Monday Profile: Corey Simpson followed his heart back to the theater
Thunder River Theatre Company director mapped a different course before returning to his first love
Corey Simpson knows exactly when it happened — the moment he first fell in love with theater.
As an ensemble chorus member and soloist in a production of “A Christmas Carol” at the famed Guthrie Theatre in his hometown of Minneapolis, a then 9-year-old Simpson was awestruck by the talent and dedication of the production’s actors.
“I was a young performer seeing world-class artists on stage, and watching them warming up, and watching this magical process unfold through rehearsal,” Simpson said. “And suddenly there’s this incredible show that appears before your eyes.”
Simpson, who is now the Executive Director of Thunder River Theatre Company, had actually been introduced into the world of performing artists years earlier when as a toddler he accompanied his parents, who were professional drummers, on tour.
“I grew up in the pit while my parents were playing drums right next to me. So I caught the theater bug early from being around lots of creative performers,” Simpson said.
After graduating valedictorian from his high school, Simpson — one of the rare creative types who also excelled at math and science — decided to enroll at CU-Boulder in its aerospace engineering program.
“I had been involved in theater for so long, but I felt that I should do the responsible thing and pursue a career in engineering,” he said. “I made it through all of the weed-out classes, like all of my engineering calculus, my engineering physics, my differential equations, and then I said ‘I’ve really had enough of math, and my heart is still over on that side of campus where the theater department is.’”
Simpson took one theater class, against the advice of his advisor, and the following semester changed his major to theater. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting.
“After college I went to Alaska and did Shakespeare and I did a couple tours around the country with shows and ended up back in Minneapolis where I did theater for a couple years and commercials,” Simpson said “By that point I had been doing theater professionally for so long that I was burned out. So I took a long break from it.”
Simpson took a job as Director of Internet Development for National Geographic Maps where he worked for for 9 years.
“Then I came to the realization that I should go explore the world that you’re supposed to see when you work for National Geographic,” he said. “So my partner at the time and I sold our house and sold most of our possessions, and each of us packed a backpack and we headed on an around the world trip, landing first in Thailand.”
After 9 months of traveling around Southeast Asia, Simpson got the unfortunate news that his grandmother was very sick, so he flew back to see her before she passed away.
Having sold their home, Simpson and his partner moved in for a short time with Simpson’s mom and stepdad who were living in the Roaring Fork Valley, and “fell in love with the place.”
Simpson’s mom was the music director for the children’s theater group Jayne Gottlieb Productions at the time, but got called away to tend to a sick relative, so Simpson stepped in to direct two children’s shows that she had been working on. That turned into four years of him working with the children’s theater on 26 different productions. By the end of that he had caught the bug to be onstage again.
“I ended up doing a show with the Aspen Fringe Festival,” Simpson said. “When you are an actor in this valley and people see you onstage, you become a very busy human being because there’s so much opportunity here.”
The Fringe Festival gig unfolded into many different opportunities for Simpson with Aspen Community Theater and eventually Thunder River Theatre Company.
Simpson actually turned down his first offer of a role in a TRTC production because he’d already accepted another one in an Aspen Community Theatre production. But when TRTC founder and director Lon Winston asked him to audition for a role in the TRTC production of “All My Sons,” he accepted.
“That was an incredible experience,” Simpson said. “It felt like the studio work I had done in college, just really getting into the material – actors working through their motivations together and juicy, fun, interesting, engaging work. I really caught the bug again after that because it was the kind of work that I wanted to be doing.”
After casting Simpson in the role of Laertes in the TRTC production of “Hamlet,” Winston had a surprise in store for him.
“We were partway through rehearsals and Lon invited me to dinner at his home with his wife Debra, and in the middle of a bite Lon asked, ‘How would you feel about running Thunder River Theatre Company?’” Simpson said.
Simpson told Winston that he’d always dreamed of running a theater company, so the two started talking about ideas, getting to know each other better, and making plans for what the transition might look like.
“During that time, (Winston) had a recurrence of his cancer, and at that point the transition became immediate,” Simpson said. “So I jumped in full force and Lon eventually went into remission again.”
Simpson said the experience that stands out the most for him so far at TRTC was directing the theater’s production of “Equus” in 2018.
“That was a scary choice and it was an incredible cast of actors who were so committed and excited about this work,” he said. “We were all pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones and learning new things about our craft. It’s one of those processes that every actor dreams of, which is going into rehearsal every night and being so immersed with other artists that you get out of your own way and get into the zone and just let your creativity take over the process.”
Regarding his love of theater, Simpson said, “I love that the creative experience of producing theater, whether that’s directing or acting, transports me and allows me to be my best, most creative self. And I love that in my role at TRTC I have the opportunity to give others a place to do that same thing. And that in addition to the creation of that, we get to bring the audience along on that journey with us, and we all learn something about ourselves together through that experience.
“Theater was always a way as a gay man to feel like I had a place where that was accepted and celebrated and I was a part of everyone else when I was onstage or off at a theater. With what our country is experiencing right now, I’m so humbled by having an environment where we all respect and hold one another up. I wish that everyone in the world could have the experience of having that kind of family.”
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