Eli’s coming: DCPA protégé is now running Trinidad’s summer theatre
John Moore Senior Arts Journalist Denver Center for the Performing Arts
(originally published 7/19/18) At only age 25, Arvada native Eli Carpenter is determined not only to contribute to the national theatre conversation, but lead it.
At 25, Eli Carpenter recently became the youngest Artistic Director of any established Colorado theatre company when he was selected to run the venerable Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre In Trinidad. The Arvada native, who cut his teeth as an assistant director at the knee of former DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Kent Thompson, has replaced retiring founder Fred Vaugeois at the helm of the 16-year-old summer company 200 miles south of Denver.
“The truth is, I’m surprised by where I’ve found myself today,” said Carpenter, a graduate of New York University whose inaugural season runs through Aug. 19. His Denver Center credits include Sweeney Todd and The Christians with Kent Thompson; The Secret Garden with Jenn Thompson; and Frankenstein with Tony Award-nominee Sam Buntrock.“
Two years ago, I sat next to Kent Thompson waiting for a preview performance of Sweeney Todd to begin,” said Carpenter. “I shared with him my goal of becoming an artistic director in the next 20 years. Without looking at me he said: ‘Don’t plan on it taking that long. Things move more quickly than you’d think.’
”Turns out, he was right.
Like many new Artistic Directors, Carpenter is surrounding himself in Trinidad with artists he knows and trusts. and in his case, that means lots of fellow Denver School of the Arts graduates. His 2018 creative team includes eight DSA grads from across a 10-year span. That group includes:
Sisters Jamie and Jacquie Jo Billings: “The Billings sisters carry the incredible legacy of their family in Denver following their late grandfather, P.K. Worley of the Evergreen Players, and their late mother, Brenda Billings, who was the Artistic Director at Miners Alley Playhouse and President of the Denver Actors Fund,” Carpenter said. This summer the pair are playing onstage sisters in Fly By Night; Jacquie Jo is playing the titular role of Eva Peron in Evita; and Jamie is directing God of Carnage (opening Friday, July 20).
Jimmy Bruenger is the SCRT’s new Associate Artistic Director and is directing Evita and choreographing Fly By Night. Bruenger has been performing on area stages since he was 8, including playing Gavroche in the Arvada Center’s Les Misérables.
Owen Nuss: Technical Director and Scenic Designer
Austin Allen: Lighting Designer
Zachary Reeve Davidson: Actor
Linnea Scott: Assistant director
Colorado has nearly 100 theatre companies and plenty of summer theatregoing options throughout the state. But Carpenter is confident that for anyone who loves live theatre, the drive to Trinidad will be worth it. He’s even offering a “Denver Deals” discount to prove it (details at the bottom of this story).
“We are incredibly proud of the unique programming we’re offering this summer,” he said. “Between the powerful and heartwarming Colorado premiere of Fly By Night; a fresh and unique approach to an intimate Evita; and world-premiere readings and devised pieces, we are offering theatregoers a bold amount of work that simply can’t be seen anywhere else.”
Jacquie Jo Billings stars in ‘Evita.’ Cody Schuyler Photography
Here is more of our conversation with Carpenter about his time with the Denver Center and his plans for running the Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre:
John Moore: How did your time at the DCPA prepare you for this huge step in your young administrative career?
Eli Carpenter: Working with Kent Thompson, Emily Tarquin and Grady Soapes my first year out of college gave me a crash-course in the ins-and-outs of running a regional theatre. Of course, there are significant differences between administering one of the largest regional theatres in the country and a summer repertory theatre. However, the ultimate task of telling a story to an audience is the same, no matter the scale.
John Moore: Tell us a little of the history of the SCRT, and your new role in it.
Eli Carpenter: After retiring from an illustrious directing and theatre-administration career in Los Angeles, Fred and Harriet Vaugeois had planned to retire in Trinidad. However, as it often goes, they were pulled back into the arts here, and they opened the SCRT. I connected with them two years ago to begin discussions about directing for their company in coming seasons. My appointment follows a long-held commitment from the board for SCRT to act as a launching pad for artists in the early stages of their careers. For their second Artistic Director, they wanted someone at the helm with the energy, passion and enthusiasm to manage a company in the heart of a small town. Go to our complete gallery of 2018 SCRT photos John Moore: The SCRT always has had strong Denver connections in its summer companies: Daniel Langhoff, Kent Randell, Courtney Capek and Jake Williamson come to mind. Why was it important for you to continue that tradition?
Eli Carpenter: One of the benefits of Jimmy Bruenger and myself leading the SCRT has been our Denver connections. While we have drawn from wonderful talent from across the country to build this season, we’re especially proud that more than 50 percent of our company lives in or grew up in Denver. We planned this first season in part based on certain Denver artists we hoped would be available to join us.
Jimmy Bruenger, left, and Eli Carpenter. Cody Schuyler Photography.
John Moore: What is the SCRT’s place in the Colorado theatre ecology?
Eli Carpenter: Our mission is to bring diverse entertainment and cultural enrichment to southern Colorado. We provide education and performance opportunities for local residents of all ages. As an anchor of the ongoing renovation of downtown Trinidad, we help bolster the local economy by bringing tourism and pride to Trinidad.
