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Minimum wage hits Breckenridge

Kimberly Nicoletti

BRECKENRIDGE – They share the same ski runs, grocery stores and love for the mountains.

But how often do second homeowners or tourists talk to – or even really see – the people who clean the quarters they live in, flip the burgers they eat or bump the chairs that sweep them up to their favorite terrain?

This weekend, “Nickel and Dimed” gives wealthy and middle class people a chance to consider the challenges faced by the 30 percent of Americans who earn $8 an hour or less.

The play, based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling book of the same title, reveals American capitalism as seen through the eyes of the working poor.

Ehrenreich spent much of 1998 working undercover as a waitress, a maid, a nursing home assistant and a Wal-Mart sales clerk to see if she could make ends meet on minimum wage.

She immersed herself in the low-economic world after she told her editor at Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, someone should expose the struggles of the working poor. Lapham chose her for the job.

It doesn’t take long to figure out Colorado’s minimum wage of $5.15 – or even $8 – an hour doesn’t cut it. That’s a given in “Nickel and Dimed.”

The book and the play focus on how the working poor attempt to cope with the emotional and mental effects of poverty.

“It is definitely a political play,” said Chip Walton, director of Denver’s Curious Theatre Company, which brings the play to the Breckenridge Theatre as the Backstage Theatre’s special guest.

“It doesn’t make any bones about which side of the fence it comes down on, but it’s really a play about human dignity – how everyone deserves to make enough to live no matter what they do.”

Five Denver actors portray 65 characters while one narrates the play.

At times, it’s similar to watching a documentary on stage. At others, it’s a political statement. And throughout, it’s humorous.

“It’s very funny,” said Jeremy Cole, director of the Backstage Theatre. “It has all the information in the book. The arguments and points are made, but they found an entertaining way to do it.

“But, there are times when I wanted them to get off the soapbox. It’s great coffeehouse talk afterwards. Everyone has something that drives them crazy and makes them say, “Can you believe…’ Even those people who didn’t like the play had something to talk about – what they would have done (in the situation).”

The Curious Theatre Company sold out nearly all of its shows in its eight-week run, drawing more than 4,300 patrons. Every night, the actors had a breakout – stopping the play to encourage audience response – as well as a talk back after the show.

“If I can be very simplistic, I think there are three different reactions the audience has,” Walton said.

The working poor show relief that their story’s finally told. More liberal or progressive people, though they’re aware of the challenges of working for minimum wage, still learn shocking things from the play. Then there are the people who don’t want to face the issue.

One Wal-Mart stockholder, for instance, became irate during a Denver talk back, saying the play took a simplistic view of the issue, Walton said.

“The more affluent the audience, the less vocal they tend to be, and the more reticent, the more vocal they are,” Walton said. “Our mission is to create entertainment with intellect, and it’s been a perfect show for us to do that.”

If the play sounds too heavy, be assured there’s humor, too.

“Some people who saw the show said, “I thought I’d get preached to, and I found myself laughing my head off,'” Walton said.

“The playwright, Joan Holden, understands that comedy engages audiences in a more direct and immediate way. Once you start laughing, you’re in the show. It also gives you some distance and allows you to not feel so hit over the head.”

Walton wants to take “Nickel and Dimed” to mountain communities because of the economic gap between locals and seasonal workers and other people who live in the communities.

Second homeowners own 67 percent of houses in Summit County. It’s the largest percentage of second homeowners among Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Jackson counties, according to the latest report by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

Meanwhile, the ski industry creates thousands of entry-level jobs.

“I’m hoping this is going to be a great opportunity,” Walton said. “I’d love to see the millionaires sitting next to the lift operators.”

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 245, or by e-mail at knicoletti@summitdaily.com.


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