East Troublesome Fire-inspired performance ‘Wild Fire’ makes a tour stop at Dillon Amphitheater
Theatrical concert is 1st Denver Center for the Performing Arts show since the pandemic began
The Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ first show since the coronavirus pandemic won’t premiere at its complex near 13th Street in downtown Denver. The nonprofit is instead hitting the road. Next week, the theater company is debuting a new original project at the Levitt Pavilion Denver, Rendezvous Event Center in Winter Park and the Dillon Amphitheater.
Called “Wild Fire,” the theatrical concert is the first time the Denver Center has produced work outside of Denver — and outdoors. The setting is fitting since the piece centers on the East Troublesome Fire, following a cast of eight people such as a fire marshal, park ranger, pastor, reporter and rancher, as they deal with the unprecedented natural disaster.
Colorado playwright Jessica Kahkoska partly drew from her own experience, as her family was impacted by the Waldo Canyon Fire and the Black Forest Fire.
“At the time, (the Black Forest Fire) felt like such a shocking and one-off event, and over the last eight years since then, it’s been very sobering to watch what has become a much larger pattern of that scope of disaster,” she said.
Kahkoska got the idea to address the fires and current events while staying in Summit County last year. Mostly based in New York City, it was the first time she was back in Colorado visiting her family since the start of the pandemic. She recalled the air quality being very poor and her mother swapping evacuation stories with a friend as they went on a socially distant walk wearing face masks.
Partnering with History Colorado’s Museum of Memory, Kahkoska then interviewed 30 survivors of the fire to weave their stories into a 90-minute musical concert. It originally started as a play, but a few weeks later she decided it needed the accompaniment.
“I had a very clear moment of realizing that the piece sings, and I think it sings in a big way,” she said. “It has elements of a play, elements of an outdoor musical concert. We hope that really speaks to the full experience.”
The cast will perform the music of local Colorado folk bands Cary Morin, Chimney Choir, Daniel Rodriguez, Elephant Revival, Gregory Alan Isakov and SHEL. Kahkoska selected the multiple artists with diverse styles to address the complicated facets of dealing with wildfires.
The combination of folk music, a pandemic-friendly outdoor performance and a local story that promotes healing and heroism spoke to the heart of Artistic Director Chris Coleman when Kahkoska approached the Denver Center with the idea.
“I have a personal passion for stories that come out of the region that the theater I am working with lives in,” Coleman said. “That’s a thread through my career. It is also just a profound way to make a connection with the community.”
Coleman became the artistic director for the theater company in 2017, directing works such as “Oklahoma!” and “Anna Karenina.” In 1988, he founded the Actor’s Express theater company in the basement of an old church in his hometown of Atlanta, following graduate school in Pittsburgh. Coleman went on to direct regional theaters in multiple cities, and before moving to Denver, he served as the artistic director for Portland Center Stage in Oregon for 18 years.
What: “Wild Fire”
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18
Where: Dillon Amphitheater, 201 W. Lodgepole St., Dillon
Cost: Tickets start at $30, with higher donations encouraged. Visit DenverCenter.org to purchase.
“I’m here, I’ve lived through the pandemic and a renovation, and now we’re going to make some art again,” Coleman said.
The two worked together last year workshopping “In Her Bones,” a play set in the San Luis Valley dealing with crypto-Judaism, or the practice of adhering to Judaism in secret. The pandemic put the play on hold, but it will be produced for the 2022-23 season.
Pandemic-related challenges can be found in “Wild Fire,” as well. Coleman said it has been difficult logistically when accounting for health guidelines set by acting unions in addition to traveling to outdoor venues for the first time. One example he gave is that electronic keyboards are easy to transport, but an upright piano would also be preferred, so the company has to decide whether to try to move it or rent one at each leg of the tour.
Initial locations spanned the state from Vail to Steamboat, Crested Butte, Durango, Red Rocks Amphitheatre and beyond until it was narrowed to the current three. Kahkoska, who got her Actors’ Equity Association card by working in Lake Dillon Theatre Co.’s 2014 production of “Ring of Fire,” was the one who suggested Dillon Amphitheater.
“It’s like my favorite place in the world,” Kahkoska said. “It’s so special. … One of the reasons I’m really excited to share ‘Wild Fire’ with a Summit County audience is because one of my favorite parts of that process was the audience. It was so much fun to perform for Summit County audiences.”
Auditions were held virtually on Zoom, and it took some time for Coleman and Music Director Mark G. Meadows to find the right balance of performers who can act as well as sing and play instruments.
“It’s one thing to sing a song and play a guitar at the same time — that’s what we’re trained to do, because the rhythms fit together — but we’re not trained to play a guitar and speak at our pace at the same time,” Coleman said. “It’s asking a lot.”
Along with meadows, “Wild Fire” stars Kendra Jo Brook, Joe Casey, Jasmine Forsberg, Rob Morrison, Linda Mugleston, Marco Robinson and Harold Summey. Some are local Denver Center alums, such as Robinson and Mugleston, who played Mrs. Lovett in the DeVotchKa adaptation of “Sweeney Todd.”
Similar to the musical “Come From Away,” the characters are composites based on Kahkoska’s interviews and research.
“In that way, they also speak to the archetypes of people who are in every community and every mountain town,” Kahkoska said. “This is a very specific story about a very specific fire in a very specific community, but the same things that make it specific also make it universal.”
Though it hasn’t been easy preparing for the shows, Kahkoska said it is worth it.
“The payoff sometimes from dealing with all of the challenges can be such gorgeous outdoor moments and theater that feels live in a way that sometimes indoor theater doesn’t,” Kahkoska said. “For me, I’m very excited about this project because it brings together a lot of the things I love: just being outside, folk music and Colorado stories.”
A portion of ticket sales will benefit the Grand Foundation’s Grand County Wildfire Emergency Fund, which provides wildfire relief aid to Grand County. Additionally, 1,000 free tickets distributed via lottery are available to firefighters across the three performances.
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