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At 40, No Midlife Crisis for OpenStage Theatre

OpenStage Theatre

OpenStage Theatre & Company, a cornerstone of the Fort Collins entertainment scene, turns 40 this year.

The season is underway with their production of the Rocky Horror Show, which runs through November 24th.

Company founders Denise and Bruce Freestone have taken a unique approach to choosing shows for this season, asking the OpenStage audience to pick their favorites from more than 300 productions...

Denise Freestone: We had just barely under 1,500 votes for individual shows, and I have to say, the audience picked an incredible season. Every one of these shows was a blockbuster show when we did it; we have shows that we produced all the way from 1981 to this past season. It’s a very exciting year for us, and I think it’s a step into the future of really changing how the audience and artists interact.

Erin O’Toole: Bruce, when you and Denise started OpenStage back in 1973… I’m curious if that was about meeting a perceived need right then for the arts in Fort Collins, or were you thinking more long term even back then?

Bruce Freestone: We did actually spend time discussing this - that it was a smarter move to build an opportunity than it was to go looking for an opportunity.

I grew up in Fort Collins, Denise is a Denver native, and we both loved Colorado, we loved the community. And we sort of felt like, you know, this is as good a place as any to build that opportunity.

Erin: I know you had to spend some time convincing the powers that be that having a thriving arts scene in Fort Collins is a benefit, and a good idea for the community. Can you talk about that?

Denise: It was a very difficult struggle. In fact the first time we performed for free in 1973 in the park, we had to spend about four months convincing City Parks & Recreation to allow us to perform for free. And the city has now embraced arts and culture as one of the main hallmarks of its identity.

Bruce: We’ve seen a huge systemic change in -- Convention & Visitors Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development Authority,  Downtown Business Association – all of these agencies now looking at arts and culture as one of the banners that they want to wave to attract attention, to show that the community is-- it’s a welcoming place for a business to locate, or a family to relocate.

Erin: Right. And it seems those bridges you built, not just with other arts groups but also with government organizations like the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce – all that ultimately helped save OpenStage when the recession hit?

Denise: When the economy tanked a few years ago, all of the arts organizations were really struggling. And the Downtown Development Authority really carried the banner, because they knew arts and culture was one of the cornerstones of our economic future.

So they instituted two programs; they purchased a warehouse that is now a cooperative warehouse for arts organizations. And they also initiated a three-year program where they underwrote our rental costs for performing in the Lincoln Center; so it was really geared toward users of the Lincoln Center.

Without those two financial incentives from the DDA I think most of our major art groups would have had trouble surviving. We’re transitioning now, we’re really starting to discuss a capital campaign to purchase that warehouse as a cooperative arts facility for the entire community.

Erin: I know you’ve both been personally involved for a very long time – since the very beginning, of course. What are you hoping for with this 40th season and perhaps, beyond for OpenStage?

Bruce: Well, Colorado has that reputation as being an attractive place to live and recreate. And so I think we’re becoming known as the place to be for that kind of entertainment.

Denise: It’s very true. I think that there have been some studies done nationally, and there is the belief – and some data – that the cultural heart of the nation is actually moving away from the East Coast and the West Coast, and moving more toward the Midwest. And I really think that northern Colorado specifically has the opportunity to be one of the major cultural hearts of the entire nation.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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