Cleo Parker Robinson’s theatre program gives young people of color an opportunity in a field where some saw none

It continues a long tradition of the dance studio opening up opportunities for future generations.
15 min. read
Kids from Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s STREAM Theatre and Creative Academy programs sit on stage in the main theater space. June 11, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Shyla Kyser started performing in theatrical productions when she was about 8 or 9 years old. Back then, she said, theatre was fun.

"I really wanted to do theater. I really wanted to act. I really wanted to be on stage," Kyser said. "But I think as time progressed, my passion for theater kind of dwindled."

Kyser is Black and grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. She said the schools she attended were predominantly white, too, and that when she got to Denver School of the Arts in 6th grade, she began to lose her passion for theatre.

"I was struggling to find opportunities for myself as an artist of color, but more specifically as a Black artist," she said. Kyser said there were maybe 5 or 6 students of color in the theatre arts major.

"We all kind of struggled trying to find opportunities," Kyser said. "After a while, when I felt like I couldn't create my own path, or I wasn't given the same opportunities as my white peers, I started feeling like maybe this isn't for me. I was told that I was on track as a theater major, that I was doing everything correctly. Yet, I didn't receive the opportunities."

She said she got tired of fighting, tired of trying to create a path for herself. By the time she reached her senior year of high school, she didn't know what she wanted to do anymore. She figured she'd go into college with an undeclared major. At DSA, she decided to switch to the stagecraft and design major so she'd be more well-rounded.

That major required her to complete an internship. That's how she got involved with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's STREAM program.

"It just completely changed my view on theater. And what I could do," Kyser said.

STREAM stands for "Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts and Media." 

It's a two-three month program, offered by the Cleo Parker dance company, that intersects tech, media and the arts to give students, and particularly students of color, the chance to see themselves in a viable, exciting career. Middle and high school students in the program run tech for Cleo Parker's shows, learning the ins and outs of stage management and design, lighting and sound, as well as how to operate advanced technology like drones and to build robots that aid in theatre production. High school students can also apply for paid apprenticeships. The program helps students visualize a career for themselves in STEM and the arts, when oftentimes middle school and high schools don't offer training in technical theatre. Recently, STREAM expanded, accepting younger students as part of its Creative Academy program.

Kyser participated in STREAM as a paid intern. She played sound and light cues, and acted as a stage manager. It was the first time in her life she'd been in such a diverse environment. She got to work with artists and technicians of color on shows performed by artists of color. It was the first time she felt like she had friends of color, too, people she could 100% relate to. And for the first time, she had a mentor in Trey Grimes, the technical director at Cleo Parker and the head of the STREAM program.

"More than that, he was a friend," Kyser said. "He was a shoulder to cry on. He listened."

Kids enrolled in Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's STREAM Theatre program work with robotics to document dancers on the company's main stage. June 11, 2021.
Amelia Dietz/CPRD Academy Director.

She remembers one production she worked on about Black veterans and their struggle to reenter society and how exciting it was to work on a show that highlighted stories about Black characters.

"It was amazing seeing work like this, because I was never exposed to representation of actors or technicians of color, ever," Kyser said. "I was able to see my face on stage. I was able to see my face backstage."

It was seeing her face onstage and backstage that helped her realize that there was a place for her in this field, after all.

"I think I built the courage to create my own path," Kyser said. "But also it reignited my love and my passion for theater. Because I knew at that point in time, I wasn't alone at all, and that I could do this."

STREAM is part of a long tradition at Cleo Parker of helping to create opportunities for the next generation, one that began with Cleo Parker Robinson's father more than 50 years ago. 

"We have this amazing legacy of passing on the torch, and continually working together to learn together and inspire each other, push each other and discover together," said Parker Robinson, the company's founder and director.

When Parker Robinson was very young, during the Jim Crow era, her father, Jonathan Parker, started work at the old Bonfils Memorial Theatre, which is now a Tattered Cover. Parker Robinson said Parker was the first person of color the theatre had ever hired. Her father loved to sing, dance and act, but back then, she said, they did not allow people of color to act on stage. Instead, he was given a behind-the-curtain position as a maintenance worker.

Parker was studying to be a doctor at the time. He was the first in his family to graduate college and wanted a career people might respect. Initially, theatre wasn't something Parker saw as a viable career path. It was something he did for fun.

