When “Wild Fire” has its world premiere at Levitt Pavilion on Aug. 16, those gathered for the concert-play will be introduced to some of the Grand County citizens whose lives were upended last October when the East Troublesome Fire devoured acres of forest and ranch land, destroyed homes, and ravaged memories. Or, rather, versions of those people.
The seven characters in Jessica Kahkoska’s play — directed by the Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Chris Coleman — are composites. The Historian, the Pastor, the Kid, the Reporter, the Fire Marshal, the Rancher and the Park Ranger stand in for the Grand Lake denizens the playwright interviewed.
“My first call was to the fire department in Grand County,” said Kahkoska, sitting with Coleman one recent morning. “A major theme of our show is celebrating first responders and really contemplating what being a first responder was like in 2020 during fire season in Colorado.” She fashioned the play’s septet of characters from multiple interviews, “wanting the audience to feel what they were watching is true, but that nobody is exposed as one of the characters,” she said.
“What we’re exploring is how this show is incredibly specific to Grand County and the East Troublesome Fire, but that it’s also universal.”
It is that dance of the specific and the universal, the well-crafted and the lived, that has been energizing regional theater as it emerges (fingers crossed, vaccines gotten) out of 2020’s COVID-19 collapse. “Wild Fire” is the latest addition to a growing number of productions foregrounding the stories of Coloradans by conducting fresh interviews, mining oral histories and/or diving into archival material. Those efforts have yielded intimate and illuminating work. Beyond timely lessons, pleasures and insights abound in the rooted tales of reckoning and resilience.
If that kind of excavation sounds like heavy lifting for artists and didactic for audiences, it hasn’t been — though it may require trust. “You actually have to start with the conversation,” Kahkoska said. “You’re really asking people to trust you with their story and trust you with their feelings and trust you to hear what they’re saying and translate it in a way that feels true.”
If you go
“Wild Fire.” Written by Jessica Kahkoska. Directed by Chris Coleman. Musical direction by Mark Meadows. Songs by Colorado folk artists Cary Morin, Chimney Choir, Daniel Rodriguez, Elephant Revival, Gregory Alan Isakov, and SHEL. Featuring Kendra Jo Brook, Joe Casey, Jasmine Forsberg, Rob Morrison, Linda Mugleston, Mark G. Meadows, Marco Robinson, and Harold Summey. At Levitt Pavilion Denver, on Aug. 16; Dillon Amphitheatre, Aug. 18; and Rendezvous Event Center in Winter Park, Aug. 20. Tickets start at $30 at denvercenter.org.
Out of virtual theater
In the spring, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company presented “CO2020” virtually. Over eight months, a handful of playwrights conducted and then shaped more than 50 interviews to present a thought-provoking, people-driven state-of-our-state play about how Coloradans saw themselves during both the pandemic and in light of the protests for social justice sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
Early in the summer, Control Group Productions led small bands of attendees on a scripted amble through Littleton’s Reynolds Landing open space.
A performance-as-nature-walk “After the Flood” took inspiration from but also ruminated on — with help from newspaper articles, government documents and poems — the consequences of Denver’s historic deluge of 1965.
In collaboration with the city of Westminster, the Catamounts made lyrical and moving use of that municipality’s Shoenberg Farm, which National Jewish opened as a sanatorium (with a working dairy farm) for tuberculosis patients in the early 1900s.
July found Su Teatro presenting “War of the Flowers,” about the Chicanas who led efforts to unionize the Kitayama Carnation Farm in Brighton. The material for the show arose out of a story that director Anthony J. Garcia conducted with a few of those activists and others who’d lived through the labor unrest, including Colorado Women’s Hall of Famer Guadalupe “Lupe” Briseño.
And Local Theater Company just ended its reprise of “Discount Ghost Stories: Songs from the Rockies,” a concert-play that dove into the historical record to recover the stories of eight Coloradans, including Clara Brown (a community activist, once enslaved) and laundromat employee Look Young (who was lynched during an Anti-Chinese rampage in Denver in the late 1800s).
This theatrical uncovering and reckoning will continue in early September when IDEA Stages and Control Group Productions presents “Sojourners Project: Busing,” a pop-up immersive work about the push for desegregation by Rachel B. Noel — Colorado’s first Black female elected official — and the push back against school busing in Denver.
Last year’s events — wildfires, a virus, the protests and more — have primed theatergoers for history-delving and documentary treatments, Local Theatre Company’s Pesha Rudnick suggested in an email. “In theater, the context always matters,” she wrote. Two years ago, when she and co-writer Rob Wright began researching the details of Look Young’s murder, it was a challenge to find documents to even confirm his real name. “He’s still often referred to as ‘Sing Lee,’ the name of the store he worked in,” Rudnick stated. “(But) this summer felt different. There is some awareness and an active effort to acknowledge the history of anti-Asian sentiment in Colorado. The story is more poignant and urgent when the audience is educated.”
In many ways, the uptick in documentary-driven, archive-diving work can be seen as theater-making’s potent use of its roots as an oral, communal, storytelling force.
“Ever since Su Teatro started doing plays, oral storytelling has been an important part of what we do. Storytelling has been part of our culture,” said Anthony Garcia, artistic director at Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center. “We’ve had storytellers for as long as I can remember. We tell so many Colorado stories, Chicano stories. I find that the more people see these stories, the more people tell me stories.”
A focus on Colorado
“You write about what is unresolved for you,” said Kahkoska about her focus on Colorado. She was one of the first artists chosen to participate in the Denver Center’s “Powered by Off-Center” residency, created to foster area playwrights. Her play, “In Her Bones” about a family secret and Sephardic Jewish history in the San Luis Valley, was workshopped during 2020’s Colorado New Play Summit. “Colorado as a place is the question mark for me — for its history and as an ongoing experience,” she said.
“I’ve learned from doing these verbatim or documentary or nonfiction-inspired pieces that so much amazing material won’t make it into the final story. Because ultimately, when you’re in the rehearsal room, you have to make decisions — which usually involves a lot of cutting.” Her sense of what could get lost –and how it would be a loss — led her to reach out to and partner with History Colorado’s Museum of Memory initiative.
“All of the oral history conversations that we held for ‘Wild Fire’ are going to be part of a new collection,” said Kahkoska. That’s an outcome she clearly loves, one she knows means a great deal to the people who participated in interviews for the show. “It’s very different to say, ‘Can I chat with you for my play?’ than saying, ‘Can I help archive and memorialize your experience?’ ”
It was a sincere pitch that netted powerful recollection, ones that a community that extends beyond an evening audience will be able to access long after the play’s final notes.
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