BETTY HART’S PRESIDENTIAL PROMISE: BUILD A BIGGER TENT
Betty Hart, introducing the 2019 Henry Awards with Robert Michael Sanders, is the Colorado Theatre Guild's new President.
The Colorado Theatre Guild has never lived up to its aspirational potential. But it has never had Betty Hart as its leader.
By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
Imagine one large advertisement in your Friday newspaper promoting all of a reader’s weekend theatergoing options. One authoritative website listing showtimes, interviews and previews. Theater companies working together on comprehensive issues such as public funding, unions, health insurance and script rights.
Imagine a unified ticketing system with a kiosk on the 16th Street Mall and outlets in every major record store that sells concert tickets. A weekly radio show dedicated to local theatre. Companies consulting one another on schedules to maximize potential exposure for all productions. Mounting cooperative panels, educational workshops and conferences for schools and their own community.
Imagine wielding enough collective economic clout to negotiate significant discounts on everything from lumber to office supplies to lobby concessions.
Those are words I penned for a Denver Post essay imagining a greater vision for the Colorado Theatre Guild – in 2002. The Guild had been launched four years before to serve as a powerful collective advocate for all things Colorado theatre. The spirits were willing ... but the time and the money were (and remain) weak.
Now in its 21st year, the Colorado Theatre Guild has never come close to realizing its potential, and for the most understandable of reasons: It is a collective of well-intentioned but nearly all-volunteer producers, patrons and performers with their own artistic allegiances and only so much available service time in their busy lives to help turn that potential into reality. Particularly over the past decade, during which the running joke has been Colorado theatre producers saying the only reason they maintain their membership in the Guild is to maintain their eligibility for its annual Henry Awards.
Then again, the Colorado Theatre Guild has never had Betty Hart, who last month was named its fourth president in just the past 10 years, as its leader.
“You have to believe and be willing to put your time and effort where your mouth is,” Hart said. “That is what I am about, and that's what I hope that I can bring. I think people believe that if I say something, I mean it. I will be the one who is willing to work the hardest.”
Hart already has taken a number of bold steps since she joined the CTG board in 2017 for one specific reason: To revamp the ever-controversial Henry Awards, both in how they are administered and how they are presented as the Guild’s annual fundraiser. After seamlessly transitioning the 2020 awards to a virtual platform, the Guild announced that the Henry Awards are being suspended for the next year. In part because so few shows are happening. More so to take the opportunity to completely rebuild the program from scratch. And that’s the right first step, according to Lake Dillon Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Christopher Alleman.
“If the main purpose of the Henry Awards is to serve as the major fundraiser for the Guild – then perhaps there is another avenue to achieve that goal,” he said. "If it is to celebrate the artistry of theatre in Colorado, then I think a restructuring is required.”
Hart’s agenda as CTG president is vast, aspirational – and not far off from the goals laid out in that 2002 essay. She wants the Guild to become the leading voice of advocacy for the Colorado theatre community. That means legislative issues. Awareness. Funding. Inclusion. All of it.
“I think we should be the ones generating those lovely form letters that you can send to anyone in government asking them to advocate for us,” Hart said. “That's something we haven't been doing, and I think that needs to change.”
In a landscape where rehearsal space is at a premium, Hart imagines more of our bricks-and-mortar companies sharing their space when it isn't being used. She imagines that long-dreamed-of universal downtown ticketing kiosk. She imagines the Guild acting as a clearinghouse for shared props, costumes and set pieces. She imagines a community that presents far more co-productions and collaborative productions. She imagines the Guild as a connecting source between directors and artists of color on and off stage. She imagines a Guild website that houses information on every active theatre artist in the state. She imagines the Guild hosting a unified annual audition that creates a new pipeline spotlighting newly graduated talent, newcomer talent, and trans and BiPOC talent.
But most of all, Hart imagines answering yes to what she considers to be the most important question: “Are we making sure that the tent is as large as it can be?”
