CREEDE, Colo. — Last summer, I stumbled onto one of the most singular — and joyful — experiences of my life: a small community, high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, that has been sustaining a thriving professional theater company since 1966. And I did not even see the regular version of Creede Repertory Theater — because of the pandemic, it had put on a smaller season of down-to-basic productions on a makeshift outdoor stage.
Not only were the people uncommonly nice and the shows good, but here was a place where theater was an integral part of the civic fabric. As soon as I left, I dreamed of returning.
So there I was last month, on vacation. I wanted to introduce the region to my spouse, but I was also curious to see a normal season, done indoors and in repertory (meaning that the resident acting company alternates shows). And I was really looking forward to seeing Creede Rep’s reigning divas, Christy Brandt and Anne F. Butler, do “Steel Magnolias.” (Brandt’s first season was in 1973, and this is Butler’s 19th season.)
We came really close to that plan tanking.
On July 18, I received an email from the theater informing me that all performances had been canceled because of a coronavirus outbreak. The shows would “return in full swing on Tuesday, July 26” — just two days before our arrival. Admittedly, my stress level was nothing compared to what those on the ground were experiencing.
“I’m glad I’m not in charge,” Brandt said when I caught up with her in Creede. “Especially this summer.”
Ironically, the very thing that has kept Creede Rep going for decades also helped fuel the Covid surge: “This company is founded on everybody working together,” Kate Berry, the associate artistic director, said. “This becomes your community and your friendship circle.”
Berry and the producing artistic director, John DiAntonio, looked visibly weary when I met with them, maybe because they have had to solve one problem after another for months on end. Since some of the staff members live in shared accommodations, for example, isolating during the latest crisis was difficult. “The community really stepped up to help us in that regard,” DiAntonio said. “People went to guest rooms, apartment garage, hotels in South Fork,” he continued, referring to a town 25 minutes away. “Some of these were favors, but some were just additional expenses.”
Eventually the shows resumed, with a mask requirement for audience members. (Keep in mind that Creede draws many visitors from states like Texas and Oklahoma, where mandates don’t go over well.) Brandt said that one night, before “Steel Magnolias,” a couple of women had yelled, in her recollection, “We wouldn’t have come to this stupid theater if we’d known we were going to have to wear a mask!” They ended up staying for the show, but not before screaming out choice expletives in the restroom, making sure everybody heard.
But they have been in the minority. DiAntonio pointed out that most audience members had gone along. “These are folks that maybe haven’t worn a mask much in the last year, or ever,” he said, “but they’re like, ‘I’ve seen a show every year for 35 years, you bet I’m going to see one with my family this trip, and I’ll wear a mask if I have to.”
The biggest casualty was Marco Ramirez’s boxing drama “The Royale,” which was supposed to hold its technical rehearsals during the temporary shutdown. Things became so logistically complicated that the show had to be pushed to the 2023 season.
At least I was able to catch five performances during my three-night stay, a minimarathon not uncommon among Creede Rep’s patrons.
John Gress, 59, and Gwen Farnsworth, 56, from Boulder, Colo., were in town in 2017 to hike the nearby San Luis Peak, when they stumbled onto an unexpected sight. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a theater here. Let’s go!’” Farnsworth said. “And the play was so amazing. I immediately wanted to come back.” The couple’s return was delayed by the pandemic, but the pair made up for it by seeing four shows in a weekend; they even brought along Farnsworth’s 87-year-old mother and a 91-year-old friend.
Packing one’s schedule is a great reminder of the joys of rep theater. I watched Brandt play half of a genteel couple battling their neighbors in the Karen Zacarías comedy “Native Gardens” at a matinee, then smoothly switch to the witty Clairee from “Steel Magnolias” that evening. Butler was also excellent as the perpetually cranky Ouiser in that show, but she truly killed as Prince John in Ken Ludwig’s rambunctious “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood,” in which she delivered one flamboyant comic flourish after another.
In other signs of a halting return to normal, Creede Rep’s Headwaters New Play Festival is back in person (Aug. 26-28), and the hope is that the actors in the Young Audience Outreach program will perform unmasked, unlike last year. (The latter initiative is expected to bring an original bilingual musical to rural and historically neglected schools in at least seven states.)
Where the old normal is not welcome anymore, however, is in some work practices. Like many other companies, Creede Rep is reconsidering the way it makes theater: The company now has a free child care program, and it is trying to shrink the workweek — a challenge in the demanding rep format, but one dear to DiAntonio.
“Our vision statement is ‘CRT will be a haven for artistic excellence, belonging and intrinsic joy,’” he said. “It’s that mountain up there in the distance that we’re working toward.”