John Moore: How would you describe your inaugural season in overall terms?
Eli Carpenter: We’ve dubbed 2018 as our “Season with a Splash.” When making changes, do you throw a pebble in the pond and see what happens, or do you throw a boulder — a boulder of change — experience the splash, and watch the ripples? That was our question. And we chose to heave a boulder. We are looking to take the SCRT from a local regional theatre to a nationally recognized arts organization. And, I just don’t think you get there by tossing pebbles.
John Moore: What do we need to know about Fly By Night?
Eli Carpenter: Fly By Night takes the audience on a year-long odyssey following a trio of young lovers navigating life, love, loss, how the three connect, and how we manage when power goes out. The connecting thread between these human experiences is the ever-present grief of moving through life and how experiencing love also means an inevitable loss. When I saw this play in New York four years ago, I was moved in a way I am hard-pressed to describe. I felt a greater understanding of what it means to be human. In my first season as Artistic Director, I felt like this was the perfect piece to represent myself as an artist, a director and an artistic leader. For me, Fly By Night helps us to know that the contradictions of life are really the beauty of life. We will have experiences of great joy but also great sadness. And that sadness is not a flaw of life but a natural part of it.
John Moore: Evita isn’t new, but how you are doing it may be.
Eli Carpenter: When Jimmy Bruenger and I started talking about what big musicals could fit in our 100-seat space, he introduced me to a concept he’s developed for Evita that sets the entire show inside a tango bar in the heart of Buenos Aires on the night of Eva Peron’s death. This production utilizes a storytelling environment and approach where the inhabitants of the bar tell the story of Eva’s life. In this conceptualized version we discover the story to be more intimate and focused on Eva’s own point of view.
John Moore: You have a lot of other stuff going on this summer. Tell us about some of that.
Eli Carpenter with Kent Thompson in rehearsal for the DCPA Theatre Company’s 2017 staging of ‘The Christians.’ Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Eli Carpenter: This season, I am thrilled to introduce our inaugural Writer-in-Residence, Alexander Sage Oyen. He’s an artist on the verge of an explosive career. Alexander has written many musicals, won many awards and his work has been presented all over America and in venues in Thailand, London and The Netherlands. In the second half of the summer, Alex will join us for a two-week workshop of a new musical he is writing that will one day receive a world-premiere public presentation by the SCRT. Additionally, we will present a devised piece of “verbatim theatre” created by Jamie Billings based on recorded audio interviews with Trinidad residents. We also will host a cabaret called “Next 15” directed by Jimmy Bruenger that features work both from Alexander Sage Oyen and other shows you might expect to see at the SCRT sometime in the next 15 years.
John Moore: For better or worse, some people will always associate Trinidad as “the sex-change capital.” Give us a more fair and up-to-date overview of the town today.
Eli Carpenter: In 2013, Trinidad was certified as a Colorado Creative District. Most recently this has led to Trinidad Artspace. It’s a demonstration project for Space to Create, a state-led initiative to create affordable workforce housing and workspace in rural Colorado communities. Trinidad Artspace will transform an entire downtown block on Main Street into working artist residencies, galleries, as well as community and commercial space that includes performance, event and retail opportunities. The project also will include the new construction of additional housing on nearby vacant land within walking distance to Main Street, creating 41 total housing units and more than 20,000 square feet of creative and community space.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
The Denver-infused, 2018 Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre Company. Cody Schuyler Photography
Southern Colorado Repertory Theatre: 2018-19 season
At the Famous Performing Arts Center, 131 W Main St., Trinidad, 719-846-4765 or scrtheatre.com
Through Aug. 17: Evita
Through Aug. 19: Fly by Night
July 20-Aug. 18: God of Carnage
Denver Deals: The SCRT is offering $30 on all performances through July 22. $80 to see all three shows between July 27 and Aug. 19, Call the box office and ask for the Denver Deals.
Bonus coverage: Eli Carpenter in the Spotlife
Twitter-sized bio: Eli splits his time between NYC, Trinidad and Denver. He loves landscape photography, the color taupe and his dog.
One time you saw greatness play out in front of you: In college I saw a production of Ragtimestaged in a black box. The end of Act One usually ends in a large, anthemic number called “Till We Reach That Day.” However, because the production needed to fit the intimacy of a black box, the number was re-orchestrated and re-conceived as a smaller, softer, more heart-wrenching funeral march. This was such an incredible lesson for me that the space a piece is in can — and should — completely dictate the shape of each moment of a story.
What are you listening to on your Spotify? It feels bland and unoriginal, but I can’t turn off Sara Bareilles
What is one thing most people don’t know about you? My very favorite class in college was American Sign Language. I am by no means fluent but the language is incredibly beautiful. And its relationship to dance as a means of physical communication is highly intriguing to me.
What’s one simple thing we should be doing to nurture and foster the next generation of theatregoers? Reinvention is always necessary. The old rules of audiences never using phones in the theatre, staying quiet, and disappearing into the dark will have to change as theatre consumers’ sensibilities change.
What’s one thing you want to get off your chest? I’m pretty darn passionate, serious and committed to Creme Brûlée. I have a personal and longstanding rule that if Creme Brûlée is on the menu, I must order the Creme Brûlée. It’s not a choice — it’s mandatory.