If anyone can get any of that done in the here and now, says past Colorado Theatre Guild President Steve Wilson, it’s Hart.
“Betty is the right person for the job because she is a dynamic, intelligent and galvanizing leader,” said Wilson, who has been a Board member since the Guild’s beginnings in 1998. “In addition to being super-smart and a convener, she sees the whole Colorado theatre community in a way that will energize positive change.”
Hart comes to Colorado
Hart felt like an outsider when she arrived in Colorado in 2013, and it would be years before she felt like she was truly part of the local theatre community. That all changed in 2016, the year she starred in the Arvada Center’s “The Mountaintop,” an imagined conversation between Martin Luther King and a motel maid on the night before his assassination (pictured at right).
What changed? “Seeing how many needs there were,” said Hart, both in terms of equity and inclusion; as well as geography.
“I was seeing many phenomenal things happening, but we weren't all thinking of ourselves as one community – and I think that's important,” Hart said. “I think there are lessons to be learned from the incredible scenic design at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and lessons to be learned from some of the exquisite theatre at the late Edge Theatre. There's something to be said for all of it, but I didn't really hear people talking about it as one community. Everything was separate and siloed. I saw a metro Denver theatre community, a northern community, a southern community and a mountain community.
“That’s when I began to realize there was a purpose in me being here. I really feel like I was called to Colorado, and I think I really began to walk in that idea in 2016.”
Two years later, everyone who knows Colorado theatre knew who Betty Hart is. In 2018, she performed with the Lone Tree Arts Center, the Catamounts, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Colorado Springs TheatreWorks – winning a True West Award for her body of work.
“That year was a personal milestone,” she said. “All of it. That was just a tremendous opportunity to do so many different kinds of work.”
Her presidency now begins, of course, in the time of COVID. She sees a greater role for the Guild in helping member artists and companies through the crisis. And she is well aware that when the shutdown is finally over, there are inevitably going to be fewer Colorado theatre companies than when it started.
“I believe that all arts organizations are in the midst of the biggest challenge we have ever faced,” she said. “As the leader of a service organization, the question I have in my mind is, 'How can we help?' ‘How can we strengthen the theatre community in a time when we keep taking these body blows?’ I think the answer to that is to really work together in a newfound way so that we can shore up each other's strengths and weaknesses and help each other make it through this. I am able to collaborate well with others and get people to want to contribute to the solution. And that's really why I am in it. Because I think I can help.”
The Guild is taking action on that front by presenting a virtual panel called "Self-Care During Turbulent Times" at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 18. For that panel, Hart has gathered a doctor, a counselor and an interdisciplinary performance artist. "2020 has been a challenging year for the public and theatre community," Hart said. "Self-care is essential to our mental, physical and spiritual well-being."
Back to the beginning
The roots of the Colorado Theatre Guild stretch all the way back to 1976, when late Bonfils Theatre producer Henry Lowenstein joined with fellow Denver theatre patriarchs Ed Baierlein and Al Brooks to create the Colorado Theatre Producers Guild. Lowenstein described the local theatre community then as “small and siloed.” (That same word Hart invoked 44 years later.)
"No one talked to one another, and so no one knew what the other guys around town were doing," Lowenstein said of the local landscape in 1976. "Frankly, there was a lot of competition and animosity among theatres. Most of us had never even set foot in the other person's theater.”
Back then, Baierlein said, the Colorado Theatre Producers Guild “was a splendid tool to end the backbiting that took place among various producers and theaters." But by 1998, the time had come to open the organization up to the next generation of artistic leaders. “There is a new generation of producers for whom the Guild seems to be irrelevant, and there is a new fragmentation in the local theater community,” said Baierlein, who was President at the time. “It’s debilitating, and my time and energies can be better focused on other things.”
Lowenstein reached out to Melanie Mayner about taking the Guild into its next iteration. Mayner, who has been an active promoter of local theatre for decades, took on the job of launching the newly rebranded Colorado Theatre Guild and served for three years as its first president.
