Is Colorado Springs' theater scene on the cusp of something big?

“My first (job) interview was the week the pandemic shut down the world,” said Aisha Ahmad-Post during a Zoom call, an I-know-I-know smile punctuating the seeming absurdity of that fact. She got the job, and her start date as executive director of Newman Center for the Performing Arts was Aug. 3.

Playwright and director Idris Goodwin, too, began his job as the pandemic surged and waned, surged and waned (sort of) and the streets were populated with citizens reiterating what should have been a no-brainer, that Black Lives Matter. He now directs the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Hired in 2018, Caitlin Lowans had a little more time under her belt as the artistic director of Theatreworks before the pandemic changed everything. The notable Colorado Springs company was on the eve of staging “An Iliad,” its sixth show in her first full season of programming, when all hell broke loose.

This month marks the year anniversary of the moment when the gathering arts began to crumple under the weight of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, under the stewardship of Ahmad-Post, Goodwin and Lowans, the Newman Center, Theatreworks and the Fine Arts Center have stayed the course — sharing performances, almost entirely in virtual fashion — even as they have course-corrected. Each has been doing the work she/he embraced when they undertook their gigs: building community even in the midst of a community-bedeviling pandemic.

Aisha Ahmad-Post, executive director of the Newman Center for the Performing Arts

One of the highpoints of the Newman Center’s 2010-21 season was supposed to be a visit by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It still was a highlight, as the March 5 virtual performance of Marsalis’ “Democracy! Suite,” by the famed jazzman and a septet gamely proved. Was it live? Not quite, but it was memorable.

“This fall I started having some conversations with the Jazz at Lincoln Center team about a virtual performance,” Ahmad-Post wrote in an email. “At the time, we were gearing up for the election season and the “Democracy! Suite” was particularly fitting. As Wynton will tell you, jazz is all about listening, responding, harmonizing, point and counterpoint. Maybe we could all use a reminder about how to be in dialogue, in conversation.”

Ahmad-Post, a classically trained musician turned arts honcho, has known of the Newman Center since her time in New York City, when she was producing the New York Public Library system’s “Live!” artists series.

“It has all the things that are exciting to me when I think about the role of a performing arts center, when I think about the arts in a regional metropolitan center,” she said. Ahmad-Post’s goals go beyond maintaining the high-profile tug of the acoustically impressive Gates Auditorium that lure artists of Marsalis’ caliber, but also support homegrown but globally known creatives like choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson and her dance ensemble. “It really has its own thing going on, so what should that look like and what should our conversation with the national and international community look like?”

The pandemic has given her room — unasked for, to be sure, but valuable just the same — to start answering those questions.

Before grabbing the reins at Newman Center, Ahmad-Post had proven she could guide an arts organization’s grandest designs while nurturing its deepest values, helming the opening of the Ent Center at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. The Ent is home to an art gallery, Theaterworks and an Artists’ Series.

“The ambition of that project was enormous,” says Ahmad-Post, who asked, “How the Center could be part of the Colorado Springs resurgence and renaissance, especially in the arts.”

That Ahmad-Post, Goodwin and Lowans share a relationship to the state’s second-largest city isn’t lost on any of them. And the work they’ve done has forced arts-loving Denverites to rethink any aversion to that drive south down Interstate 25. “I think Colorado Springs is on the precipice of something really big with the arts and culture sector,” Ahmad-Post said.

As for the Newman Center, beyond maintaining the high-profile tug of the acoustically impressive Gates Auditorium, Ahmad-Post intends on deepening the conversations between audience, venue and artists: giving local audiences more of a sense of their role in that equation.

“I think there’s a unique role for an arts center. How do you shape what a community is? How do you build empathy? How do you share stories that are highly specific and also universal?”

Idris Goodwin, executive director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

Goodwin is no stranger to the Rocky Mountain West. He had been a professor at Colorado College for six years. During that time, his reach extended beyond the classroom: As a playwright and director, he’d helmed productions at Curious Theatre Company and had his work performed at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

When the Black Actors Guild mounted a socially distanced but also virtual production of his hip-hop drama “Hype Man” last September, it was one of the few plays to be staged for an in-person audience during the 2020 fall season.

“Being a professor was a great launch pad and foundation,” he said of his time at CC. “But I developed a real appetite for doing things in the civic space.”

In 2018, he took a job as the producing artistic director of StageOne Family Theatre in Louisville, Ky. The organization introduces youngsters to the arts.

Goodwin and his family were living in Louisville when Breonna Taylor was killed by police. “Being there this summer, during that (shooting) and also working in the cultural and civic space for two years … it’s been a very surreal set of months,” he said.

This American moment – and his role in influencing the direction of a well-regarded multidisciplinary arts organization – challenge him in ways he feels he’s been moving toward his whole and varied career.

“To be in the arts is really advantageous because we’re in the humanity business, we’re in the empathy business, the storytelling business,” said Goodwin.

“I came into my (job) interview basically saying, ‘Are we just a building with some objects in it? Or are we more than that? Are we a conversation? Are we a lifestyle? Are we a cultural engine?’ That’s what I came in with. So then when we had to shut things down, it was a great opportunity to dig into that conversation.”

Caitlin Lowans, artistic director at Theatreworks

“An Iliad” had been scheduled as the sixth show of Lowans’ first full season of programming, and was to open on March 12.

“I was excited about it,” said Lowans. “Especially for the Springs, because of telling a story of war in a community, many of it comes from the military and veteran community.”
Lowans has become even more keen on expanding the communities that Theatreworks speaks – and listens – to.

In the intervening months, Lowans and Theatreworks juked and tweaked. In October, they presented monologist Anna Deavere Smith’s “House Arrest: A Search for Character In and Around the White House, past and present,” having paired eight directors with eight performers for Zoom rehearsals.

For the last two weekends of February, Theatreworks experienced the fruits of all that pivoting. “The Mitten: a Midwinter Puppetry Fable,” created by JParker Arts and Katy Williams Designs, brought together a lovely, diverse group of puppeteers (across the race, gender, theatre discipline, level of experience spectrums),” Lowans wrote in an email. “And the warm response from the audience made me hopeful for the interdisciplinary adventurousness of audiences to come.” The show sold out.

“An Iliad” is back on the company’s slate for a late spring/early summer production in 2021. Whether it will unfold indoors, outdoors or virtually has yet to be confirmed. Before that, Theatreworks is providing two more pieces in its Sunday series of free virtual readings: Kate Hamill’s adaptation of “Little Women,” (April 11) and “Aubergine” by Julia Cho (May 16).

Lisa Kennedy (lkennedywriter@gmail.com) is a former film and theater critic for The Denver Post.

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