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The very old (and very new) works drawing more young viewers to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts

140-years-young "Anna Karenina" and a slew of new works including "Rattlesnake Kate" showcase artistic director Chris Coleman's diverse strategy

Kate MacCluggage, Patrick Zeller and the company of "Anna Karenina." It's an old story, but Denver Center Theater Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman says it's drawing new people to the theater. (Photo provided by AdamsVisCom)
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With persistent talk in theater circles about the need to attract younger, more diverse audiences, it is perhaps ironic that the first big play of Chris Coleman’s tenure as Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director is an adaptation of an 800-page 19th century Russian novel.

How many millennials were turned off by the mere title: “Anna Karenina”? Apparently, the three-hour romantic tragedy is selling.

“It’s fascinating to see who comes,” Coleman said. “We’ve had lots of people in their 40s, 30s, 20s, people who feel they should have read the book, or the wife drags the husband…”

He watched a young girl as she experienced the play with a parent and participated in a talk-back afterward. She was fascinated by the depiction of literature’s most famous train.

The adaptation, running through Sunday, is pitched to those who haven’t read Tolstoy. (Personally, I can say the three hours flew by as the two storylines intersected — one of love and lust, the other of the class divide and social unrest at the time — and the characters rich inner thoughts were voiced by other characters in a filling borscht of a production.)

Coleman, who directed “Anna Karenina,” opted not to do Shakespeare for his first giant cast production, saying the choice might have felt “obvious.”

So, how does Anna K work toward recruiting younger, hipper audiences to theater? “I’m a history nut,” Coleman said. “One of the things a classic does is allow audiences to see our own lives more clearly. The distance between the values, customs, relationships of the time is revealing. To me, that is one of the joys.”

The fact that “Anna Karenina” is considered one of the 10 best novels ever written doesn’t hurt — Coleman wouldn’t say so, but call it the guilt factor, pushing people to feel they should at least know the story.

In making the switch to Denver from Portland Center Stage, where he was art director for 17 years, Coleman has found it “delightfully surprising” in his first season here that “people show up.” In terms of attendance for Anna K, “we are blowing it out of the water,” compared to  when he directed the production in Portland.

He attributes that success partly to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ marketing team’s use of new technologies to reach people, “but there is a history of cultural participation in this city that is real.”

The other surprise since moving here last year with his husband, actor Rodney Hicks, is more obvious. Coleman knows it sounds dorky, “but, people here seem genuinely open and cheerful. That’s not how I would characterize people in the Pacific Northwest. People there are stingy with their enthusiasm. I seriously wonder if it’s the weather.”

Neyla Pekarek performing part of “Rattlesnake Kate,” her new musical about the Weld County legend Rattlesnake Kate Slaughterback, at Mixed Taste last summer in Denver. The musical, commissioned by Denver Center for the Performing Arts, will premiere Saturday at the Colorado New Play Summit in Denver. (Photo provided by Adams VisCom)

Enthusiasm for the 14th annual Colorado New Play Summit, concluding this weekend, is running high, particularly for a new musical that will have its concert reading Saturday.

“Rattlesnake Kate”  is a collaboration of Neyla Pekarek (former cellist and vocalist of folk-rock band The Lumineers) and playwright Karen Hartman. The song cycle tells the story of Kate Slaughterback who, on a horse with her young son near Greeley a century ago, fought off a migration of rattlesnakes, decapitated them with a “No trespassing sign,” and made a flapper dress from their skins — all long before Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress.

Since it began, the summit has introduced 57 new works, more than half of which that went on to full Theatre Company productions and, sometimes, critical acclaim. The intensive two-week workshop experience is instructive for the playwrights and allows audiences to peer into the new play development process.

Among the works rising to the challenge in past  years: Lauren Gunderson’s “The Book of Will;” Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap;” Tanya Saracho’s “FADE;” Matthew Lopez’s “The Legend of Georgia McBride;” Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale;” Theresa Rebeck’s “The Nest;” Karen Zacarias’ “Just Like Us;” and Dick Scanlan’s reimagined “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

As Coleman likes to say, “every play we experience was new at some point.”

Some tickets for the Colorado New Play Summit still are available from the DCPA, including packages that allow you to tack on tickets to “Anna Karenina” on Thursday or Sunday.


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