“I wanted it because I knew the Guild could be so much more than it was,” said Mayner. And her assessment of the Guild now, 21 years later? “I would say the Guild could be so much more than it is.”
Like Hart, Mayner sees the present Colorado theatre community as fractured, but not in an antagonistic way. “It just seems like people are off doing their own things,” Mayner said. "It doesn’t feel like companies are talking to each other. It was clear in 1998 that the community needed something like the Guild to make it more cohesive, and I think that’s where we are at again. That’s what makes Betty a brilliant choice. She’s a good collaborator. She’s smart and she’s passionate and she cares.”
The Colorado Theatre Guild is a nonprofit with a budget of only about $40,000 a year. The new board under Hart is made up of Iliana Barron, Lia Kozatch, Lisa Young, Brian Miller, Abner Genece, Mandi Hoffman and former presidents Steve Wilson, T. David Rutherford and Reece Livingstone. The only paid, part-time staffers are Barbara Thomas, who is given a $5,750 stipend to coordinate the Henry Awards balloting; and Becky Toma, who is paid $6,400 a year to manage the Guild’s recently relaunched website.
By comparison, Chicago has its League of Chicago Theatres, which has 230 member companies, nine employees and a budget to match. In the wake of COVID, the League launched the Chicago Theatre Workers Relief Fund, which paid $500 stipends to employed theatre artists at the time of the shutdown. Its website is hosting all of its member companies’ virtual theatre offerings and acting as a leading voice on issues like mental-health care, union negotiations and Black Lives Matter. In normal times, the League allocates $232,000 a year in creative grants; sells 83,000 discounted tickets a year through its Hot Tix website; serves more than 1,000 artists and administrators through its professional development programs; hosts an annual citywide Theatre Week as well as an August Wilson Monologue Competition for 1,200 ChicagoLand high school students; and prints and distributes 44,000 Chicago theatre guides a year.
The Colorado Theatre Guild, by Wilson’s affectionate comparison, “is the little engine that is always trying to get up that hill.”
But if anyone can take it there, Mayner said, it’s Hart.
“I think Betty will definitely give the Guild that new injection of enthusiasm and passion that it badly needs,” Mayner said. “One of the things that has been missing in recent years has been getting people to the table, and she’s really good at that. No one is going to make it alone. We have to move forward together. Betty can do that.”
'No one is going to make it alone. We have to move forward together. Betty can do that.' – Melanie Mayner
Betty Hart, left, and Amanda Berg Wilson, behind her, were set to co-direct 'David Byrne's 'Theatre of the Mind' for the Denver Center when COVID hit. Photo by Adams VisCom.
An actor by age 3
Betty Hart was born in Miami to a father who was a public-school teacher and a mother who was a histopathologist – that's someone responsible for diagnosing tissue and organ diseases such as cancer, colitis and Crohn's disease. It was a brainy if lonely upbringing, she said. “I preferred books to people.” But it was also at that time she fell in love with theatre.
“My mother says she knew that I was going to be an actor at age 3,” Hart said. She took classes at the Coconut Grove Children's Theatre and performed in plays at school and church. “I was the lead in a dental-hygiene play where I played Tilly the Tooth,” she says with pride.
She moved with her mother and brother to Atlanta, where she went to high school before attending Whittier College to study theatre in California.
“Growing up, it was always a question of whether I would go into theatre, politics, medicine or education,” she said. “My dad always said, ‘Don't become a teacher,’ so that's how education got off the list. I loved medicine, but I didn't want to be ‘Dr. Hart in cardiology,’ because that was just too simple. I was really interested in neurosurgery, but that involved testing on humans. Politics is something I enjoy, but I found that you can't really be a person of integrity and a politician at the same time. So I decided on the arts.”
