Ones to Watch

Six Cultural Newsmakers to Keep an Eye On

New on the scene—or, in one case, wrapping up her tenure—these arts leaders have quickly enhanced the local entertainment landscape.

By Andrew Travers Illustrations by Matty Newton June 6, 2018


Image: Matty Newton

Since taking over the Carbondale-based theater company in 2016, Executive Artistic Director Simpson has brought new eyes and fresh energy to the black box venue. “I started looking at ways to add more programs that were fun and vibrant, and that might attract younger people, families, and kids,” he says. 

Simpson has continued producing the serious, capital “D” drama on which the company’s reputation was built—Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, and the like—but he’s also started the troupe Consensual Improv, which sells out regularly and has brought twenty- and thirtysomethings, along with a valleywide buzz, into Thunder River. He launched the popular Diva Cabaret series, giving well-known local entertainers a platform for solo performance. (Crystal Palace alum Nina Gabianelli’s was such a hit that she took it to Manhattan.) And he began producing shows performed by professional actors but aimed at young audiences, like The Emperor’s New Clothes. 

Meanwhile, Simpson explains, he “opened the doors wide” for auditions, which led to 19 new Thunder River cast members in the 2017–18 season and noticeably amped up the attention to sets, lighting, and the technical aspects of plays. He’s now expanding education efforts, starting with improv classes and cabaret training this summer.

Consensual Improv returns July 13. Diva Cabaret performances take place July 23 and 24.

Image: Matty Newton

He’s new in town, but he knows his way around a theater. Bernstein, the producing director at Theatre Aspen, brings a platinum set of bona fides: he ran the Broadway League for more than a decade; won a Tony for producing the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair; shepherded the historic Bucks County Playhouse out of bankruptcy to a creative renaissance; and, most recently, served as president of the world’s largest performing arts venue, Lincoln Center. 

Despite his glittering résumé, Bernstein arrived in Aspen last October with a humble approach, embarking on what he called a “listening tour” to meet locals and arts leaders, learn the ropes of the town’s cultural scene, and chart a course for Theatre Aspen.

Based on those conversations, he is eyeing an expansion of the theater’s footprint outside its performance tent and beyond the summer. “When we bring the curtain down in mid-August, people tend not to think of us until the following June,” he says. “We want to address that.”

Bernstein is not suggesting that the company begin producing shows 52 weeks per year, but he is considering possible short runs around the holidays or in the spring. He’s also spearheaded a glee club for local young people, dubbed the Miner Keys, to give choreographed choral performances year-round.

“But the main priority for me has been to make sure the summer season is fantastic and wonderful,” Bernstein says.

Image: Matty Newton

In the last five years, the Ranch’s summer speaker series has emerged as a marquee (and free!) cultural happening in Snowmass Village, presenting luminaries like Frank Stella, Christo, Marina Abramovic, Theaster Gates, and Steve McQueen. The rustic artist’s colony hosted residencies by art world stars like Tom Sachs, the Haas Brothers, and Enrique Martinez Celaya. Its summer workshops grew more inclusive and diverse through new scholarship programs and art school partnerships, while enrollment soared more than 20 percent. And a new mentorship program links emerging artists with established ones over a hands-on three-year stretch. 

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the Ranch’s fundraising has upped the budget by more than a third and built an $8.5 million endowment.

All of this has happened under the direction of Executive Director Wilhelms, who will leave the Ranch at the end of 2018 to launch a consulting business. Trained as a photographer, she ran a public relations company before joining the Ranch as director of marketing in 2011. Two years later, she was promoted to the top job. “I was in the right place at the right time and able to use my business skills in an arts environment,” she says. “It was such a good fit, and I’ve loved every minute of it.”




Image: Matty Newton

Detractors predicted that a performing arts venue in a glorified midvalley strip mall, in the shadow of Aspen’s glut of world-class offerings, would be a folly. But Honey, Breslin, and the champions of the Arts Campus at Willits saw the booming population around Willits Town Center, and the dearth of nearby arts programming, as an opportunity.    

Late last summer, they opened the 250-capacity Temporary as a sort of proof-of-concept trial for a planned larger campus. It has quickly turned into a cultural hub, selling out concerts by diverse local and regional bands and hosting prominent Denver comedians like Adam Cayton-Holland, presenters like Amy Goodman, family-friendly theater, and much more. 

“The audience is bigger than we thought,” says Artistic Director Breslin. “People can walk from Willits, and families come from all over.” He and Honey are on pace to bring in 16,000 patrons this year and host 100-plus educational events for students, while partnering with 20 local nonprofits for socially relevant programs.  

Entering its first full summer, the venue hosts shows like the puppet theater show Flight of Fancy (June 23), a JAS Café performance by Django Festival All-Stars (July 21), and a first birthday bash with Davina and the Vagabonds (Aug 18).  

Supporters are fundraising aggressively to channel the venue’s momentum into “the Permanent.” “We’ve always seen it as a catalyst to get us to the next stage,” says Executive Director Honey. “We’re really pleased with what the Temporary has done.” And so are grateful midvalley audiences.


Image: Matty Newton

Last summer, Aspen Film faced an existential crisis. The nonprofit behind Filmfest, Academy Screenings, and Shortsfest saw a mass exodus of staff and board members, fired its executive director, was sued by that ex-director, all on the eve of its 40th anniversary.  

When a new board chairman, Los Angeles–based film producer Ryan Brooks, needed a savior to revive the organization, he turned to industry veteran Wrubel. Since beginning her career in New York art house cinema in the 1990s, she has worked in all aspects of movies—acquisitions, sales, marketing, distribution, and executive producing titles like Still Alice and Maggie’s Plan.  

Taking over just before Filmfest 2017, Wrubel sought to clarify the film society’s mission, brought in a stellar team of guest programmers for a year’s worth of festivals, landed buzzy titles for the monthly Indie Showcase series, and revived a robust educational program in Roaring Fork Valley schools. 

Entering her second Filmfest this September—with Toronto International Film Festival vet Jane Schoettle returning to program—Wrubel is focused on forging partnerships with other valley nonprofits and expanding the education programs  to make Aspen Film more than the sum of its three festivals. 

Plus, we may have some cinema al fresco to look forward to. Says Wrubel, “We want to literally break down the walls with our programs and events, projecting outside on the mountain, on building walls, or in tents this summer.”




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