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Telluride’s Original Thinkers blends stories with art, music, movies, performances

“We hope people come out of this festival with not just clarity for what’s going on, but some fuel or juice to deal with everything and say ‘I can get out there make a positive impact,’” says organizer.

Poet Art Goodtimes welcomes attendees of the Original Thinker's 2018 opening dinner with the recitation of a poem. (Photo provided by Original Thinkers)
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The canyon walls that box end-of-the-road Telluride inspire some out-of-the-box thinking. 

Big-thinkers in the shadows of those crags strung the first alternating-current long-distance transmission lines anywhere; they battled corporations and raised $50 million to buy and preserve the valley floor; they linked communities with the country’s first free gondola and they seeded first-of-their-kind festivals.

“The amount of innovation coming from this small town is mind blowing and we just want to walk in that history,” says David Holbrooke, one of Telluride’s most notorious sages whose upcoming Original Thinkers festival, Oct. 3-6, gathers activists, advocates, storytellers, artists and performers for a four-day exploration of society’s most pressing challenges. 

Holbrooke is walking and talking on his mobile. Dollops of insight into his unique Original Thinkers are interrupted by quick whistles and curt calls to his dog, as well as occasional greetings to neighbors and passersby. On the other end of the line, a listener is on his tour of town. It’s so Telluride. Just like his second-annual confab.

Participants in Telluride Original Thinkers take in the scenery while they absorb the experience of the 2018 event. Organizer David Holbrooke says his intention is to help people “understand this confusing world.” (Photo provided by Original Thinkers)

The idea behind Original Thinkers is to move beyond panels and talks, Holbrooke says. Imagine four or so speakers in a theater, telling stories interspersed with screenings of short movies and performances by dancers and musicians. Then everyone moves outside to visit, hike and absorb what they just experienced on their own terms in the dramatic grandeur of Telluride’s box canyon. These are small bites, not all-day affairs. No rushing from event to event. Holbrooke wants attendees to spend time outside, gazing up at those steep canyon walls.

“What works and what’s really even more important in a world with Netflix and our phones and Facebook and all this digital stuff that dominates our lives is that we get together and congregate. Congregating is a sacred act these days and it matters,” Holbrooke says. “The world is nuts right now. We want to give people some context and stories to be able to deal with it and try to understand this confusing world.”

Different from Aspen Ideas, Denver Startup Week

Like the Aspen Ideas Festival, which Holbrooke calls the “granddaddy” of these kinds of brainstorming retreats, the Original Thinkers program will explore 10 overarching themes in 10 shows.

  • Ruthie Lindsey will talk about her years-long recovery from bedridden brokenness to a life sharing her escape from hopelessness and the importance of slowing down and living deliberately.
  • Orlando Von Einsiedel, whose documentary “The White Helmets” followed Syrian rescue workers and won an Oscar in 2016, will screen a series of shorts he made with National Geographic. 
  • Richard McKinney spent 25 years as a Marine, serving several tours in the Middle East, and when he visited a mosque he planned to bomb in his hometown of Indiana, he was embraced by Muslims. His short movie “Secret Life of Muslims: Richard McKinney” will trace how that visit and a Koran led him to become a Muslim and leader of that mosque. 
  • Scientist Lauren Oakes will be joined by four other women who are working around the world to address the climate crisis. 
  • Brooke Axtell, the founder and director of She is Rising, which helps women recover from abuse, will join photographers Brenda Ann Kenneally and Stanley Stellar as well as forensic traumatologist Dr. Halleh Seddighzadeh in a discussion on the need to escape shame to heal from trauma. 
  • Under the festival’s “Change Is Hard” banner, filmmakers Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan will show their documentary “St. Louis Superman,” Egyptian musician Ramy Essam will share how his anthems, including “Irhal,” fueled a revolution in his native country, graphic designer Bonnie Siegler will show how art and visual images can create impact and scholar Aaron Belkin will tell the story behind his advocacy work that led to the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. 
  • The final show of the festival will screen a new documentary in the works capturing the evolution of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Aurora church into multicultural gathering place for the city’s growing population of refugees and immigrants. Brandon Victor Dixon, a Broadway star and the founder of voter-engaging WeAre, and St. Matthew pastor Marcel Narucki will gather with speakers from the weekend to share their big ideas for changing the world. 
Original Thinkers’ theater, is transformed each year into a venue for films and ideas. (Photo provided by Original Thinkers)

Original Thinkers isn’t as glitzy as Aspen Ideas or as techy as Boulder-Denver’s Startup Week. Original Thinkers, says Holbrooke, is about “the power of the story.”

“And the power of putting people on stage who don’t typically get to step onto the big stage but still have real wisdom we can learn from,” he says. “There’s real power in what they have achieved, not just in money or position, but in the way they live their lives. We hope people come out of this festival with not just clarity for what’s going on, but some fuel or juice to deal with everything and say ‘I can get out there make a positive impact.’”

Holbrooke’s founding partners include Nancy Schafer, an independent film producer who ran the Tribeca Film Festival for 11 years after she created and ran Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival. And Gabe Lifton-Zoline, the filmmaking grandson of Telluride ski area founder Joe Zoline who was born in Telluride and directed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in Colorado and spent years championing Obama’s agenda. 

 “Colorado’s mountain towns have long been part of a cultural vanguard. So many great ideas have come from these places up in the mountains,” says Lifton-Zoline, who will debut his new film about former President Jimmy Carter and the infamous “Crisis of Confidence” speech he made 40 years ago. 

Lifton-Zoline sees Original Thinkers evolving as the less-flashy event that reflects Colorado better than other internationally renowned rallies in the high country. 

“So what does Colorado really mean?” he asks. “I think it has, at its core, this real mix of people who are funky and wild and out there creatively with a twist of ‘We can do this on our own.’ I think this festival does that all really well.”

Original Thinkers lands as Telluride wraps up its hectic festival season, easing the town into its fall respite before the skiers arrive. It’s a nice financial bump heading into the quiet season, but this fest is “way beyond dollars and cents,” says Michael Martelon, the head of Visit Telluride. 

“This speaks to our history as innovators in Telluride. Original Thinkers wasn’t birthed by an industrialist. It isn’t about commerce. It’s about how we approach each other and our environment and how we can make that approach better,” Martelon says. “Telluride is a place where you can be inspired to reach beyond the commercial. Even though our economy is 100 percent based on tourism, as a community, we think beyond that and we want to show people that we care about our environment and we want to seek out ways to make life better for the human race, for the Earth, for our air and for our water. That’s the Telluride energy David is putting into this festival. It’s about finding a better wheel.”


 The Colorado Sun is media sponsor for Original Thinkers, so watch for Q&As with guest speakers and artists as well as coverage of the Oct 3-6 festival.


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