Hart was accepted into the grad program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, but she stayed for only one semester, she said, “because of some interesting dynamics with my classmates.” Translated, she says: “I was not on scholarship, and I took the training far more seriously than others who were attending for free.” The Betty Hart the Colorado community has come to know is not one to sit idly by for no evident purpose, so it should come as no surprise that she instead charted a course of independent study. “I stayed in Europe and went to see lots of theatre and learned about art in a different way,” she said.
She returned to Atlanta to help care for a Nana she considered to be “my favorite human being on the face of the Earth.” Ironically, it was her day job that set her on a path to pursue a simultaneous life in both theatre and education. Hart worked for Kaiser Permanente’s educational theatre programs for more than 10 years, where she facilitated stress-management workshops for business and nonprofit groups while also directing topical plays for teens and adults covering everything from HIV prevention to healthy eating to grief management. She then took those skills to Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where she worked as a Teaching Artist for nearly three years.
It was in those two professional experiences, she said, "that I discovered this other gift outside of acting and directing – and that is facilitation. There is always wisdom in every room, and in facilitation, I help find it."
The move to Colorado in 2013 was sealed by family and a job offer. Hart was asked to lead the facilitation team within Kaiser's Arts Integrated Resources program in Colorado. Hart’s brother and his family already were living here. “So it was a two-fer,” she said. “My dad had died a year and a half before, so when the opportunity came to be closer to family, I took it. The loss of a parent is a big thing, and it causes you to re-evaluate and really decide what's important. And family became much more important to me. To be near my brother, my incredible nephews and my sister-in-law was a real gift.”
She was also drawn to Colorado, like so many others, for its skiing. And, like so many others, she admits, “I haven't skied once since I have been here. Isn't that crazy?”
The challenge ahead
Now seven years later, it’s hard to remember a Colorado theatre community with Hart not yet in it. Particularly over the past three years, when she has been just about everywhere: She took over the Henry Awards, and their administration. She has performed all over the state. She directed Denver First Lady Mary Louise Lee in the Denver Center’s searing production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” (recalling one of the last days in Billie Holiday’s tragic life), and again in Vintage Theatre’s “Crowns.” She was set to assist on the direction of David Byrne’s“Theatre of the Mind” for the Denver Center when COVID hit.
She has participated in everything from the Sie Film Center's weekly “Wire Wednesdays” film series to curating and producing the Arvada Center’s powerful “Amplify,” which recently gave 30 Black men and women a platform to express themselves in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
At a time when American businesses at every level are undergoing a reckoning for their past policies and privileges favoring white men, the time could not be more right for the Colorado Theatre Guild to be led by only its third woman and first African American. But Hart knows she is entering an unpaid service job that comes without great expectations – except her own. Here’s how our conversation went on how she expects to forever change the Colorado Theatre Guild’s standing in the local theatre community:
John Moore: What do you see as the reason for the Colorado Theatre Guild’s existence?
Betty Hart: We are here to help support and undergird the Colorado theatre community. To help foster relationships among the Colorado theatre community. To promote theatre excellence. To promote the vibrancy of our theatre community to the public. And to really celebrate the art form that is live theatre.
John Moore: What would you say to those people who see the Colorado Theatre Guild as an underperforming organization that exists only to administer the Henry Awards?
Betty Hart: I can only speak to the past few years, but yeah, I can definitely understand why people would have that impression. But that is mostly because some of the work that we do is behind the scenes, and we really haven't done a great job of marketing it. For example, there are members of the local press who have told me they had no idea of the changes we have been making to the Henry Awards since back in 2017. That’s on us.
(Pictured: Betty Hart has twice directed award-winning actor and Denver First Lady Mary Louise Lee.)
John Moore: What else have you been up to behind the scenes?
Betty Hart: We joined with the Rocky Mountain Artist Safety Alliance in the creation of a living document on Colorado Safety Standards that is similar to Chicago's "Not in My House" initiative. In addition to being a response to the “Me Too” movement, this document promotes the safety of everyone in theatre both onstage and backstage, from basic health concerns to preventing sexual harassment. That is something we have been working on for several years now. We want to be part of helping to make Colorado theatre safer.
