This article originally appeared in Westword.
No theater company in the country is quite like Buntport. This group of five local creatives — Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erin Rollman, Erik Edborg and SamAnTha Schmitz — stages entirely original productions. The troupe’s members create those productions through discussions, improvisation and eventually writing scripts. Each of the five writes, directs, produces and worries about business matters, though Schmitz prefers not to appear on stage.
Buntport has been in the same converted warehouse on Lipan Street from its beginning in the ’90s. At the time, the cavernous space was so cold that audiences, usually pathetically sparse, were forced to either shiver through a winter evening or strain to hear the dialogue because the available heating was so loud and cranky. In recent pre-COVID years, faithful followers thronged Buntport openings and found the place comfortable and configured in new, different and interesting ways for every show.
On March 13 of 2020, Buntport was scheduled to open a piece called Cabaret De Prefundis, or How to Sing While Ugly Crying, starring Duggan and local musician Nathan Hall.
“That week was very hard,” says Schmitz. “We were rehearsing and getting ready. I think it was Wednesday night the NBA stopped playing. That seemed like a big thing.”
Agitated company discussion ensued. Would spacing the seats for the audience be sufficient? Could they sanitize the building, jigger the script, provide only pre-packaged snacks for the opening party? By Friday, everyone realized that cancellation was inevitable, but “it still seemed maybe we’d open in a couple of weeks,” says Schmitz.
The set for Cabaret remains up. At some point Buntport will doubtless mount the show, but at the moment, the troupe is working on a performance piece called Space People in Space to take place outside in the parking lot from May 26 to June 13. Colonna describes this as “a silly comedy about people traveling to Mars. It also explores the idea of colonizing planets in our solar system.” A previous parking lot play, The Grasshoppers, was put on in September. At the same time, company members are thinking hard about what they’ve learned during a forced year off and how newly acquired insights will help shape the next full-length, in-house production.
Rollman says, “It doesn’t feel like anything is opening up with a bang, and I would say the process of making Space People also falls into that category. It’s a fun show — and I am deliberately not using the word ‘play,’ because I think the most apt comparison to our own work would be a stand-alone episode of one of our live sit-coms. I’m excited to have people come see it and to be performing live for the first time in ages, but it doesn’t fully scratch my theater-making itch.”
The members of Buntport have been together for twenty years, having met in drama classes at Colorado College, and they have somehow managed to keep their anarchic sense of humor, delight in surprise, and fascination with words and ideas intact over those two decades.
Scripts can arise out of almost anything: a phrase, an incident, an anecdote, an experience a member thinks is worth exploring. Kafka on Ice, one of Buntport’s most memorable productions, came about because someone had given the company a sheet of fake ice. Naturally, they all learned to skate. Just as naturally, they decided skating would be the best way to communicate Franz Kafka’s absurdist mournful ethos.
It seems significant that folks around town still refer to Buntporters as “the kids,” though as Schmitz points out, they’ve all now reached their forties, a phenomenon they explored a few years back in Middle-Aged People Sitting in Boxes.
“Everything partly starts when we’re writing,” says Rollman. “We can create the characters’ voices and have some understanding of the overall intention. But it still mostly happens through the rehearsal process, with playing around and bouncing things off each other.” Sometimes the original intention simply fades away, she adds.
“There’s always someone who has the initial idea,” says Edborg. “Sometimes people can’t remember later whose idea it was. The strength of how we work is so many minds coming up with new ideas — given that the brains are all on the same page, to some degree.”
No concrete decisions have yet been made about the next full-length production, though the actors expect it will in some — doubtless elliptical — way reflect the times we’re living through.
“Even these little parking lot shows are largely about isolation,” says Colonna. The new show may be “about obstruction, limitations that force you to make creative decisions. Any creative process requires constant self-evaluation. It’s an organic and always moving thing.”
Over the past year, Schmitz has been occupying herself with thousand-piece puzzles and some gardening. She also joined Black Lives Matter protests. Duggan lost her beloved dog and moved in temporarily with her mother and aunt to help out.
“When the pandemic started, it felt very weird, but there was something novel about it — everybody in the world was navigating something together,” Edborg says. “But by the time winter rolled around, hospital numbers were rising, and it felt pretty dark.”
Rollman, who “used to have a million things to do in a day,” found it hard to adjust to an open schedule — and now says she has “an enormous amount of anxiety about getting back to normal. It feels so overwhelming.”
What everyone says they missed most was their time together.
“It was shocking for a group of people who’ve collaborated for years almost every day,” says Colonna.
“I spent more time with these people than I’ve spent with other people in my entire life,” adds Duggan.
As for arguments and disagreements, Colonna explains that the group has mellowed over the years and abandoned “the dramatic and loud fights we had in our twenties.”
Schmitz agrees: “The show and our art take precedence over our individual egos now.”
“We were friends first,” says Edborg. “We all met in college. We all chose to like each other then. I couldn’t feel luckier that these people decided to like me, even before starting a company. And we were able to do it and watch it grow over time.
“I get to act, but I don’t have to do the awful process of auditioning,” he continues. “My self-esteem wouldn’t be able to take it. I feel for theater people who aren’t in such a secure and loving environment.”
Everyone agrees that the company is pretty secure because of an understanding landlord, along with grants and donations and the fact that all of them took pay cuts over the past year. But there are still some doubts and fears about reopening. Will health restrictions change further? How threatening are the virus variants?
Still, says Colonna, “it’s very exciting, because for the first time in a year, we’re all working together in the same room. We’ve all been vaccinated, and a few days ago, we were able to remove our masks. It all just made me feel more powerfully that there is something magic that happens when people are together.”
“I’m thrilled to be working on something,” says Rollman. “Oh, we’ve got a list of to-dos that’s incredible. On some level, all of us dreamed about this moment in time when we’d be able to have these huge openings, and really, it’s more like we’re going to take baby steps to get there. We have to think about what that means, how to let people slowly back into our space in a way that seems fun and celebratory.”
Having watched many online videos during his year off, Edborg says he understands the value of live presentation more acutely than ever before.
“I feel so lucky,” he says. “I can’t imagine what people do who aren’t family with people they work with. And I’m excited to perform again, even rehearsing. Laughing. No one laughs more at their job than I do.”
Space People in Space runs from May 26 through June 13 in the parking lot at Buntport, 717 Lipan Street. For more information and tickets, visit Buntport online.