For the first time in more than two decades, Chip Walton and Dee Covington, co-founders of the Curious Theatre Company, won’t be at the helm of the Denver institution for the opening-night launch of the new season, its 25th. Instead, Jada Suzanne Dixon will introduce the opener on Sept. 10, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” in her new role as artistic director.
It’s a major institutional transition that comes with Walton and Covington’s blessing but also with the married duo’s mindful intent. Shepherding new leadership and stepping back is a founder’s dilemma. Doing it well is often the last, best test of prioritizing vision over ego. How do you leave a place in a strong artistic position? How do you uncouple an organization’s identity from its founder’s personality? Think Apple and Steve Jobs, or New York’s Public Theater and Joe Papp.
There’s an art to letting go, and these two theater artists are deep into the practice of it, each in his or her own way. Walton and Covington are enthusiastic in their trust of Dixon as the new leader of Curious. But what of their own immense shift?
“The timing has probably been the absolute clearest part of the transition for me. I feel very congruent, and grateful, about this timing,” Walton said in an email. “I think that it is probably a nexus of needing a professional break after 25 years of building an organization from the ground up, and the personal desire to create some space in my life for other things: family, spirituality, new adventures.”
On a recent phone call, Covington agreed, “It’s just time to make changes. And I think the 25th anniversary is also a wonderful time to make changes. People look to that milestone as a time of growth as opposed to stasis. So, it’s such a great moment in Curious’ history to elevate and make change.”
That history is rife with plays that introduced local theatergoers to the best and brightest new writers — among them Tarell Alvin McCraney, Dominique Morriseau, Antoinette Nwandu, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Matthew Lopez — often performed by some of the finest actors in town. It connected them to foundational playwrights such as Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Tracy Letts, Edward Albee, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Sarah Ruhl and Yasmina Reza.
Curious plays are consistently edgier than those mounted by the nearby and better-resourced Denver Center Theatre Company. But taken together, the two theaters provide locals a sense of the breadth of the American theater. And their complementary co-existence has signaled to theater-makers throughout the country that Denver has the goods to be a hub.
What the Curious transition will look like onstage in the near future isn’t likely to startle longtime fans of Denver’s lodestar independent theater. (More on the 2022-’23 season in the Post’s upcoming Fall Theater Preview.) The motto “No Guts, No Story” is by now hardwired into Curious’ ethic. Dixon, who was named artistic producer last fall before garnering this new title, has been part of that cultural ethos for more than a decade.
What it looks like for two theater professionals so bound to the work but each with their own style and skillset will be an unfolding story.
“Chip and I are really different people, and I think that’s being reflected in our exits,” says Covington. “I feel it a lot in my heart, just walking away. What that will be like and how exactly that happens, I’m still carving that out with Jada. She’s been great. She said, ‘You can stay as long as you want and do whatever you want.’ ”
In November, she’ll direct Lloyd Suh’s ”Franklinland,” a father-son rumination on founding father Benjamin Franklin. “I feel really blessed to be able to walk out the door with such generosity still surrounding me.”
The face of Curious
As producing artistic director, Walton has been the public face of Curious. He has fostered a relationship with the nonprofit theater’s board of directors. He’s been the creative strategist. He’s been the guy who often bounds onto the stage prior to curtain to shout out to patrons and supporters, his voice a slight rasp, his smile Cheshire Cat-like.
Over the years, Covington has played a wide variety of roles. She’s won awards for her performances: She’s gathered kudos for directing some of the company’s most memorable works. She’s cultivated Curious’ education programs, which include the emotionally and creatively generative young playwrights’ summer intensive.
While Curious has been headed toward this new reality, the two have been splitting their time in Mexico, where they have a home and where their youngest daughter attends school for circus performance. The distance is intentional. Running a not-for-profit theater is exhausting. Being elsewhere — really elsewhere — provides Walton a way to reset; he’ll stay on this year as a consultant. It also provides Dixon room to breathe, to own the new gig and its possibilities.
Asked what Walton and Covington imparted Curious with, Dixon answers emphatically. “Rigor. There’s a rigor that they require, that they ask, that they present, that they ensure in the space. Dee’s approach to that rigor always comes from embracing, from exploration and curiosity. She’s always looking for the magical, but in alignment to the rigor.”
Of Walton, she says, “Chip is not going to wrap his arms around you. He’s going to push and challenge. Maybe he’ll provoke, but it’s always about the art. It’s about being the best we possibly can be. They both are OK with the bar being high.” Dixon pauses. “No qualms about that — the bar being high — no fear about that.”
