The instinct to put on a costume and get up on a stage in front of our friends and perform is hardwired into us. Theater, said Robert Weatherford, the new chair of the board of the Telluride Repertory Theater Company, is one of the things that make us civilized.
Weatherford was speaking this week before a small gathering at a home in Mountain Village, held as a fundraiser to reinvigorate Telluride’s homegrown theater company, which has just (narrowly) survived a rough patch. The shared experience of watching live performers helps to bind us together as a community, Weatherford suggested, and especially when the performers onstage are our friends and neighbors.
This may be an exalted view of what live performance – whether it’s theater, song or dance – means to us. But Telluride has never shied away from the exalted.
We had a prime example of how it works at its best this week at the Sheridan Opera House, where the redoubtable local impresario Jeb Barrier put on a show, Bob’s Holiday Office Party. Now, I may have been in Telluride too long and may have lost my perspective. Maybe this exercise in inspired buffoonery was not as “critically acclaimable” from a big city point of view as it seemed to me (did I have one glass of wine too many before the curtain went up?), but I was blown away by the sheer good humor that this piece of theater conveyed, the unselfconscious skill with which it was staged, the rapid-fire pacing with which the wisecracks were delivered, and the seemingly flawless performances, much of it improvised, by a familiar troupe of about ten locals who have often graced local stages.
Could it be that Jeb has found his muse, right here in Telluride? Is there an additional payoff, for him as well as for us, when local performers in a small community find their groove like this? After all, we’re not trying to compete with Broadway here! It’s much more that we’re channeling Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who as young Hollywood stars of the late 1930s made a series of movies in which they played teenagers who gathered their friends together to “put on a show.” How modest they were! And then, of course, they blew us away.
Putting on our own show is inscribed in Telluride’s DNA. Mining towns have jewel-box opera houses because entertainment in the mining era consisted of live performance. The Nugget is one of the oldest operating movie theaters anywhere. The Telluride Film Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival were both founded back when Telluride first started to reinvent itself as a resort out of the same impulse, to put on a show right here, taking a back seat to nobody in terms of the quality of the art.
KOTO represents the same “yes, we can” spirit, as does the fact that this region, whose population is just over 5,000 people, voted to build the Palm Theater.
This town’s isolation seems to attract a local population of impresarios and showoffs, fostering a community that has never doubted that it can provide first-rate homegrown entertainment.
I would venture that virtually all of us have cherished memories of the art we’ve seen in a theater or on a stage right here in Telluride, too many such memories to count, whether they’ve come courtesy of one of our big-name festivals, a visiting performer, or at the inspired hands of local talent. Our performing arts groups – the Rep, the Film Festival, Bluegrass, Jazz, Blues and Brews, Chamber Music, the Choral Society, the Sheridan Arts Foundation, the inspired individuals like Berrier, and I hope I haven’t left anyone out – collectively constitute one of our prized assets, part of our core infrastructure, no less essential to what we are as a community than our incomparable natural setting, our ski area and other recreational amenities, or our historic district.
The performing arts are temporal by nature and may be our most endangered asset, however, which is why the Rep has had to reinvigorate itself with an extraordinary effort at fundraising and board development this year in order to carry on. As Telluride has evolved, becoming too expensive for a lot of artists to live here, and as the economy has become increasingly precarious, making fundraising all the more difficult, the performing arts organizations are struggling.
The good news is that the Weatherfords and Berriers among us are not giving up, not yet, anyway. Let us find ways to support them and the performing arts in Telluride in general, and not only by showing up in the audience. As Weatherford says he was told repeatedly by community members during the process of restructuring the Rep, now more than ever we need the sustenance that only the arts can provide.