As the theatre scene implodes, with companies canceling spring seasons and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival going dark this summer, as directors wonder if they can keep their organizations alive in the long term, and artists worry about paying the rent, another devastating event has hit the community. John Moore, senior arts editor at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts since 2013, has just been let go in the midst of freezes, layoffs and cutbacks intended, according to the center, to offset a coronavirus-caused loss of millions of dollars.
Sometimes I think of John as a father of local theatre, sometimes more of an uncle, brother or cousin—because he’s more lively, inventive and inspirational than kindly and paternal. However I label him, he has been for many decades an indispensable figure in the Denver arts scene.
I first met John when I started reviewing theatre regularly for Westword (who remembers exactly when, since I’d been doing this on and off ever since the publication first appeared). He was the critic for the Denver Post, and I’d watch him pacing down the aisle at intermission, and wonder what he thought of the production on which we’d both be offering printed opinions within a day. As we became friends, John and I talked theatre a lot. I felt validated when we agreed on a production, but it was even more fun when we didn’t: “Oh, come on, John. That was a great performance,” I’d say, and he’d respond, “I can’t believe we saw the same thing.” Or vice versa.
As a reviewer, John was tireless. He seemed to see every show in town. He traveled to Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, talked to high school thespians, worked with the Colorado Theatre Guild on the annual Henry Awards, published advances, investigations and interviews. I noticed several friends tended to call and ask to join me for a particular performance after one of his articles had appeared. John adjusted to changing times faster than almost anyone else in journalism, shooting his own photos, making videos and slide shows, podcasting, generally experimenting with media. In addition to several other awards, including a couple of Westword Best of Denver nods, he was named one of the twelve most influential theatre critics in the United States by American Theatre Magazine.
When John took the buyout at the Denver Post in 2011, all kinds of lamentation arose in the theatre world, but he didn’t stand still. He started work on a website intended to serve the arts community and publicize its events, though funding was a struggle. In 2013, he was offered the job of senior arts journalist at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
In the midst of all this, he wrote two plays. One, Waiting for Obama, was shown at the New York Fringe Festival, and featured some of Denver’s finest actors.
I know very little about the internal workings of the Denver Center, which rigidly controls its own publicity, but I can offer my observations as an outsider with an intense interest in the theatre world. Over the years the organization has become more and more corporate. Call Wendy Ishii, who created Bas Bleu, a theatre that serves as the hub of an extraordinary arts community in Fort Collins, Chip Walton at Curious Theatre Company, Steven Weitz of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, Amanda Berg Wilson of the Catamounts or one of the co-directors of Benchmark, Rachel Rogers and Haley Johnson, and you’ll hear a lot about acting, trends in playwriting and directing, artistic goals and ideals and plans to reach those goals. If you ask about the company’s financial situation, these people will be open to discussing it—usually in terms of how it affects the quality and viability of their productions. Yet even though the Denver Center’s current artistic director, Chris Coleman, clearly and strongly communicates—and exemplifies—his love for the performing arts, few of the company’s official press releases are directly about theatre itself. My memory may be faulty, but it seems to me almost every official press release discusses new construction and/or yet another another vice president added to an already top-heavy list.
But then the center had John, who is both an artist and an arts lover, producing interviews and videos with actors, directors, writers, designers of sets, lighting and costumes, vigorously communicating the joy and excitement of the work, causing more and more of my friends to call begging for one of my reviewer tickets, and bringing the work of the theatre company alive. Beyond that, he also used his platform to shine a light on the metro area scene and support the work of artists all over town.
And that wasn’t all he did. Even before the coronavirus, work in theatre was precarious and most participants lived paycheck to paycheck. An illness or other serious setback could completely derail a life. In 2014, John set up the Denver Actors Fund, which gives money to theatre people in need—to date, some $400,000 has been made available—and also coordinates volunteer offers for shopping, house cleaning, transportation and other help. This represents not only practical assistance—though that is a huge factor—but reassurance in a time of shock and crisis that the theatre community has come together to support a member. There is no other arts journalist in the country who has accomplished anything like this, and it has always reflected brilliantly on the Denver Center.
No matter how dire the center’s financial straits may be, letting this voice of genuine passion, humanism and illumination go is a grave mistake, and a tragedy for the local theatre scene.