In 1973, a sorority girl and a hippie decided to start a theater company in Fort Collins. Who would have thought 40 years later it would still be going strong?
The sorority girl and hippie did.
For Bruce Freestone and Denise Burson Freestone, founding OpenStage Theatre & Co. has been a labor of love, but it’s one that they believed from the start could change the Fort Collins community.
“There is always a ready group of people wanting to create art and a ready group of people wanting to observe it, and the joining of those two together is what builds that community and gives it an opportunity to grow and to stretch the envelope,” said Bruce, quoting from his director’s notes from the playbill of OpenStage’s first production.
As OpenStage kicks off its 40th season — one based on audiences favorites from throughout the company’s more than 300 shows throughout the years — Denise and Bruce look back with no regrets.
In 1968, Denise was thriving in Colorado State University’s Greek system, named president of the Panhellenic Council and CSU Outstanding Greek. A native of Fort Collins, Bruce was — as Denise puts it — “a raging hippie.” Despite their different backgrounds, they were both active in CSU’s theater department although they didn’t really know each other well until one fateful rehearsal.
Denise was playing the role of a cat, and during the dress rehearsal a dog had gotten loose in the theater, which at the time allowed pets in the buildings.
“Suddenly, this big German Shepherd was bounding down the stairs toward the stage right at me,” she recalled. “Bruce grabbed him right before he got to me. He was my hero.”
The couple married in 1970 and traveled around the northwest for awhile before returning to Fort Collins just prior to the birth of first child, Jessica, in 1972.
Big Dreams for a Small Town
While today you can’t throw a rock in this city without hitting a play, a concert or an art show, in the early 1970s, Fort Collins was an artistic ghost town.
Everything shut down by 9 p.m., and the only cultural opportunities available were the Fort Collins Symphony, the Fort Collins Children’s Theater and productions put on by the university students.
“People were hungry for some culture,” said Lory Levinger, who volunteered to help with costumes during OpenStage’s early years. Levinger and her husband, Bernie, both longtime OpenStage supporters, moved to Fort Collins from New York in 1968. “There was a lot of culture and music there, and we missed that when we first came here, so I was glad to help them.”
While Denise said she thought her husband’s idea to start a new theater company in this cultural desert was slightly insane, Bruce said he’d seen enough of their artist friends’ dejected stories from L.A. and New York to know that doing what they loved in a place they loved was the way to go.
“Pick a lifestyle that you’re willing to put up with and then build an artistic opportunity that fits that context,” he said. “We wanted to start a company where the artists would be able to make a living within their art form in the community of their choice.”
“We spent four months begging and borrowing everything,” said Denise, who still isn’t sure where the couple came up with the $60 they kicked in for the show.
That four months of preparation also was spent trying to convince the city of Fort Collins to let the ragtag group of actors put on a free play in the park. Theater in the park was a fairly foreign idea to them at the time, Denise said.
The show was “Thieves Carnival” — a French comedy about a thief and his two apprentices, who attempt to rob a wealthy family. Bruce directed and Denise performed. They put it on at City Park, and in the opening scene, Denise and her costar crossed Sheldon Lake in a paddle boat so they could make a proper entrance.
“And the rest is history,” Bruce joked.
Indeed, after that, OpenStage Theatre went on to produce plays in various locations, including Opera Galleria (until the fire marshal put the kibosh on it as they were getting too popular). But it was the former Lincoln Junior High School, where Bruce once attended classes, that OpenStage would finally find its home.
Home Sweet Home
In 1977, the former Lincoln Junior High School became Lincoln Center. The school’s auditorium now is the center’s Mini Theatre, and has been OpenStage’s home for the last 30 years, but the small companion to the main performance hall almost didn’t happen.
The powers that be were not responsive to the idea of a space for local small arts groups to perform, Denise said. Bruce started a coalition and spent a year and a half convincing the city that it was a smart move and would be good for local arts groups, whose numbers were slowly growing.
At the time it opened, the Mini Theatre didn’t even have a wall separating it from the neighboring banquet room, and OpenStage brought in all of its own equipment. It was a far cry from today’s recently remodeled theater, renamed the Magnolia Theatre, Denise said.
Having a permanent home for shows helped cement OpenStage’s name with audiences, and as OpenStage’s success began to grow, more local arts groups began following suit.
“I think that when a theater troupe like OpenStage survives and is supported by the community, it opens the door for more groups because they can see that there is an audience,” said longtime OpenStage Theatre ticket holder Deni La Rue.
