“If you’re lucky, you get one or two good ideas in your life,” said TheatreWorks founder Murray Ross. “When I came to UCCS in 1975, I literally arrived in a cloud of dust. The school was only 10 years old and the road wasn’t paved. I had been hired teach Shakespeare and start a theater program, but we didn’t have any theater or any performance space. And in those days, there was literally no money for anything — we had to figure it out.”
Ross figured it out, and then some. For more about Ross and his accomplishments, see this week’s One-on-One on page 4.
He conceived TheatreWorks as a partnership between the university and the community, performing wherever they could, shifting focus when necessary, stealing good ideas from other organizations and discarding failed initiatives when necessary.
“It was a completely different model from [that of] Colorado College and most other colleges,” Ross explained, “where the theater programs are of, by and for the students. We were an outreach program, engaging with the rest of the city.”
The first performance was in a makeshift space, originally a meeting/lecture room in the Penrose Hospital cancer ward.
A few years later, Ross “freely and happily lifted the idea of Shakespeare in the Park from Joe Papp,” the celebrated New York City producer who created the first summer Shakespeare festival. Early productions were mounted in a tent pitched below the Fine Arts Center in Monument Valley Park, a couple of hundred yards from the railroad tracks. Coal trains would rumble by periodically, sometimes causing actors to freeze in place until audiences could hear their lines.
Yet Shakespeare in the Park has been an enduring success, with a very long run. Now performed in the “festival tent” at Rock Ledge Ranch, this summer’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ran for 19 performances in July and August.
“The great thing about theater is that it’s always new, always a whole new world.”
– Murray Ross
As UCCS grew and prospered, so did TheatreWorks. A portion of a building acquired by UCCS from Compassion International was converted into a “black box” theater for the troupe.
Named the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater in memory of the late philanthropist and TheatreWorks supporter, the theater has since housed dozens of acclaimed productions.
“That first production in the cancer ward actually put us on a path to becoming what we are today — a regional professional theater company, one of only seven in the state,” said Ross. “It’s an unusual model for a university — Harvard and the Yale Rep are examples. We’re in pretty exalted company.”
That company will soon be even more exalted. In late 2017 or early 2018, Ross and TheatreWorks will move into the $60 million Ent Center for the Performing Arts, now under construction.
“It’s been like this mirage gleaming on the horizon decade after decade and now it’s real,” said Ross, 74. “I consider myself very fortunate. I’ve been paid — actually paid! — to do what I love, and that’s very rare. The great thing about theater is that it’s always new, always a whole new world. And when it’s done, it’s done. Once it’s gone, it’s truly gone. Like a sandcastle, you build it with flags and crenellated towers knowing that the tide will come in.”
Ross has no thoughts of retiring.
“I don’t feel that I’ve peaked at all,” he said cheerfully. “I’m looking forward to opening the new theater. Traditionally, you open with Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’ or ‘The Tempest.’ But I’ve been thinking about ‘Oklahoma!’ — a modern, stripped-down production, but with all the songs.
“‘Oklahoma!’ … wouldn’t that be fun?”