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The third-annual Original Thinkers Festival runs virtually through Oct. 11 with film screenings, presentations, panels and performances. (Provided by Original Thinkers)

Not long ago, a friend observed David Holbrooke, founder of Telluride’s Original Thinkers Festival, at his post — leading  troops and extinguishing assorted fires. Impressed by Holbrooke’s multitasking, the friend praised him as the “ringmaster” of his festival’s circus. 

Holbrooke replied that he prefers a similar, yet not-identical title: “Yeah, OK,” he said. “But think of me less as a ‘ringmaster’ and more of a ‘ringleader.’”

What? Why? 

“Because I’m not running a circus here,” says Holbrooke. “I’m masterminding a caper. I’m less P.T. Barnum, and more George Clooney as Danny Ocean in ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’”


David Holbrooke is a 6-foot-6-inch-tall man who, inexplicably, wears capri pants most days. He exhibits zero of George Clooney’s fashion sense — and is bald and gangly to boot. If anyone besides himself has compared Holbrooke to Clooney, there is no record of such in any extant chronicle of American culture. 

“What I mean,” Holbrooke stubbornly insists, “is that Original Thinkers festival is less broad entertainment, and more an ingenious heist … of people’s brains.”

Of course, burgling gray matter is more difficult in this, Original Thinkers’ third year, than it was last year or the year before. As has happened with other festivals of arts and ideas, OT has migrated online.

“This is an increasingly complicated world we’re living in,” Holbrooke says, “and having the context and insight that our speakers bring is invaluable.” As he says at, “Remember that the Black Plague was followed by the Renaissance … this is the time to start thinking about what kind of original thinking can come next.”

To wit, one of this year’s programs is titled “How to be a Chaos Pilot.” While acknowledging that most people are reluctant to “take chances and create something new out of uncertainty,” the program introduces Zenia Tata as a guide to “finding purpose and motivation in the midst of chaos.” 

Tata is the chief impact officer at XPrize, a nonprofit foundation that uses “large-scale global incentive competitions” as a carrot to inspire solutions to Earth’s biggest problems — lately ranging from rethinking masks to protect people from the spread of COVID-19 to developing a way to convert carbon dioxide emissions into usable products.

Poet Art Goodtimes welcomes attendees of the Original Thinker’s 2018 opening dinner with the recitation of a poem. (Photo provided by Original Thinkers)

Tata’s co-pilots include journalist Gwen Thompkins and abstract painter Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann, a documentary about whom is one of three cinematic profiles of people who navigate chaos in creative, artistic ways. (The others are about an aerial photographer/skater girl from New Zealand and a violinist/concierge at a ritzy Manhattan office building.)

The ringleader of OT urges patrons to also savor the “Our Inner Cinema” program. 

“It brings together three unique speakers looking at our brains,” Holbrooke says. “Two of them are neuroscientists from MIT, one who looks at dreams and how we can affect our own dreams. The other is an amazing woman, who’s invented a new medi-musical instrument that helps with dementia.”

The third guest in that program is Jeff Orlowski, who lives in Boulder and has made a film titled “The Social Dilemma” that explores how social media is rewiring the way 21st-century humans think. 

“‘The Social Dilemma’ is the No. 1 film on Netflix now,” Holbrooke says. “It’s the first time a documentary has reached No. 1 on Netflix, I’m pretty sure. The film looks at the insane effects of social media on our brains, especially our kids’ brains. It’s hard to overstate how much impact Facebook and its cohorts have in our lives right now, and I think our audience will be fascinated by what Jeff has to say. He’s learned some disturbing facts during his research.”

In addition, “Our Inner Cinema” will show a short documentary — “The Missfits” — about teenage female scientists redefining gender expectations during a challenging STEM contest. Says Holbrooke, “The entire 90-minute show will create an indelible experience for our audience.”

The past two autumns saw OT audiences gather over a single weekend to witness not just creative movers and shakers, but also wholly innovative performances such as a cross between Cirque du Soleil and Burning Man at a starlit abandoned mine located a few miles downvalley from Telluride. 

Not this year. While the in-person experience won’t compare, Holbrooke and content curator Laura Shaunette have adapted to the weirdness of 2020 in several ways. For one, they’re spreading the content over 10 days, from Oct. 1-11, so patrons can fit the festival with their personal schedules and fully absorb every program. Prices have also been reduced. A Big Idea Pass, granting access to all programs, are available for the $50. OT will also sell individual show passes for $15. 

Before its 2018 debut, Holbrooke promised Original Thinkers would “convene creators, innovators and doers for a memorable weekend in the mountains. I strongly believe in the power of congregation. When we come together to share a meaningful experience, we are all lifted.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the festival ringleader was forced to furlough staff and to consider shutting down, but Hobrook, like so many others, sacrificed the shared experience. 

“It broke my heart to think of doing Original Thinkers, without convening,” Holbrooke says. “There’s a part of me that was tempted to take a big pause. But this is a remarkable moment in U.S. history. When I saw what’s been happening in this country, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, I knew it’d be lame not to examine these times with the Original Thinkers lens.” 

See for more details. 

Special to The Colorado Sun