The fall is going to kill me. I’m sure of it. The distance from my perch on this wooden wall to the floor of the Aurora Fox studio theater may be less than 20 feet, but I may as well be clinging to a sheer ice wall on Everest. I’ve been rigged with safety ropes and ice picks to keep me from falling to my doom. But my proper sense of perspective has evaporated; I’m steeling myself for the worst.
This elaborate, 16-foot climbing wall, complete with fake snow and ice ledges, wasn’t a training tool for would-be mountain climbers. It was the main set piece for the Aurora Fox theater’s 2011 production of “K2” by Patrick Meyers, a drama that takes place entirely on the side of a mountain. With a budget of $20,000, the Fox’s tech crew recreated an isolated peak in the Himalayas, and the man-made mountain dominated the Fox’s 75-seat black-box theater.
That kind of ambitious scope and attention to detail has become the norm for Aurora stages. The local scene goes a lot deeper than rehashes of “Our Town” by amateur drama troupes in rec center basements. In the past decade, the city has become the home of a vibrant stage scene that includes more than a dozen regular companies. Regional premieres, top-notch actors and directors, innovative set design and chic workshops – all of this can be found on stages of all sizes across the city.
“In Aurora, I see that whole little strip starting, slowly but surely, to attract people,” said Keith Rabin Jr., the artistic director of the Ignite Theatre company that runs out of the Aurora Fox theater on East Colfax Avenue. Since kicking off five years ago, the troupe has produced new and challenging work such as “Spring Awakening,” “Next to Normal,” and “Bare: The Musical.”
“I think it’s growing. I also think theaters are starting to try to take risks,” Rabin said.
There’s the Vintage Theatre troupe, a company that kicked off in a closet-sized space in Denver in 2002 and carved a niche with ambitious productions of shows like “Equus” and “Grey Gardens.” Two years ago, the company moved into the 9,400-square-foot former Shadow Theatre space on Dayton Street, just a block from East Colfax.
The building now boasts two separate stages, and it’s host to troupes like the Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre Company, Theatre Esprit Asia and the One Night Stand Theatre company as paying guests.
“We’ve grown up. We’re now a professional theater company, whereas before we were a wonderful, eclectic little community theater,” said Craig Bond, Vintage artistic director.
Nearby, the John Hand Theatre is tucked into the Colorado Free University campus at Lowry. While the humbly sized house offers fewer than 80 seats, it’s now home to three theater companies and offers programming 11 months out of the year. Across town, the Parker Arts Culture and Event Center and the Lone Tree Arts Center both opened in Douglas County in 2011, and they quickly made a point to reach out to an untapped audience base in southeast Aurora.
And then there’s the Aurora Fox theater, the oldest house in the city and the creative anchor of the growing local scene. A former World War II-era cinema that first opened its doors in 1946, the Fox reopened as a community theater in 1985. The building still oozes what was then a faux Art Deco mood and feel, with its Quonset hut design and its bucket seats lined with red velvet.
But in the past five years, the Fox stage has hosted some of the most challenging theater in the Denver metro area. That’s partly because of the smaller companies that have become regular renters. The Ignite troupe has made pushing the envelope a part of its creative mission. The Phamaly Theatre troupe, which started producing at the Fox in 2007, is the country’s only handicapped performing arts organization. Earlier this year, Ben Dicke’s independent production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” enjoyed a sold-out run.
“We have distinct niches. They serve a community need that I probably can’t serve,” said Aurora Fox Executive Producer Charles Packard. “I don’t have to produce it for it to serve the community, and my job is to serve the community.”
But Packard has taken plenty of risks in the Fox’s regular season programming since he took over as executive producer five years ago. The theater has mounted technically challenging productions like “K2” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a thriller based on the short story by Ray Bradbury. Such shows have featured Himalayan mountainsides, out-of-control carousels and a live electric chair.
But the theater has also pushed to update the programming, to move beyond tired musicals and familiar dramas. More and more, Packard and the Fox crew have made an effort to reflect the community in its programming. They’ve produced shows like “Rashomon,” a thriller based on a film by Akira Kurosawa, and Lynn Nottage’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy,” a coming-of-age drama about a black family in 1950 Brooklyn.
But there’s still more work to do.
“I am challenged and ashamed that I’m not touching every ethnicity,” Packard said. “I should be doing plays in Spanish, I should be doing plays in Korean.”