Last weekend, for the first time in 18 months, the converted Acoma Street church that is home to Curious Theatre Company was full of people.
They were there to attend the opening weekend of “Lifespan of a Fact,” the leading production in Curious’ COVID comeback season. Audience members crowded into the darkened theater, hushed, and disappeared into the lives of other people, sharing laughter and applause and an experience with the strangers sitting next to them.
There’s a line in the play: “There’s nothing more important than story.” One character defines story as “events organized to make ourselves known to each other and history.” The line resonates in a space designed to share stories with a live audience, and to connect strangers over a shared experience of that story. For a year and a half, the theater has been empty, unable to pass stories on to theatergoers.
“There is just no comparison to being in the same room as a big group of people and taking in the same story,” said Annie Oldakowski, Curious’ administrative director. “You’re processing it differently, you bring different things to your circumstance. But to be able to have that community in person, and connect with people who are sitting right next to you, and that shared story, you just can’t get it when you’re at home.”
Since March of 2020, Curious Theatre Company, like many other performance groups in Denver, has been dark.
“It’s sort of like the land that time forgot. Theater just stopped for the last 18 months,” said Chip Walton, the company’s producing artistic director. “I say this with really genuine empathy, but I think people hear a lot about the restaurant industry and how hard it’s been in that sector. And it has. But I think, maybe what doesn’t get talked about as much as it should is the cultural sector. Because we’ve just all been completely shut down.”
While some performance groups like Buntport Theater and Wonderbound have been able to reopen in some capacity, Walton said it’s a bit more complicated for venues like Curious or the DCPA that are subject to union rules.
“Even if we wanted to open say, six months ago, we couldn’t have done so, given some of the restrictions that the unions were placing on their union members working,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, the company has survived primarily off of donations and government grants, and Walton said Curious’ foundational partners allowed the group to convert funding planned for uncompleted productions into general operating support to cover expenses. They also weren’t spending as much money since productions were paused, so they had a reserve to tap into once they started rehearsals again.
“That reserve is so crucial, because we just are not sure what’s going to happen with the Delta variant, with COVID in general,” Oldakowski said. “That’s really our lifeline.”
Like other performance groups, Curious produced some digital content during the pandemic in an attempt to stay relevant to its audience, but Walton said the company’s patrons weren’t really interested in watching shows online. Plus, because of copyright and royalty considerations, it’s often difficult to secure rights to share shows online. So for many of the cast and crew members working on “Lifespan of a Fact,” last weekend was the first time they’ve gotten to work in their chosen profession in 18 months.
“I think people are just really excited to be back at work,” Walton said. “Like, I get to do this again, I get to do my art, I get to be an artist. ”
How does a theater company plan a comeback season, when the threat of COVID is still looming?
Curious will run a little differently from how it did in the past – at least at the start of the season. “Lifespan” shows won’t offer concessions, f0r example, and guests are expected to wear masks at all times. All attendees must also provide proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test to enter the theater.
Walton said “Lifespan of a Fact” is the company’s “guinea pig” show. Curious decided to lead the five-show season with this production because it has a small, three-person cast, and because the script allowed for socially distant blocking, if necessary. Walton said it felt safer to start with smaller productions from a COVID standpoint, but also from a production one – shows like Lifespan are technically easier to stage than shows like “Refuge,” a musical play debuting next March that features a larger cast, puppetry and singing.
“Doing a freakin’ play on Zoom is not the same as doing a four-week rehearsal process on your feet with people in a shared space,” Walton said. “So I do think it’s been a little bit of a, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and get back into it,’ reentry curve.”
Curious, whose motto is “No guts, no story,” takes on daring, challenging shows designed to challenge our perceptions of the world we live in.
While the company prides itself on its progressive approach to theatre, Walton says that because the development of new plays paused when production did, this season’s programming includes shows Curious selected two or three years ago… before the pandemic began. Still, he says the shows are still very much relevant.
“Police brutality on people of color, the immigration crisis at the border, whether people believe facts or don’t believe facts. Those are three topics of three shows that, unfortunately, have become even more resonant and more important in the 18 months since the pandemic hit,” Walton said.
He said that goes for “Lifespan of a Fact,” an acclaimed 2018 comedy about a battle of wits between a rigorous fact checker (John Hauser), an eccentric writer (William Hahn) and a magazine editor (Sheryl McCallum) as they work to get a complicated story ready for publication. Written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell and directed by Christy Montour-Larson, the play explores questions about what makes something a fact and what constitutes truth- a topic that will have resonance in a country still grappling with ideas about alternative facts and fake news.
“Certainly the last president changed how everybody thinks and talks about what is facts and what is not facts,” Walton said. “But put that aside, we’re in a situation now where, what is our relationship to science when it comes to vaccines? Or, what is our relationship to truth when it comes to elections?”
Still, part of the reason they picked “Lifespan” to lead Curious’ return is that it’s a comedy, one that’ll make an easier entry point than some of the darker productions planned for later in the season.
“I just want people to have a good time, a good experience of the theater,” Walton said. He said that’s not typically what he aims for when planning a production, but that the last 18 months inspired him to take this approach. “After this period, everything that we’ve been through, I think people coming back and being together in community, laughing being entertained, also leaving with some really kind of thought provoking questions… I want people to really just enjoy their experience here at Curious from an entertainment perspective.”
“Lifespan of a Fact” runs Sept 18 – Oct 16, 2021. You can buy tickets now.