Kevin Douglas, Gracie Jacobson and Izzy Chern all went to school together at the University of Denver, where they studied theatre. But after graduating, they ended up working in jobs outside of the industry. Theatre had always been competitive, but during the pandemic, when fewer productions were running live shows, it was harder than ever to land roles at theatre companies.
“We were missing theatre,” Jacobson said. “And we knew a lot of people who were also missing theatre.”
The three of them met for dinner one night to talk about the kind of work they wanted to do, and the kinds of roles they wanted for themselves.
“We were like screw it, we’re gonna create a theater company,” Chern said.
Now, the friends are gearing up to produce their first original show as 2¢ Lion Theatre Co., a new theatre company dedicated to featuring LGBTQ+ theatre makers and making theatre more accessible and equitable. Their play will debut during Denver Fringe Festival, a weekend arts festival that highlights emerging performance groups.
After years of struggling to break into the industry, Douglas, Jacobson and Chern are now working in directorial and administrative positions — something they say wouldn’t have been possible at an established company, where they’d have to work their way up over the course of years. Instead, they built opportunities for themselves.
“We realized we could sort of give each other the experience that we wanted in professional theater,” Douglas said.
The group says part of what sets 2¢ Lion apart is their commitment making theatre more accessible to a broader audience.
Douglas said he’s noticed that many of the companies across the Front Range are progressive and social justice-oriented, and feature diverse casts. But he said that diversity isn’t reflected in the theatre-going audience, which tends to be white and affluent.
“The average theatergoer at these companies are not young people like us that are really passionate about sort of subverting what theater can be,” he said. He believes part of it is that ticket prices and marketing tend to cater to an older audience with more expendable income. But there’s also a problem of perception: that theatre is inherently classist, high-brow or pseudointellectual.
2¢ Lion wants to challenge that perception, and to put theatre in the mouths of those who are hungry for it. To reflect that goal, the company chose the slogan “theatre that feeds,” and also plans to make tickets affordable (Fringe tickets are $15 a performance). The hope is to bring theatre “back to the people” — to provide opportunities for artists missing theatre work, and to produce shows catered to audiences who’re hungry to experience theatre and the sense of community it can inspire.
“It’s very much come as you are. We’re queer. We want everyone to feel welcome, no matter who they are, how they identify, where they come from, and just have a good time,” Douglas said, adding that their debut play, Yesterday/Today, is a good entry point into the theatre community. “It’s a dumb fun, silly, absurd multiverse romantic comedy. We think that there’s something for everyone and we want to really appeal to those people that might feel left out of the current sort of theater scene.”
Part of this mission is involving LGBTQ+ creators in every production they work on. The cofounders said that while they won’t exclude people who aren’t queer, every play they produce will be written by LGBTQ+ playwrights.
“We wanted to give voice to queer playwrights, to queer designers,” Chern said. “Just making sure the voices are all in correlation with the stories that are being told.”
The idea is to create space for people who haven’t had opportunities to fill certain roles, particularly in leadership and production. Jacobson, for example, said they remember not being taken seriously as an artist as a young theatre student, perhaps because of their age, and perhaps because they’re female-presenting. Now, she’s the company’s managing director, and is also directing Yesterday/Today.
“That’s really special for me. It’s hard to get to,” they said. “I think there’s red tape in every single industry for female presenting people, especially for queer female presenting people.”
To further their goal of making theatre more accessible, 2¢ Lion will run a series of theatre workshops for Denver-area youth at the River Community Center this summer. Called the Cub Club, the program is designed to provide theatre education for kids who might not have opportunities to learn about theatre in school.
The co-founders said education was fundamental for all three of them in helping them discover their love for theatre. Chern said that growing up, they had been put in sports and other camps, but hadn’t found a community they felt they belonged in – until she did a theatre camp.
“It was the first time in my life that I was in a space filled with entirely people that I wanted to be around. There was no sense of discomfort,” Chern said. “Being surrounded by people that make you feel comfortable is is so incredible for young people’s self esteem and confidence. And theater, in and of itself as an art form, is such a great confidence booster, because you’re getting up in front of people, you’re doing things that can be silly and uncomfortable… but the hope for theater camps and theatre spaces is that everyone in the room makes you feel comfortable making those bold, uncomfortable choices.”
It was also the first time she’d been in a space with so many openly queer people.
“It was really inspiring as a young person,” Chern said. “And it made me feel like I had a space where I could be myself and I could be silly, and I can do the things that I wanted to do without any judgment.”
The group said that many schools have limited arts budgets, meaning many Denver-area kids don’t have access to theater education, especially if their families can’t afford to pay for summer camps. On top of that, remote education during the pandemic means kids have had even less access to live theatre programming in recent years.
“Some of these kids were four and a half, five, when the pandemic started. So their access to these sorts of communities has been limited,” Chern said. “So being able to be a part of their first exposure to this community is so cool. ”
Theatre camps can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars. To make the Cub Club more accessible, 2¢ Lion fundraised to make their camps cheap, and are offering pay-what-you-can tuition based on need. Some participants will be able to attend workshops for free on scholarship.
Written by Douglas, directed by Jacobson and co-starring Chern, the group’s first production is Yesterday/Today, a sci-fi comedy set in the multiverse,
On November 25, 2016, Douglas wrote, in a note on his phone, an idea for a play or movie about a guy who travels to parallel universe where the Beatles never existed, and has the opportunity to become famous by playing the band’s music. Douglas said he sat on that idea for years. Then, in 2018, someone sent him a trailer for Yesterday, a film about a musician who discovers one day that he’s the only person in the world who has ever heard of the Beatles, and who soon becomes famous by performing their songs and passing them off as his own.
“I was devastated. And to this day, I still have not seen that movie,” Douglas said.
This last year, though, he sat down to write an amended version of that original idea.
“I was like, what if I took that concept, but instead of it being a guy going to a universe where the Beatles don’t exist, what if it’s a guy going to a universe where this movie doesn’t exist, and he can finally write the movie,” Douglas said.
Now, the play is about procrastination, the pursuit of pipe dreams, and how people are a product of the circumstances around them. It also pulls influences from recent popular multiverse travel films, like Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Everything Everywhere All at Once.
“The result was this wild show where people are changing identities from scene to scene. And the relationships change,” Douglas said. There’s even a multiversal love triangle, where the protagonist finds he’s a match for one person in one universe, but someone else in another, based on how their circumstances have shaped them.”
The show’s time slot during the Thursday-Saturday performances at Fringe is 9:20 pm. Fringe also happens to coincide with Pride weekend, and the team has leaned into that scheduling, directing their advertising to try to bring in people that might be out looking for nightlife during Pride. Douglas said in a way, their assigned timeslot has helped them think about how the company might present shows to help dispel assumptions about theatre, and who it’s for.
“We know people are going to be going out before and/or after. And we’ve encouraged, in a lot of the language, hey, before the show, get a drink, or smoke a little bud, or whatever it is you want to do,” Douglas said. “It’s not a black and white affair, and we don’t want people to think that it’s going to be a sort of self-serious thing, because so much theater is, and so much theater is sitting silently in the audience while people portray such dramatic and devastating things before you. But we are really embracing, especially with this show, that it’s kind of silly. We’re just people like you, standing in the same room in silly costumes, and saying absurd things.”