Exit Stage Left: The Demise of A Community Theater

By Elliot Jackson

Every community gets the community theater – if it gets one at all – that reflects it in some way. Its beginnings, its tenure, the choices it makes along the way in which plays to produce, which performers to feature, what sort of audience it is trying to attract and, finally, its exit from the community stage, all say something about the nature of the community itself.
Salida’s Stage Left Theater Company has made the decision to close its doors after its September 2017 production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, and this decision reflects an ironic fact about Salida itself: that despite its growing reputation as an “arts town” – its status as one of the original Colorado Creative Districts, for example, its numerous arts and crafts festivals, or its many galleries featuring local potters, painters, sculptors and photographers – many of these artists are noting that it is getting more and more difficult to produce their art here.
The reality that theater is a collaborative process, dependent on many people working together in tandem, who may or may not be getting paid for their efforts (mostly not), compounds the difficulties that theater artists face. The other reality is that with the best will, or the best volunteers, in the world, running a theater company is hard work. “I ran myself into the ground trying to keep financial flow going, and then keep everything else going,” says Devon Jencks, the current Creative Director of Stage Left. “We needed more people who knew how to tap into the community – we were exhausting resources everywhere.”
Jencks stresses that money to put on productions never seemed to be as much of an issue as finding enough people to do everything that needed to be done, whether it be acting, providing backstage help, or serving on the Board of Directors. “The young people don’t have time – they’re working three to four jobs just to try to make a living. The retirees say they want to help, but then when you call on them, they’re out of town!”
Then there is the issue of support from the city of Salida itself. The city-run event center, the SteamPlant, has been Stage Left’s home since its formation under the artistic directorship of Greg West in 2003. Both Jencks and Jan Justis, the former Creative Director, are quick to praise the staff of the SteamPlant for their help in keeping Stage Left going. “However,” Jencks noted, “the truth is, the city runs it and wants to make money off it.” This imperative sometimes led to conflicts that made life challenging for Stage Left. “We had a grandfathered-in agreement with the SteamPlant,” says Jencks, “and they never charged us for rehearsal or prop storage. But then, they’d have a paying person coming in and we’d get bumped from our space!” Jencks and board member Rick Spradlin, who also works as a tech person for the SteamPlant, both mentioned the challenge of dealing with the fact that a local church rents the theater every Sunday morning, which had its impact on production set designs: they had to be simple and flexible enough so that the sets could be broken down each Saturday night and reassembled in time for a Sunday matinee performance. “And I’ll never forget the nights we had a show going on [in the theater], and then they’d have a rock concert going on in the ballroom!” says Jencks.

Despite these difficulties, and the difficulties of attracting audiences to plays that were sometimes both newer and edgier than most community theater fare, Stage Left had an impressive 14-year run, and many artistic triumphs. Former Creative Director Greg West, who ran the company for nine years until 2012, cited some of the productions he was particularly proud of: The Lion in Winter (2004), “which not only had a great cast, but a magnificent set designer, who transformed the SteamPlant into an old English castle.” Steel Magnolias (2005): “Everyone seemed to enjoy this one, and we had a great group of women involved.” Wit (2008), a dark comedy about a woman facing terminal illness, featuring former Salida High School drama teacher Shelley Jacobs, was “everything that I wanted that show to be.” And the one-man show, I Am My Own Wife (2011), in which West played 32 different characters, won the Best Production Award when Stage Left hosted the Colorado Theatre Festival, put on by the Colorado Community Theatre Coalition. West has revived it twice since moving to Denver to pursue his theatrical career.
West said that he was “sad, but not really surprised” to hear that Stage Left was going to close up shop, and cited among other factors that prompts the shut-down of a community theater is the enormous amount of time and dedication it takes to put on anywhere from four to six productions a year: “The reason I was able to do it for so long,” he went on, “was that I was not married and didn’t have kids, so I could work on shows all the time” – but that others did not always have that luxury: “Every year since I left, there have been fewer shows, and fewer people involved” – to the point where the workload was no longer sustainable by an all-volunteer staff.
Still, says Jan Justis, who served as Stage Left’s Creative Director from January 2012 to July 2014, and has directed numerous plays for the company, including Doubt, “I think it’s great that so many of us have been able to work together, on a mostly volunteer basis, to produce good theater for our small community.”
Asked about the passing of Stage Left, and the future of theater performance in Salida, Jencks, West and Rick Spradlin all mention the possibility of a “black box” space: something smaller than the SteamPlant, where the smaller, edgier plays that West says were Stage Left’s specialty, might flourish again. “Once the vacuum [left by Stage Left’s passing] is actually felt in town,” says Spradlin, “something else will emerge.”

Stage Left’s last production, “Doubt,” directed by Jan Justis, will be playing September 14 -17 at the SteamPlant Event Center, with a community party in the Ballroom following the final matinee. Advance tickets will be available at Sacred Ground Coffee Shop on Highway 50, downtown at Café Dawn and the SteamPlant Theater Box Office and also online via the “Now Playing/Tickets” page on Stage Left’s website, www.stagelefttheatre.org. The author would like to thank Devon Jencks, Jan Justis, Greg West and Rick Spradlin for their contributions to this article.  

Elliot Jackson lives and writes in Westcliffe.

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