"But the more he was in the theater, the more he fell in love with it," Parker Robinson said.

Parker read everything he could and taught himself all about the technical aspects of theater. He came to understand intimately how lighting and sound worked and became a skilled set designer.

His work paid off, and he was later invited to become the technical director at the Huston Fine Arts Center at the Colorado Women's College. There, he taught his students technical theatre skills.

Cleo Parker Robinson (right) watches the first on-stage rehearsal of The Four Journeys with the show's cultural liaison, Janelle Ayon, inside Robinson's theater in Five Points. June 10, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Meanwhile, his daughter Cleo was pursuing her dance career.

"He was determined to train women that would then become my technicians and go around the world with me," she said. "He taught them to be lighting designers and set designers and sound technicians. And this was probably one of the first all-women tech teams. And it was thrilling."

Parker Robinson said that back then, technical theatre was a male-dominated field. When her father's students toured with her dance company around the country in the '70s and '80s, some theatres still wouldn't let women touch the equipment.

"I thought it was peculiar that they would want someone else that did not know the show to run my show," Parker Robinson said. "My daddy would sit and make sure that everybody was getting to know each other, trusted each other, respected each other, before we even started to work, so that they would have a tremendous amount of respect for the women so that they would know they really came in with lots of knowledge and experience."

Parker Robinson said her parents were her role models.

"My life is so full, so busy, so inspiring. But it was a lot of stress. I had an ulcer very young, because I felt I had to push all the time, to prove myself as a woman and a Black woman," she said. "I was always feeling the anxiety that would go on, and the doubt, because if you don't have mentors, you're going through that alone. And I think it's so much more fun when you can go through it together and discover you can uplift each other and celebrate one another when you're in the process of growing and learning."

Trey Grimes says he grew up a huge geek. 

He loved to read and keep track of evolving technology. He went to school to study computers in the '80s, eventually earning a masters in IT with a concentration in digital forensics.

Back in the early '80s, before he joined CPRD as the company's technical director, Grimes worked to develop after school educational programs for Denver Public Schools. He led digital multimedia programming, teaching kids digital, radio and TV production skills. In 2015, that programming developed into what is now STREAM.

The idea was to engage kids in a way they weren't being engaged in traditional classroom settings.

"It came out of the need that I'd seen every day for young students of color who didn't have the opportunity to excel in technology," Grimes said. "In certain schools, you don't see a fair and equal level playing ground or educational resources."

He said that the last school assignment he had through DPS was ten years behind in technology.

"It's like, Why?" he said. "I think there's no excuse, in this day and age, for any kid, for any student, any scholar, to lack the ability to have a device that works for them, for their education."

Trey Grimes, theatre and technology director with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, stands in his tech booth above the company's main stage. June 11, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
A robots that kids from Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's STREAM Theatre program used to film dancers on the company's main stage. June 11, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Grimes said he sees himself as a guide rather than a teacher. He believes in helping to facilitate ideas to help students achieve their own goals, rather than lecturing students.

"No matter what I learn, I try to share it with them in such a way that the young scholars have to learn for themselves," he said.

He said that this allows the students' creativity and mindsets to guide the process and determine the outcome. It allows them to see themselves actually working and succeeding in the technical arts.

"I think that's the success of the program. Because they get a chance to grow in a field that they never even thought of," Grimes said. "A lot of kids come in, and all they think about is sports. Being a rapper, being that person who is out front, getting all the applause, and there's nothing wrong with that. But they also now know, it takes the team behind the upfront person to make everything happen, as well. And yes, you can make a living doing that."

During COVID, STREAM started introducing some virtual programming. Earlier this year, they launched a virtual career day series, inviting prominent leaders in the technical arts to speak to students about how they found success.

They've invited a local AT&T Sports Net production team, an editor for films like Remember the Titans and Captain America: Civil War, and David Stewart, a Denver native who now works as the production manager for Disney Parks Live Entertainment.

Stewart grew up in Park Hill. He said he was part of one of the first waves of forced integration in the '70s.

He grew up thinking he might take over his dad's barber shop when he graduated high school. For a long time, he said, he didn't consider going to college. He didn't realize that was an option for him.