John Moore: What happens next with that?
Betty Hart: We need to make sure that every single theatre producer has these Colorado Safety Standards in their hands, whether they are Colorado Theatre Guild members or not, because we don't want anyone to be in a position where they have to put up with being sexually harassed. We have formed a subcommittee headed by Lara Maerz to make sure those standards are distributed to the entire theatre community.
John Moore: This year, a group of respected women in the local theatre community responded to the George Floyd murder and ongoing institutional bias in the theatre community by creating IDEA Stages, advocating for inclusivity, diversity, equity and access. It’s a wonderful, organic effort. But isn’t that the kind of initiative the CTG should be heading?
Betty Hart: There is every desire and intention for the Guild to come alongside IDEAs and help to promote the great work that they are doing. When you talk about the Colorado Safety Standards and IDEA Stages, that is the work of two separate organizations, but they work in tandem. When you think about safety, you are not just thinking about sexual safety – you are also thinking about psychological safety. The safety to be yourself at work. The safety to not be dismissed because of who you are. The safety to have your needs met if you are in a wheelchair, or differently mobile, or differently sighted, or differently hearing. So when we talk about promoting the Colorado Theatre Standards, that absolutely goes hand-in-hand with helping to promote the incredible work that IDEA Stages is doing. Our goals are the same. Just as we partnered with the Rocky Mountain Artists Safety Alliance, we absolutely want to partner with IDEA Stages, too.
John Moore: What’s one big, out-of-the-box new idea you might be mulling?
Betty Hart: I am imagining an annual Colorado Theatre Guild service project. When you think about theatre people, we have all these different skill sets. What if there were, say, a theatre that desperately needs repairs to be done, and they don't have the capital to do it? What if we marshaled ourselves as a theatre community and said, 'You know what? This year we are going to help this one company.’ Or, what if we decided to go and build a house for Habitat for Humanity? If we did that, I bet that everybody on that block would remember the theatre community for years to come. That’s another way of exposing people to us.
John Moore: I hear you are soon going to be delivering a TEDx Talk?
Betty Hart: Yes, I will be talking about how to use compassion as a tool to cancel 'cancel culture.' It is being presented by TEDx Cherry Creek Woman in conjunction with the global TEDWomen conference. The live stream will begin at 10 a.m. MST on November 14. (Register here)
John Moore: Until this COVID shutdown ends, we are in this odd moment of intermission that provides us an opportunity to change some of the things that are institutionally wrong with the American theatre. What do you think needs to change, and how can you and the Colorado Theatre Guild be part of that change?
Betty Hart: Well, we can start by actually asking some of these big questions publicly. We can have conversations where we get to hear from artists who are struggling, who perhaps have some solutions that maybe no one has ever considered because no one has asked them. I think the way theatre works, and certainly Colorado is not exceptional in this way, has always been that the theatre companies make the rules, and then the artists have to dance to that tune. But is that the best way? Is that the only way to make great art? I think it is time to examine all of those systems. Everyone has to navigate this thing called rent and the expensive nature of living in our state. What can we do to help people to both do the things that they have to do to get bills paid, and be able to do the work that they love and that feeds their soul? I don’t know that we have been asking those big questions.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine during his time at The Denver Post. He also is the founder of The Denver Actors Fund, and is now contributing reports for the local theatre community for ArvadaCenter.Org. Reach him at email@example.com.
Betty Hart/At a glance
Recent directing credits include “The Scottsboro Boys” for Vintage Theatre, “Hooded: or being black for dummies” at the Aurora Fox and “Crowns” at Vintage Theatre. Recent acting credits include “Caroline, or Change” at the Aurora Fox Arts Center, “Barnum” at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, “The Last Apple Tree” for The Catamounts and “Richard III” and “You Can’t Take It With You” for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. She was nominated for a Henry Award as Outstanding Leading Actress for playing Camae in “The Mountaintop” at the Arvada Center, and she won a True West Award for her body of work in 2018.