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CC, UCCS, and FAC Collaborate on Theatre Production

“The Long Christmas Ride Home,” an upcoming theatre production being performed at Colorado College, has many intriguing elements, not the least of which is its wide pool of talent: The 10 student performers come from Colorado College and UCCS, the director from UCCS, the set designer from Colorado College, the production crew from CC and UCCS, and the puppet maker from the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

It’s the first time all three organizations have worked together on a theatre production — but it won’t be the last. Another collaborative production, to be performed at UCCS, is planned for the spring.

“The Long Christmas Ride Home,” a one-act, full-length play by playwright Paula Vogel, dramatizes a road trip by two parents and their three young children to visit grandparents for the Christmas holiday, and the emotional turmoil that they undergo. It runs Dec. 13-15 in CC’s Studio A in the Cornerstone Arts Center, and is free and open to the public.

“We’re always trying to find ways to collaborate,” says Kevin Landis, associate professor and director of the Theatre and Dance program at UCCS, who is directing the production. “We’re seeking a model that works, especially with schools that are on two different schedules. Plays are quick and intensive, and this is working,” he says of the two-block experience.

“It’s exciting to see UCCS and CC students teaching each other,” Landis says. “The students working together in collaboration bring out different things in each other. It’s interesting to watch the CC and UCCS students teach other through their life experiences. And it allows me to learn; it’s the creation of something special coming from different cultures.”

The students also are enjoying the experience. “We have a small department, so it’s great to work with other people,” says Max Sarkowsky ’20, who is the musician and soundscape designer for the production. He also enjoys working with a new director; he hasn’t been in a production with Landis in the past and says he has to work with to find out what and how Landis wants things done. “It’s a different language,” Sarkowsky says.

“It’s cool to open up the collaboration, so there’s not a bubble between the schools,” says CC’s Soren Kodak ’21, who plays the minister and a dancer in the show. Suzy Lewis ’19, who is on the production crew, agrees. “It’s nice getting to know them,” she says of her UCCS counterparts. “Shake up the classical scene a bit. Everyone knows everyone here.”

“It’s been so exciting to be a part of the collaboration between UCCS and CC,” says Julia Greene ’19, a theatre major who has been in six departmental productions, although this is the first with UCCS. “Kevin (Landis) is a fantastic director, and working with skilled students and faculty outside our little department has been such a great experience. Plus, the play is beautiful — delving into the joy and richness of pain in a way only Paula Vogel could.” Greene, who plays the mother and also worked on the costumes, adds, “stepping out of my zone as an actor to help costume the puppets was insanely fun. Playing their mom, I’m extra proud of how cute they are in their little Christmas gear.”

“From my perspective, this is a healthy mixing,” says Cinco Placensia, a junior at UCCS, who is one of the puppeteers. “Meeting everyone has been incredible. In fact, I’ve asked several CC people to help me with a theatre project we’re doing at UCCS.” His project, the Modern Parable Theatre Company, is a student-based group that devises theatre based off comic books. “More collaboration means new perspectives,” he says.

Landis, who worked with Vogel while in graduate school, arranged a 45-minute Skype session between the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the student performers, in which the students asked her a variety of questions. “She’s excited to see what other people do with her work,” Landis says. “She’s not prescriptive at all.”

The full title of the play is “The Long Christmas Ride Home — a puppet play with actors,” and a significant part of the play employs bunraku, an ancient form of Japanese puppet theatre that employs puppeteers, chanters, and musicians.

There is a continual presence of music in traditional bunraku, and in the upcoming collaborative production, that task falls to CC’s Sarkowsky. Sarkowsky is on the side of the stage throughout the entire performance, providing live, continuous, improvisational music and sound effects that run under the entire play, almost as if he were narrating the play with music.

The play has a “beautiful, evocative, dreamscape-y quality to it,” says Landis. “It gives us a platform to make beautiful art; it gives us ownership of the art.” 

Those images are evoked through music as well as the set, designed by Marie Davis, CC associate professor of theatre and dance. “The first line of the play is ‘It was a very cold Christmas in a long and cold winter,’ so it was imperative to design a frozen world, the kind of cold and snow that builds up and stays, unlike a Colorado winter,” she says.

Davis notes Vogel has written, “Artists who wrestled with this relationship of man and nature called this art ‘Ukiyo-e, the floating world’.” So Davis suggested “a world within a snow globe, one that when shaken creates a magical floating world combined with the simplicity of the Japanese Ukiyo-e imagery Vogel includes in the play (but as misunderstood by Westerners).  “Throughout the staging you see elements of an exposed cold world of reality versus the idealized and protected world of the snow globe,” says Davis. “The simplicity of the thrust space hints at the long isolated road, hence ‘The Long Christmas Ride Home’.”

Another important element of the play are the puppets, and Sarah Beth Parks, costume shop supervisor at the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College is making those — all seven of them. She’s working with CC adjunct associate professor and costume designer Gypsy Ames, who is designing the costumes for the entire show — including the puppets.

This is the first time Parks has worked with either Landis or Davis — or any of the students. “The students have been very receptive; they are just sponges and interested in working with the figures and improving their performance,” she says. “This is the sort of show that actors don’t get to do very much.” Parks says the students are open to her notes and observations — such as when she points out that the puppets are supposed to give the illusion of three kids jammed in the back seat of the car. “The puppets can’t drift off; they’re stuck in the car. I have to get the students to think about the details.”

Parks, too, talks about the magical, dreamy aspects of the play. “The puppets are memories of people, ghosts of people, and future ideas of people, not actual people,” she says. “The collaboration has been great. Kevin (Landis) is open to suggestions, and happy to let me be a part of the creative process.”

“I think it’s essential that artists work together,” says Landis. “And in a small city, artists have to collaborate with each other. It adds to the richness and spirit that the arts are traditionally about.”

The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College continues its work on implementing the 2017 strategic plan. Performing Arts will begin its implementation in the summer of 2019 after the work of its committee concludes this spring.