A conversation with the Stage Left Theatre Company
Article by Jennifer Dempsey
Local Arts – October 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine
AFTER THE PRODUCTION of their first show together as a company in January 2003, Greg West and Shelley Jacobs realized they shared more than a similar taste in theater.
“After producing [the play] Shadowbox, we discovered that we did, in fact, share a brain,” said Shelley, associate artistic director of Stage Left, the community theater company she and West founded in 2002. “Somehow with our different backgrounds we have the same frame of reference for what is quality theater and how to get there. My experience is way more from the community and educational institutions and Greg has worked professionally for 20 years and has that prism to look through — in fact, he was part of a Tony Award-winning crew.”
Greg, artistic director of the non-profit company, explained, “I was working for the Utah Shakespearean Festival when they won the Tony Award in 2000 for Best Regional Theater. I got to touch it and yes, it does in fact spin….”
Shelley said. “Anyway, somehow with our different backgrounds and experience we still get to the same place.”
Greg added: “One of the odd things that has occurred is that Shelley and I have co-directed — and you never ever see that work successfully, at least that I know of.”
“And it’s a wonderful thing,” Shelley said, nodding.
THE RESIDENT THEATER COMPANY at the Salida Steamplant Theater, Stage Left produces six full scale shows a year, including new dramas and comedies, classic theater pieces, children’s shows and Shakespeare in the Park. It was Shakespeare that brought Greg and Jacobs together in 2000. She was working as the drama coach at Salida High School when Greg called her.
“I was wanting to do some Shakespeare scenes,” he said. “I was having lunch with a friend who told me I had to call Shelley, who was organizing Artwalk at that time. When I told Shelley I wanted to do some Shakespeare scenes she said ‘Sure! Can I be in them?’ That is how we met and started working together and one thing led to another and now we have Stage Left Theater Company.”
“Our toddler,” Shelley added
“Our toddler,” West agreed.
They both laughed.
“We amuse each other,” Shelley said. “It’s a big part of our bond.”
Greg continued: “I had lived in town two years by that point, and it was my understanding that the only thing that was really done here were big musicals.”
But Greg felt there was a place for a small theater group to do other things. “So we formed Stage Left, speaking to what I felt was a cultural void in this town, if you will. We grew from there. We now do what I like to think of as a great varied cannon: modern comedies, classical theater, children’s theater, experimental theater … so indeed part of our mission is to bring a diverse theatrical experience to Salida.”
“Both for participation and appreciation,” Shelley added. “Another part of our mission is in developing new work. The Original One Act Play Festival is held every other year. We do new plays by Colorado authors — new plays that have never been produced. We workshop and develop the work, along with the playwright, and then premier their work.”
This year’s Festival runs October 12 – 14th at the Steamplant and will include The Grave Diggers Grave by Donald Grubb from Cotopaxi; Love Online by Judy Kiehart from Poncha Springs; and Alley 34 by Trevor Wight from Denver.
“It’s really tough for new playwrights to get their work produced,” Shelley said. “Even for well-known playwrights it’s tough. But it’s an important thing, to keep the body of work available…. And it’s fun because you get to play ‘what if.’ What if we pretend this? What if we do this? It’s really great when the playwrights are able to work with us in the process and our ideas are their ideas.”
STAGE LEFT HAS BEEN a labor of love for Shelley and Greg, who are creating theater for theater’s sake.
In other words, they don’t get paid.
“Oh my God no,” Shelley said adamantly. “It’s all volunteer, hon.”
“Although,” Greg said, “we’re very excited because this year Stage Left has started paying the director.”
“It’s an honorarium really,” Shelley explained. “It’s not much, but it’s a great step to compensate for some of the time. It’s a good step in the right direction.”
There is no sense of bitterness when the two discuss the challenges of working in the voluntary sector of theater.
“It’s just about different life choices,” Greg said. “I used to make a darn good living making theater, but it got to the point that it was less and less about the love of the art form and more about how much money I could get, what perks could I get, what was the best contract I could get, rather than doing the best work in the company, or being there because I really believed in the artist’s endeavor, which is what Stage Left is all about.
“When I moved here, I had had enough,” he continued. “Put a fork in me, I’m done. I was basically coming here to retire from theater work at age 40. I thought, `I need to do something else with my life.’ But lo and behold that wasn’t supposed to happen. What keeps me going is that I have a great deal more artistic control on what I am working on. I get to do a lot more directing, which I discovered I really enjoy. If I could do it all over again I would probably get an MFA in directing.”
“Greg’s a fabulous actor,” Shelley said “but he’s a brilliant director, one of the best I have worked with, and truly, things like pulling Virginia Woolf out of your ass in two weeks, that’s legendary.”
Greg explained: “I was directing the show (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) when the fellow playing George pulled out of the production. It was either my doing it or we cancel the show, and we don’t believe in that.”
“Even when our young hero breaks his foot the opening night of ‘Our Town,’ Shelley remembered, laughing. “We changed the blocking a little and gave him a cane!”
The long hours with no pay, working with actors of little to no experience, devising rehearsals around the schedules of the cast, securing rehearsal space, et cetera: Do they ever feel like throwing in the drama towel?
“Yea, huh!” said Greg, “Sure enough!”
“But that comes with any project,” Shelley said. “Anything you’re passionate about also brings that face of it.”
“But then you get through whatever it is and you have a day or two to breathe…” Greg said.
“And maybe someone says something nice…” added Shelley.
“And you unplug your phone for 36 hours and then someone recognizes you in Safeway and says they really enjoyed the show.” Greg added.
“People here are so kind,” Shelley said. “They come up and tell us they loved the latest production and ask us about what we’re doing next. They really are very supportive.”
And people learn how to be better performers while working on Stage Left productions. “They were better once they were done with the show,” said Greg, “and that is hugely rewarding.”
Shelley nodded. “There is no substitute for actual experience, and it’s good for our actor pool. Our audience members get to see new faces develop and that brings in more people who say, ‘Hey, maybe I can do that too!’”
Next season Stage Left will be celebrating Women in Theater. In March they will produce Lysistrata, Wit in October and a children’s show “that will be some version of Cinderella with girls to the rescue, girls empowerment,” Shelley said. “We try to be thoughtful in our choices, we try to choose our battles carefully. When we go for something edgy, we think, ‘Is this something we can make fly here?’ — and we may choose not to do it.”
When Greg and Shelley aren’t in rehearsal, holding auditions or reading new work, they are scouting around for a permanent rehearsal space to rent.
“We are in desperate need of it,” she said. “If anyone out there has or knows of a space that can be rented at struggling non-profit rates, let us know. We very badly need it. For the time being we’re shuffling around to living rooms, to Bongos, the library … and that’s a lot of work by itself.”
“And I don’t like it,” Greg said.
“No, we’re very tired on that score,” agreed Shelley.
Jennifer Dempsey lives in Salida and is a free-lance writer and director of the Salida Circus.
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