La Rue said one of the things she appreciates about OpenStage is its commitment to growing its audience and introducing more people to theater. Between the free student nights and the wide variety of shows, OpenStage is reaching out to people who may not even know if they like theater, she said, adding “Not everyone grows up with an introduction to the theater.”
Growing Up with OpenStage
For the Freestone’s two daughters — Jessica and Brenna — their introduction to the theater began almost immediately. Denise joked that Jessica’s first rehearsal was at 5 days old. The girls grew up backstage and, when they got old enough, on stage, as well.
“It was busy a lot of the time,” said daughter Jessica Freestone of life growing up with OpenStage. “We spent a lot of time at the theater after school and in the evenings... We enjoyed it.
“There are stories of when I was an infant that my babysitter was whoever wasn’t on stage during that particular scene,” said Jessica, who remembers playing dressing up in OpenStage’s costume wardrobe growing up.
“It was a great place to raise kids,” Denise said. “You know, that whole it takes a village thing? Well, we had the village. OpenStage was a family and everybody looked out for each other.”
Her parents’ artistic temperaments greatly influenced her life, Jessica said, recalling a particular moment when she was 6 and tagged along as her mother took a freelance job to direct the party scene in “The Nutcracker” for Canyon Concert Ballet. “I thought that looked really fun and asked if I could do that, too,” said Jessica, who later became a choreographer and artistic director for CCB.
“My mom jokes that she tried to keep away from (life in the arts),” Jessica said. “It’s long hours, a lot of work and not much pay, but there’s a love for it and whether it’s genetic or learned, both my sister and I caught (the theater bug) pretty hard.”
As a role model, her parents and OpenStage were immensely influential in teaching Jessica the art of multitasking, time management, meeting deadlines and organizing, she said.
“It was like this lifelong apprenticeship,” Jessica said relating to one of her first professional jobs working in communications for America Online and Netscape and how even though she didn’t have a lot of corporate management experience, her training at OpenStage came in handy. “I realized it’s just like a show — you have a deadline and you have to get all the different pieces and parts together by that deadline.”
But the life of an artist is rarely a highly profitable one, and for many years, both Bruce and Denise ran OpenStage in their free time between various full-time jobs. Later on, they switched off who would have the job with benefits and a good salary and who would run OpenStage.
“There were many, many moments where we thought we might have to close,” Denise said. Throughout the years, the couple has struggled to keep the company afloat, including one year when they remortgaged their house to cover OpenStage’s debt.
In 2008, when the economy began to decline, OpenStage once again came precariously close to dropping the curtain on its shows.
“We lost a lot of subscribers, ticket buyers, patrons — everything was down across the board,” Bruce said.
It was then that all those years of building a name and a supportive audience helped out. As patrons dug deep to save OpenStage, the Downtown Development Authority also stepped in.
“They were the first government entity to step in and ask, what do you need?,” Bruce said.
The DDA worked with OpenStage, along with other local arts companies in town, to create a program that helped the groups with rental costs at Lincoln Center and provided free warehouse space for them to store props and costumes, as well as rehearse.
A government group coming to the aid of the arts like that would have been unthinkable when OpenStage got its start, but the city of Fort Collins had seen the positive economic impact of these groups for a while, Bruce said.
Over the years, arts groups like OpenStage, Bas Bleu Theatre, the symphony and Canyon Concert Ballet had shown that Fort Collins’ art scene was a draw, and that draw meant not only audiences, it meant customers to local restaurants, bars and hotels. Suddenly the arts were an important cog in the wheel of Fort Collins’ economic engine.
“Fort Collins has really come to embrace that identity,” Denise said.
OpenStage's Next Act
From a ragtag theater troupe to a one of Colorado’s most lauded companies, OpenStage Theatre & Co. has come a long way. And After 40 years, the Freestones said they still love the hustle of the theater life but they are beginning to look toward taking their final curtain call — at least as the heads of OpenStage.
The couple said conversations with the OpenStage board about future restructuring and selecting their successors have been slowly begun taking place, although they are quick to note that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“Personally, it’s a little scary to think of the end because this is what we’ve known our whole lives,” said Denise, adding that she believes that even when they let go of the day-to-day running of the company that they will still direct and act in productions.
“We’ve always called OpenStage our third child,” Bruce said. “I think that this child is now coming of age and will be able to live on its own.”
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