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Theater group all grown up

Ryan Graff

In 1995 Lon Winston sat at the drafting table near the window of his old A-frame house close to Cattle Creek.He had retired from the graduate theater program at Villanova University and decided that a 25-year-old dream had waited long enough. Winston’s dream was a permanent, professional theater company in Carbondale focusing on plays that reflect the Roaring Fork Valley’s culture, brought theater to schools, and helped bridge the gap between Latinos and Anglos in the valley.Winston asked Glenwood Springs actor Valerie Haugen to help, and today the Thunder River Theatre Company is a 10-year-old kid that is already all grown up.The company has 12 full-time members and a theater guild. It has taken shows to Denver and Dartmouth College, and is building a theater. “We’re doing what we said we’d do,” Winston said during the TRTC’s 23rd production, “Seascape.” “We’re building a theater. I mean, that’s huge.” Winston wasn’t exaggerating. When the TRTC went looking for grants for a building in 1995, the group didn’t stand a chance, Haugen, a founding TRTC member, said. “Theater’s never last,” they were told, said Haugen. That’s a far cry from the message they’ve gotten lately though, with the town of Carbondale likely donating $100,000 for a new TRTC theater. Some of the details of the agreement between Carbondale and TRTC are still to be hashed out, but “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for it,” said Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig. Not only is Carbondale not worried that TRTC won’t be around in a few years, city council is also hoping the theater “will serve as a catalyst for further investment in the historical core of downtown,” Hassig said.TRTC hopes to close on the land mid-January and to start construction by early March, Winston said. For the TRTC’s first 23 productions, the group has been in eight different theater spaces, and carting all costumes, lights, props, risers – and even the audience’s “three-hour” chairs – around. But getting to this point has been relatively smooth sailing, Haugen and Winston said. “I think I ate a note once,” Haugen said, but that was as bad as it’s ever gotten. Winston, who was directing, gave Haugen a note she disagreed with. But, “He was absolutely right, and I ate it.”Winston said he’s never questioned the TRTC, and now that the group will likely have a building, he’s started planning again. “My dream now is to have a theater with our name on the building that is a destination,” he said. He wants to draw theatergoers not only from the valley, but also from around the state and the nation. Winston is well on his way, with great exposure over the last few years. Winston and Haugen’s presented the TRTC’s production of “Greek Shards – Medea” at Dartmouth College at the beginning of 2004. “It took us from having a local reputation to having a national reputation,” Haugen said. The Mexican consulate in Denver also came to a TRTC production of “The Bishop Has Her Day,” a play by Mexican Rafael Solana, but TRTC translated for their Latino theater initiative. Of course, Winston and Haugen haven’t carried the theater alone. “We’ve got really good people in the company,” Winston said. “If I figured out what my actors were paid by the hour, they’d make a buck an hour.” But TRTC never has been about the money. Back in 1995, the Valley Journal published a story on Winston starting a theater company. Never once did the article mention money, but it did cover how Winston felt about theater, about a moment that exists only once before “It folds, it goes away.” “That’s what I love about theater,” Winston said. Despite all TRTC’s changes, some things have stayed the same. Last fall, during “Seascape” rehearsals, Winston again returned to the power of theater. “Your actor is vulnerable in space and time,” he said. “It’s immediate, it’s what the actors and the audience are experiencing at that moment in time.”That’s the magic of live theater.”


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