No time for fear
Those who love the arts know how upending the pandemic was for arts organizations and their artists. COVID and the social protests around Black Lives Matter were a one-two punch for a lot of organizations. The former affected Curious in much the way it slammed other organizations that had to shutter for long spells. But under Walton’s leadership, the issues of who’s in the room, which playwrights’ work is produced, what audiences the company wants to bring into the space had long been a consideration.
“Chip has been quite good at coming up with a season that pushes the envelope,” says Jeremy Shamos, one of the company’s most avid supporters, its current board vice president and honorary lifetime president. “What’s funny to me (and this gets into the transition) is that the push to do shows with female authors or female directors or BIPOC creators, Chip has been doing that without a gun at his head for years — sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully — but pushing ahead anyway.”
Dixon’s rise reflects that.
Because of Walton’s engagement with the currents in American theater, the Curious board has grown accustomed to the vital, rightfully thorny questions any indie theater with culture-shifting ambitions should be asking of itself, its board, its artists, its audiences.
Sitting in his home on Monaco Parkway, with Walton nearby, Shamos recounts his Curious conversion in 2005. His wife, Susan, is also a supporter of the theater.
“I had never been to Curious,” he begins. “There are a whole bunch of theaters in this town that I’ve never been to, and I’m a snob. I grew up in New York.”
It was in New York that he saw Martin Moran’s one-man show “The Tricky Part,” about his sexual abuse by a lay counselor at a Colorado summer camp run by the Catholic Church. “I thought it was terrific,” Shamos continues. “Turned out that Curious was going to do it, and so I went to see it. And what sold me was the talkback, because obviously in New York there was no talkback. And there were three nuns in the audience. I was totally impressed by the fact these nuns felt comfortable speaking out, that the audience was obviously engaged with the play. And to me, that’s what makes great theater — audience involvement with the play. And so, when I found out there was a talkback virtually every night of one sort or another, that sold me on Curious being someplace.”
It is sure to remain so.
Standouts on stage
During its 25-year run, the Curious Theatre Company has brought to area audiences lean-in plays, biting social satire, shattering performances. We asked Walton, Covington, Dixon and Shamos for personal highlights. Perhaps not surprisingly, each gave a shout-out to “The Brothers Size,” which was directed by Covington and featured Laurence Curry, Cajardo Lindsey and Damion Hoover. (The 2013 production was a game-changer amid game-changers for this theater critic, too.)
In 2013, Curious smartly made the second installment in playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy “Brother/Sister Plays” its introduction to the MacArthur Fellow’s work. Many more came to know of him because he shares an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay with film director Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight.”
So here are some favorites from the people in the know.
” ‘The Brothers Size.’ Wasn’t I lucky? Because there’s no way I’d be able to direct that now. From the moment I read that play — and I grew up here in the country (she was calling from Missouri) with three brothers — I saw these three guys, and I’m like, ‘I got it.’ Everyone in production meetings would say, ‘But how do you get it? What do you mean?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know but we’re going to get there. You’ll see. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
“That’s kind of like choosing your favorite kid! I’m gonna cheat a bit. Hands down, the most fulfilling artistic experiences have been on Kushner plays. Any of them. All of them. I feel like Curious was built to specs for producing Kushner. As an audience member myself, I think perhaps ‘The Brothers Size’ was my favorite to watch and experience. And in terms of just having a blast producing and directing, ‘Take Me Out’ is at the top of that list.”
“ ‘The Brothers Size’ and ‘Eurydice’ (Sarah Ruhl’s recasting of the Orpheus myth). It was a collaboration with Wonderbound, and Garrett Ammons did the choreography. Another just beautiful, moving, powerful night of theater. Dee was in it. John Jurcheck and his wife, Courtney (Hayes-Jurcheck) played the stones. Jim Hunt and Karen Slack played the father and the daughter. Tyee Tilghman was in it. He was the love interest. And Mark Pergola was in it in a role that was made for him.”
“One of the things that made Chip and my relationship work is I go to the theater a lot in New York. Chip would say to me, ‘This is a show that I’m thinking of. Would you go to see it? Tell me what you think.’ Or I would see a show in New York like (Annie Baker’s) ‘The Flick’ — that I loved — and say to Chip, ‘This is a show you really should do.’ And Chip would say, ‘Don’t think it’s everybody’s taste.’ ”
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