Alex Weimer hangs a large, black curtain above the stage at The Bug Theatre while, in record-breaking heat, workers put the finishing touches on the building’s new roof. A year and a half after the coronavirus pandemic shut down Denver, theaters are alive with activity.
“It’s really exciting to have everything starting back up again after such a long darkness,” Weimer, executive artistic director and custodian of the theater, says.
The performing arts are back for three theaters in North Denver, though perhaps with changes.
The Bug Theatre on Navajo Street in Highland officially re-opened in June with the return of live events such the Emerging Filmmakers Project and the comedy show, The Grawlix. It’s hosting live performances of “Boeing, Boeing” by Shark Box Theatre Company this month and has another theatrical production scheduled for November. At the moment, the 160-seat theater can operate at full capacity, Weimer says.
Just two and half miles west, the Historic Elitch Theatre has wrapped up both another phase of renovations and its role as host to The Curtain Playhouse’s summer camps, which culminated in an outdoor performance of “Godspell” the last weekend in July, board member Greg Rowley says.
The all-volunteer, six-person board of directors for the 130-year-old theater found that the pandemic enabled them to consider what their organization needs for long-term success.
“COVID kind of allowed us to slow down and be a little more deliberate about what we’re doing,” Rowley says.
The board plans to grow, perhaps up to 15 members, and has made a list of the skill sets it’s looking for in future applicants. Marketing and fundraising are at the top since the board will be guiding the theater through two more phases of restoration in coming years.
For Theater 29, in the corner of West Highland, the pandemic became an opportunity to broaden its mission. Founded in 2018 as a place to showcase the work of Colorado playwrights, the small theater has not held an indoor, in-person event since December 2019. However, it met the challenges of 2020 by moving online and expanding to include other forms of story-based art such as audio plays, poetry, and animation. For example, each month, a multi-art playlist focused on a theme is compiled on the theater’s website for users to pursue.
“When the pandemic came, we started thinking of more things we could do outside of the theater,” Lisa Wagner Erickson, co-founder and creative director of Theater 29, says. “That’s been fun, so we can keep those going.”
Theater 29’s latest production told a story of corporate scandal through documents, images, and voicemails that participants received over a seven-day period through email, social media, and the postal service. A graphic artist and three playwrights, including Erickson, collaborated remotely to bring the project to life.
Erickson hopes to add more in-person components to the virtual productions as time goes on. The past 17 months have given her a “broader idea of what the theater could accommodate,” and now she also envisions continuing to use multiple platforms to enrich the stories Theater 29 tells — even after live performances in the building are the norm again.
Before the pandemic, Erickson and co-founder Ellen K. Graham were working with a group of playwrights to develop and produce their work. When coronavirus reached Colorado, feedback, coaching, and readings of the plays moved online. But production of the pieces, originally slated for 2020, has been delayed.
Performances are tentatively planned for next summer. If not in Theater 29’s building, then possibly outside in the adjacent parking lot, Erickson says.
“The good thing is that they can be postponed,” Erickson says. “They’re not going to be just sidelined forever.”
Fundraising is up next for the Elitch Theatre. Upgrades to the lighting and sound systems will allow the building to truly be a theater again, Rowley says.
But it’s hard to make plans this year. Rowley doesn’t want to see volunteers put a lot of time and effort into an event only to cancel it because of a change in health guidelines related to the coronavirus. However, he anticipates the return of summer movies on the lawn and other programming, including an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Tony Awards, next year — and, hopefully, indoor, in-person theater productions in 2023.