Drama on the ivory mesa
FLC presents festival sans Shakespeare


by Judith Reynolds

One of these days, the college will get it right. Over the last decade, Fort Lewis College has sputtered with on-again, off-again summer drama. With a spectacular outdoor amphitheater, who wouldn’t keep trying?

The theater sits in the center of campus, near the clock tower. A small, grassy moat fronts a small, round stage. A tapered structure of warm, layered sandstone serves as a backdrop. The Western sky functions as a natural roof. Sitting on curved, concrete steps, audience members face southwest. And as plays unfold into the evening, human drama often competes with glorious sunsets. What a way to spend a summer night – if only the FLC Drama Department could get its act together.

Well, they’re trying another experiment starting tonight, May 25. “Voices in American Drama: A Summer Play Reading Series” is an impressive title. Let’s hope the content lives up to it.

Every fourth Thursday of the month through Aug. 24, FLC will present play readings of new works. It’s a little odd for outdoor theater but a step in the right direction. It’s also a far cry from what has been offered in the past.

The most notable offering on campus was the Anasazi Pageant in the 1980s. Then a dry spell followed. But in 1997 what became the Durango Shakespeare Festival was launched by Mona Wood-Patterson, the stellar drama director at Durango High School, and Charles Ford, DHS technical director. They staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the high school with their fledgling company, Merely Players. Wood-Patterson and Ford financed the enterprise with $22,000 of their own money. In 1998, Merely Players mounted a second Shakespearean season: “Merchant of Venice” and the musical “Camelot” – again at the high school.

The college watched as this winning program emerged. The next year, Kathryn Moller, FLC drama professor, invited the Players to join campus forces for a Durango Shakespeare Festival. In 1999 the joint enterprise got under way. The festival presented “Much Ado About Nothing” and the musical “Man of La Mancha” on campus. Wood-Patterson called it “a happy union.” Then President Kendal Blanchard gave the festival his blessing and a town-gown kick-off party.

In the summer of 2000, Durango Shakespeare presented “As You Like It” and “Taming of the Shrew,” again in the FLC amphitheater.

After the season, Wood-Patterson was offered more responsibility at Durango High and decided to focus entirely on her program. The college continued to plan a summer festival on its own. Moller, festival chair, transformed the group into a quasi-professional program. She hired guest directors and a resident company of up to 20 actors plus designers. In 2001 the revamped Durango Shakespeare mounted “Merry Wives of Windsor” and “The Tempest.”

After the third season, however, the whole enterprise collapsed. In a 2002 announcement to supporters, Moller admitted funding was a big problem. The budget had grown to $55,000. In an April 2002 news release, Moller said the festival would go “on hiatus” for a year until funds could be raised to cover costs.

The festival remained dark for the next three summers.

In 2004, when new FLC President Brad Bartel arrived, he saw the potential of summer drama on campus and strongly urged the department to plan for 2005. The campus and the community could come together again, he said in an interview at the time, “and we could provide something that would attract tourists.”

Following Bartel’s goals, the FLC Drama Department cobbled together an odd program for the summer of 2005. Moller and two faculty directors paired “Miss Julie,” a dark and claustrophobic Strindberg play, with “A Servant and Two Masters,” a fluffy farce. Thrown together for a short June run, the revived festival took a shallow breath. But Bartel didn’t give up and urged the department to come up with better ideas for 2006.

This year Moller and Richard Sax, dean of arts, humanities and sciences, developed an entirely new scheme, a commission and residency for a theater professional. The idea was to commission a new theater piece on the Native American theme of “emergence.” The outside professional would conduct a variety of workshops, perhaps with other in-house faculty members, and direct a final production. In an interview last February, Sax identified Bernardo Rey, an Italian-based, international mask maker, as the selected theater professional. Moller met Rey in Italy during the summer of 2004. She was on a faculty grant to study abroad.

Born in Colombia, Rey studies the relationship between visual imagery and theater and conducts a mask center in Amelia.

“Bernardo will be here for three months,” Sax said in the February interview. “We’ll need to raise $60,000, because we’ll be bringing in Bernardo and involving our people in art, music and other disciplines. It will help my faculty develop artistically.”

To publicize the 2006 program, Sax said he also planned to make media buys in a variety of markets: “People in Denver, Boulder and on the West Coast will want to see an original, avant-garde Native American drama,” Sax said. “Artistic people like to take chances and stretch.”

Apparently, the plan was too much of a stretch. “We were only able to raise 20 percent of our budget,” Sax said in an interview last week. “We have $12,500, and that money will be encumbered for 2007. We plan to go ahead with the project then. Our vision for ‘Emergence’ is something like the Passion Play in Spearfish, S.D. We’d like to make it a Fort Lewis summer theater tradition.”

That’s Plan A. Plan B has emerged for this summer and involves Tina Satter. A recent transplant from the East Coast, Satter, 31, will direct “Voices.”

“I’m really a curator,” she said in an interview last week at the amphitheater. A graduate of Bowdoin and Reed Colleges, Satter said she came to Durango last January because her boyfriend lives here.

“He’s the chef at the Palace,” Satter said. “When I met Kathryn and Kurt Lancaster (FLC faculty) in April, they said the whole extravaganza for the summer had been canceled because of the budget. Kids had been told there would be a summer theater, so they needed something else. We talked about doing readings.”

Satter’s timing couldn’t have been better. While Moller was again in Italy, Satter said, “Dean Sax ran it by his people to bring in a new person, me. There was a series of meetings to refine a new format, and I got the OK.”

Now the posters are up for FLC’s “Voices in American Drama.”

“I’ve taken about $2,000 out of my discretionary budget to fund this,” Sax said. “I still wanted people to do some drama this summer. Tina will get a stipend and so will Nathan Lee, our technical director, and the directors. The students are not being paid.”

For May 25, Satter has chosen six short pieces to be performed, “selections and monologues,” she said. They include one of her own works, two by Lancaster, and three by friends or colleagues of Satter’s: James Ashby, Cliff Hershman and Katie Griesar.

“The playwrights may be here,” Sax said. “If they come, they will be paying for their own travel. We got professional rates for them at the Strater.”

This arrangement also applies to two New York playwrights, Wendy Kout and Michele Willens, who will, Satter said, be here for a reading June 22 of their play “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.”

The performing company consists of five FLC students: Chris Calagias, Desiree Henderson, Stephen Juhl, Joseph Martinez and Julia Schneider. They will be joined by Gage VanderMeer, a visiting faculty member at FLC, and Don Doane, a community actor.

“This was a way to salvage something for this summer,” Sax said.

The 2006 play reading series is free. Donations will be accepted. •