Wildly original. Brilliant. Intellectual nitrous oxide. Crazed creativity. Riotously funny. These phrases are just a small sampling of the breathy reviews of Denver's own Buntport Theater Company
Buntport is the whip-smart, off-kilter brainchild of a group of Colorado College theater majors who met at the Colorado Springs campus in the 1990s. The group of six (three men, three women) began performing together in 2000, and organized as a nonprofit the next year.
"A couple of professors said, 'Do it now while you're willing to be poor and work ridiculous hours, not five years from now or you'll never get around to it,'" says Erin Rollman, 38, Buntport's unofficial spokeswoman.
The collaborative company has succeeded in the dozen years since by keeping true to its roots, as the entire local arts community rises.
"I think that the arts scene in Denver is getting stronger in the time that we've been here," says Rollman. "When we first moved here we were told unequivocally that performing only new work would fail and that people wouldn't come to those shows if there was no known name."
Hannah Duggan as Ahab in Moby Dick Unread.Driven to succeed
Instead of flopping as the naysayers predicted, the Buntport Theater Company found a niche -- and an audience -- for its original cutting-edge material.
That means material like Kafka On Ice (2004), a musical biography of the Metamorphosis author -- performed by skating actors on synthetic ice -- and Tommy Lee Goes To Opera Alone (2012), a puppet show where Tommy Lee's the puppet, ordering a slice of pie and dishing on Puccini, while the black-clad puppeteers act out their own silent but operatic backstory.
"The reason we started the company as we started it is that when you do traditional theater, you just get your one job," explains Rollman. "We were interested in making the whole thing." To this end, every company member often shares writing, directing and producting credits, not to mention set design, costume design and everything else.
A good example of this collaborative and creative approach was a donated van. "We didn't know what to do with the van," says Rollman with a laugh.
They found something to do with it. Several things, actually. The Buntporters painted it, attached props and even parked it inside the theater as part of the the set for Shakespeare's bloody Titus Andronicus -- which Buntport adapted as a musical comedy in 2002. (The van has since been donated to charity , possibly a first for a vehicle painted like a forest with holes cut in the roof and floor.)
Based in the Art District on Santa Fe neighborhood, Buntport Theater Company performs in a raw concrete space inside an industrial strip. Inside is a black box-style theater that can accommodate up to 120 patrons. For each play the entire performance space is reinvented.
Even backstage is anything but at Buntport. The company was able to recently buy an old house across the street from the theater space and the house is essentially their backstage area with costumes in the living room and office space where the kitchen's pantry should be.
Benefits with friends?
Buntport comes up with original plays and skewed takes on classics at least three times every year. The key ingredient all Buntport productions share is the collective creativity of the same small core group.
"I feel incredibly lucky to be doing what we're doing," says Erik Edborg, 38, one of the company members. "We're completely democratic, and everybody has to agree about the direction of the company or the color of a set. Everybody has to be happy even if they get outvoted."
A utopian democracy? This group insists it not only works for them, but influences their work. "There is nobody in the company that isn't directly related to the artwork," says Samantha Schmitz, 34, who specializes in behind-the-scenes work and is not an actress. "That makes the company stronger as a whole. We handle every aspect of the business -- filtered through six minds. No one person is dictating."
"I think that Buntport occupies a very unique space in the scope of the arts in Denver," says Charlie Miller, Multimedia Specialist at the Denver Center Theatre Company and Co-Curator of Off-Center @ The Jones
. Miller was introduced to Buntport as an audience member, and has since gotten involved on a few Buntport productions. "They are on the fringe doing stuff that no one else is doing in a way that no one else is doing."
Miller has high praise for Buntport's collaborative process. "We all admire what they're doing," he says. "They are the poster children of Denver -- kids who went to college together, created and succeeded with a theater company and have grown in fun ways. They are creating great work and making it sustainable for a small but mighty organization."
Encore!The Buntport Theater Company (left to right): Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Evan Weissman and Erin Rollman.
Thanks to their success, Buntport has been able to make necessary improvements for 2013 -- from installing a proper cooling system in the theater (they traditionally take summers off) to expanding their programming. Buntport has an annual operating budget of $325,000, says Rollman.
Buntport's typical season of three to four original plays will continue, and another local group, Screw Tooth, will be a resident at the theater space when Buntport is on summer hiatus. Between productions, the company also puts on an all-ages show on the second Saturday of each month and shows for schoolchildren with the Buntport Education Team, and they have partnered with the Denver Art Museum
for performances in the museum's freight elevator on the last Friday of each for the untitled series. The third Tuesday of each month offers a chance to see an unexpected sampling of past works or soundbites of other presentations.
Opening this Friday, April 12 is Buntport's latest original show, A Knight to Remember: My Quest to Gallantly Recapture the Past, by company member Brian Colonna. The autobiographical fantasy comedy stars Colonna as Colonna and Rollman as "everyone else," interpreting the playwright/lead actor's childhood dreams of knighthood, all grown up.
Whatever's on stage at Buntport, the mission is engaging the audience -- from affordable tickets prices (prices start at $5 and top out at $20 on opening nights with food and drink) to how the work is written, staged and presented.
"It's part of our mission to be affordable," says Rollman. "It's a huge thing to us to set tickets prices we could afford at other places. Also, we want to fight the notion that there is something exclusionary and fancy about theater." To this end, they also offer 'pay-what-you-can' nights.
All this is not to say that Buntport is just grooming itself for the bright lights and big city on one coast or another as the company enters its teens.
"We do not think Denver is a training ground to move on to bigger and better things," says Rollman. "We are so happy being in Denver and being part of the culture here."