Where there was once a bustling Denver theater scene becoming more interesting by the year — more experimentation, funkier musicals, explorations of race, sex and identity, immersive events featuring food and drink — there has been a long silence, despite some outdoor performances and a fair amount of video streaming. One of the most intriguing — and so far most silent — Front Range companies has been Benchmark Theatre.
Rachel Rogers, co-founder with Haley Johnson, left in January. Johnson herself gave birth last fall to a son. Scheduled plays were canceled; there were no outdoor performances or streaming videos. So we couldn’t help wondering whether Benchmark had gone dark for good.
Now, the answer seems to be a confident no: Benchmark has just announced a reorganization. Although we won’t be seeing a full in-house production again until the end of the year, the company seems to have the organizational skills to come roaring back.
A core group of four who intend to make this happen has just been announced. Johnson will remain executive director, with film and theater expert Neil Truglio named artistic director. Producer-actor-singer Abby Apple Boes will oversee management, and Marc Stith, who has been with Benchmark since the beginning, will deal with outside communication, among other things. All are multi-talented and will take on multiple tasks, from cleaning the bathroom to directing, making decisions on scripts and occasionally appearing on stage themselves. Apple Boes is known as a fine singer, and “I could imagine singing,” she says. “I even have a few ideas in mind that I can’t share because they’re not fully worked out yet.”
“We all have clear roles and marching orders,” says Truglio, “but we rely on each other quite a bit.”
The question for audiences is what we can expect to see. Many companies have a recognizable identity. If you go to a show at Curious Theatre, you expect contemporary scripts and a strong political consciousness. At the Arvada Center, there are lively musicals and, in the organization’s Black Box, occasional modern or locally written shows along with comfortable but beautifully executed oldies. Benchmark was always a tease. You might see anything in that intimate space, from a touching story about a kid searching for his identity under the anxious eyes of his hovering parents to a gentle Christmas comedy that originated with a script written in Hungary in 1936 to a production of 1984 that seared the skin off your body.
Benchmark has selected a general theme of “aftermath” for the next season, which sounds intriguing but also somewhat amorphous.
Truglio leans socio-political, the new artistic director says, “more theater of social responsibility. But I’m just one voice in a number of incredible artists in this town, and I want Benchmark to reflect the community it serves. We have an opportunity to be as creative as possible while looking to change the way audiences experience theater.
“That’s what I’m mostly about — disruption. Altering the traditions and making new forms of storytelling," Truglio adds. "I come from a strong film background, and I bring a lot of cinema to my theater, so expect more film-theater integration as well as non-traditional opportunities for stories.”
Truglio notes that he has a background in the traditional canon, but “we also have an opportunity to create new devised work and showcase local writers.”
Over the years, Benchmark has assembled an impressive team of artists whom the company intends to try and keep, including Warren Sherrill, one of Denver’s finest directors, and playwright Jeffrey Neuman, who will remain as literary adviser.
“Not only is he a tremendous writer,” says Truglio of Neuman, “but he’s got his finger on the pulse of what not only local, but national playwrights are doing.” Truglio also sees Benchmark as a place for community input and creation, and he’s asking for suggestions and proposals.
“We want to open it up and have it be a conversation,” he says. “The door’s not shut. It’s not a homework assignment.”
Truglio feels that the idea of aftermath provides an opportunity for reflection.
“So much happened in the past year while we were mostly dark, from the pandemic to major social issues," he explains. "I felt it was important to focus our attention and create the space to talk about it through the art form we use to tell stories. But aftermath doesn’t have to be only about the pandemic or injustice. What did we learn over the last year? How did we grow? Who do we want to be? Those are some of the essential questions we are asking."
Truglio and Apple Boes are both very aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We think about BLM with everything we do,” says Apple Boes. She attended part of the three-part workshop series on the topic hosted by the Colorado Theatre Guild and IDEA Stages (Ideas). “It is a very tricky thing to address,” she observes. “We want to be involved and hear from the community about what makes sense, what will address those issues: Where are you coming from, and what do we need to do?”
Benchmark's space in Lakewood has always had an ethos and atmosphere of its own. When Rick and Patty Yaconis ran the Edge Theater there, the lobby was brightly lit, and after-show parties tended to be loud, happy and gossipy, no matter how serious the production.
With the arrival of Benchmark in 2017, the venue’s atmosphere darkened, becoming more shadowed and ruminative. Now, according to Truglio, he and the others are thinking about different ways to interact with audiences.
“I believe the audience experience begins long before the show starts,” he says. “I want to extend that experience from how audiences first interact with us on the website or on social media to the parking lot, to the lobby, through the show and after it. They should expect to interact with us differently for each experience.”
“I love to host,” says Apple Boes, “and so it’s going to be exciting to work with this team on getting the theater in order, changing how the front lobby works and what we offer up as far as concessions and overall experience.”
The future looks hopeful. Apple Boes has experience as a producer, having worked with actor-writer John Ashton to run the now-defunct Avenue Theater for a year, and she also has a strong business background in sales.
“We’re actually on good, firm ground financially and organizationally,” she says. “There’s always a need for more funding, but Benchmark is really resourceful. We know how to create a season that meets the budget that we have.
“I feel fantastic about it,” she adds. “I’ve been looking for an opportunity like this, and I’ve been a big fan of Benchmark since their inception.”
Truglio agrees that the ground “is as solid as any theater company that’s dark right now. Being small and lean has helped us to survive, as well as pivot, improve and grow. I think we’re in an if-we-build-it-they-will-come space. We don’t have to sell 500 tickets a show to keep the doors open, and that keeps us in a place of creative excitement.”
For more information, visit Benchmark online.