"My counselor was not fantastic by any stretch of the imagination, and said, You're not going to college, or anything like that," Stewart said.

Grimes said that's a challenge many of his STREAM students face today: Many school counselors don't effectively support students of color, or show them there are options available to them.

"They're supposed to lead your career. But it is very rare that a counselor will really lead a young person of color to a career path," Grimes said.

Stewart said a lot of public schools don't have the money or resources to provide adequate school counseling. In Denver Public Schools, there might be hundreds of students for every one counselor.

"That's something that is so drastically missing from communities of color, specifically, Black communities," Stewart said. "And that's what happened to me."

Then, he met John van Epps.

Stewart was looking for an easy A, and a friend convinced him to take stagecraft. John van Epps was the head of East High School's theatre department at the time.

"He took real keen interest in his students and pushed them to do better," Stewart said. "It was one of the first times one of my high school teachers actually showed interest in who I was. And I wasn't just another seat in the classroom. "

Stewart came to love van Epps, and then, as a consequence of that, to take an interest in theatre.

"It just goes to show you that your inspiration can come out of the blue," Stewart said. "You don't know what kind of impact you're making on a person."

Still, Stewart didn't know of any Black person working in his field.

"I had no one to look up to. I've never had a Black boss. Since high school, I've never had a Black teacher," he said. He had to create his path for himself.

Stewart went on to study technical theatre in college, and then to get a BFA in stage management. He taught stage management for ten years at a number of universities, passing on his knowledge to younger people.

He said he became the first ever Black production manager to lead a regional theatre in the U.S.: the Guthrie in Minneapolis. He said he remembers feeling a lot of pressure being a leader in the industry, and especially being the first Black person in his position. Even now, he constantly thinks of the Hamilton quote, "History has its eyes on you."

He said when a theatre company brings in a person of color, it carries a different weight than hiring a white person; people might view them as a diversity hire.

"The pressure on me to succeed is exponentially ramped up," he said. "Because if I fail, I don't get to fail as David Stewart, I then fail as this diversity experiment gone wrong. I fail the community.  I fail the movement, because what will happen is, when I leave, they will surely go back in and hire a white person."

Tavo Paz dances on Cleo Parker Robinson Dance's main stage during the simultaneous STREAM Theatre and Creative Academy programs for kids.
Amelia Dietz/Courtesy Cleo Parke

He's made a point in his career of forging a path not only for himself, but for people coming up behind him. That's part of what made speaking to young people in Denver so meaningful.

"High school students usually don't care about what it is I do. But these young people were super, super intrigued about it and asked some of the most profound questions I've ever heard come out of folks," Stewart said. "It was really, really wonderful how engaged they were and how meaningful the conversation seemed to be to them. "

Grimes said it was impactful for his students to see someone from Denver who's managed to forge such a successful career.

"This is the same path," Grimes said. "They're going through the same thing. Their counselors are telling them the same thing in 2021."

Kyser just wrapped her third year at Marquette University, where she double majors in theatre arts and psychology. 

She chose Marquette because their program would allow her to be both onstage and backstage.

"Unfortunately, Marquette University, like the other schools I've been to, it's a predominantly white institution," Kyser said. "But doing the internship at Cleo Parker Robinson, I learned that I can create my own path."

She became one of the lead recruiters for the theatre arts program and is working to bring more students of color into the department. She's also formed a student alliance within the program so that students of colors' voices can be heard within the department. And she's working with the chair of the department to create a new theatre specifically for artists of color.

"I'm not the only one struggling," Kyser said. "My goal in life has always been to help others. That's what I longed for all throughout grade school: I longed for the help that I never received. So I understand the struggle."

She said that when she graduates, she hopes to combine her passions for theatre and psychology. She's become interested in drama therapy, which involves the use of theatre techniques, such as movement, voice work and storytelling, to help patients express or process feelings.

"I want to be a drama therapist, with emphasis on social justice and trauma therapy, specifically tailored to the African-American community," she said. "Which is a lot. It's very ambitious. But that's really where my head is at right now. But that does not mean that I will not continue to be a theatre artist. I definitely still plan to be in shows, and quite possibly dabble in film. Kind of see what that road takes me."

Correction: Shyla Kyser's last name was originally misspelled in this story.  

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