now, I can't see how Thunder River cannot become an original destination theater, and I'm excited to think that I might be the mastermind behind it. I am so thankful that I have been given the opportunity to do so.”