The second annual Gunnison Valley Theater Festival gets underway this week, beginning with a production of “As You Like it”, opening June 3 at 7:30 p.m. in the Quigley Bandshell. Additional performances will be held at the bandshell on June 4, 9, and 16.

The play’s run—and the summer festival, will conclude with a special performance at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts on June 25. 

“As You Like It” is a Shakespeare play brimming with betrayals, banishments, romances, monologues, and crossdressing—a Shakespearean staple. The play also wrestles with themes of love, rivalry, attraction, and deception amongst its cast of characters—revolving largely around the romantic relationship between Rosalind, portrayed by Natalie Edwards, and Orlando, played by Ryan O’Neill.

The actors find their groove.

“The [crossdressing plot] is a result of the old Shakesperean tradition of crossdressing that’s in all of his comedies, that’s what Elizabethan audiences got really stoked about, like ‘where’s the moment that the dude who’s playing a woman is going to pretend to be a woman dressed up as a dude?”’ adds Emily Nortnik, a Western graduate student in the Creative Writing program.

Steven Cole Hughes, a Western Theater professor, is directing and performing in the play (he plays a Shakespearean fool, among other characters), and has added audience participation and even karaoke elements to the festival’s adaptation. 

“This is Steve’s first time acting and directing the same show,” says Natalie Edwards, a Communications major with an emphasis in Theater. “That’s been probably my favorite part of the show—getting to act with Steve.”

Emily Nortnik and Professor Steven Cole Hughes take center stage.

This is Edwards’ third Shakespeare play during her time in Gunnison, and a perfect chance for her to blend modern theatrical acting techniques with Shakespeare’s beautiful, poetic language after taking Professor Hughes’ course on Shakespeare. 

“A lot of Shakespeare’s writing is just stating your feelings and stating your [character’s] motivations. So you’re like ‘I’m here, I feel sad, and I’m going to do this thing about it…there’s not a lot of subtext going on in Shakespeare,” says Jensen Hill, a 2022 Western Theater graduate who assumes several roles. “It’s like poetry, it’s meant to be read out loud, so it rolls off the tongue really well.”

Hughes is a big proponent of Shakespeare’s work, and has previously brought “Twelfth Night” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (on the low-flying trapeze) to the valley via Western Theater Company performances, as well as “Much Ado About Nothing” at last year’s theater festival. Despite his extensive Shakespeare credentials, this is Hughes’ first experience directing or acting in “As You Like it”

“You’re really speaking a language that we don’t speak anymore…The best way to make it clear to the audience that you understand what you’re saying is to say it as fast as you can, which is so counter to modern theater [technique],” says Edwards.

Edwards and Ryan O’Neill (right)

Emily Nortnik portrays Jacques, who delivers the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue. “I was both highly honored and slightly terrified when Steve said ‘you get to play Jacques,’” adds Nortnik with a grin.

“What’s so awesome about doing Shakespeare is that we’re given this incredible, heightened poetry to express our feelings…Shakespeare uses those words in that moment for a specific reason, and it’s the actors’ job to figure out why,” she says. 

Nortnik highlights the importance of maintaining the proper cadence and rhythm to any Shakespeare performance, which allows actors to tackle Shakespeare’s dramatized vocabulary, now more than four centuries old.

Yet Shakespeare’s plays utilize a largely fossilized version of English language to tell stories with fundamentally human, familiar themes that maintain their relevancy in the present day—strategically updated by Hughes for modern audiences.

Other festival offerings

A series of other theatrical and film events will round out the month of June, including a June 12 show from Boomtown, Creede Repertory Theater’s renowned improv troupe, at 7:30 p.m. in Taylor Hall’s Studio Theatre. 

The festival will also feature two staged readings—both at 7:30 p.m. at Quigley Bandshell. “Clybourne Park” on June 10 is a play from Bruce Norris which homes in on issues of race, housing, and gentrification. Then there is “Indiana” on June 17, written by Steven Cole Hughes himself.

“It’s very topical in that it’s about the housing crisis…and how all of that collides with race in America,” says Edwards of “Clybourne Park”.

A rendition of the DisABILITY Film Festival, which was featured in the inaugural 2021 festival, will return on June 11 at 7:30 in the Taylor Auditorium, showcasing films from across the world. 

“The new selection of movies invites you to face the power of people having to deal with certain disabilities. They might be met with various stereotypes from their surroundings, but that doesn‘t stop them from achieving their goals or fighting for justice,” reads the festival’s website. 

Nortnik, along with Heather Hughes—who is directing the reading of Clybourne Park, will also facilitate the Kid’s Theatre Camp Performance. The performance will showcase two original musicals designed by students, and a culmination of two weeks of theater camp—the first for elementary students, and the second for middle schoolers. 

“They get to do whatever they want, and Heather and I are really just there to guide them, and to instill confidence and bravery,” says Nortnik of the June 18 performance, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. in the bandshell. 

The theater camp performances will be followed by a performance from Porlolo, a Denver band featuring Erin Roberts, a Western alumna. 

From the group’s website: “Porlolo is a true labor of love, a collaborative and ever-evolving project formed in 2002…at once deeply pensive and thoroughly irreverent, Porlolo is a powerful songwriting force, cranking out grungy, sometimes twangy, reverb drenched, pure pop hits.”

Next fall, Western Theater Company will return with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”, the group’s first full-fledged musical since “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, now more than two years ago.

You can access more information at the Gunnison Valley Theater Festival, including all the specific performance dates, times, and ticket sales, HERE.