The Black Artists Guild called their high-octane improv comedy “Show Ya Teef!” for, after all, what do you show the world when you smile? Your teeth.
And yet, from the beginning, they had bite.
The vital and singular role that the Black Actors Guild has played in the local arts ecology and in the daily lives of young people cannot be overemphasized since 2009. educators and agitators who have built a large tent of actors, comedians, dancers, musicians and poets of various races who have consistently produced provocative and topical plays and brought dynamic, arts-integrated programs to local schools and to the streets.
But now, when the need has never been greater for there to be young male artistic role models who preserve and celebrate black culture…. there are not even them.
The death certificate will list multiple causes of death but, ultimately, “COVID did it,” said co-founder and CEO Ryan Foo.
Before the pandemic, the Black Actors Guild supported four full-time salaries among a staff of 12. In its final year, the company was on pace to generate about $700,000 in revenue, Foo said.
More importantly: “We’ve seen thousands of students we’ve touched grow up to be really brilliant humans,” he said. They launched many up-and-coming names on the local indie art scene, including alternative singer Kayla Marque, Afrofuturist supergroup The Grand Alliance and musician Kid Astronaut. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Black Actors Guild,” said dancer and actor Barton Cowperthwaite, high school classmate and star of Netflix’s “Tiny Pretty Things.”
Most important: “We’ve put hundreds of thousands of dollars in the pockets of local artists, actors and musicians,” Foo said. “We paid people, and I’m really proud of that.”
But Foo, at the tender age of 30, is tired. He’s had enough of the pandemic, which instantly wiped out $20,000 in labor contracts with the Denver and Aurora public school districts. Tired of the unique struggle it takes to make both art and a decent life as a young man of color. And he is fed up with death relentlessly stalking his young company like a shadow.
“It’s just about time,” said Foo, a married dad with a second child on the way. It’s time not to struggle too much. It’s time to produce events that people actually want to attend – which isn’t traditional live theater. It’s time to say goodbye to this beautiful collective black unicorn working in a Denver arts scene that’s overwhelmingly white, carrying on the legacy of long-gone iconic organizations that came (and went) before them: The Eulipions, Shadow and Denver Black Arts Company.
“Every artistic community can benefit from its great and brilliant cathedrals of art,” said playwright Idris Goodwin, who has had two plays produced by the Black Actors Guild. “But equally important are its agile, passionate, values-driven specialists who answer to no authority other than their own sense of urgency and a burning desire for change.”
The company began when four black kids from the hall of the Denver School of the Arts created a play for Black History Month by imagining a young Barack Obama. Foo, Corin Chavez, Quinn Marchman and Nick Thorne came to see the Black Actors Guild as a proactive response to the scarcity of positive roles for black actors in local theater. “We were young and dumb enough to know we couldn’t do it — so we did it,” said Marchman, whose high school drama teacher isn’t buying it.
“They had a vision, a desire and a focus, and they wouldn’t let anyone tell them no,” said DSA’s Shawn Hann. “They saw a place in Denver for the Black Actors Guild to thrive, and they dedicated their lives to that work.”
And they did it without ever receiving a penny of public funding. The founders opted for profit, even though it made them ineligible for a slice of the SCFD arts tax pie or federal pandemic relief. The move, Foo said, was informed by a deep-rooted distrust of the nonprofit model, which he said “doesn’t have a good track record with institutions of color running theaters. As you involve more people with money on your boards, they tend to outrank the black and brown visionaries who started your business, and you start dying.
Marchman didn’t want to play the game of constantly having to prove the company’s worth to funders and other granting agencies. “Being young and arrogant and very collective,” he said, “we always wanted to live and die by our own abilities.” And they learned early on, he added, “that the nonprofit world is just as corporatized as the for-profit world…so why don’t we just support all artists?”
There are ways to make the arts fun and entrepreneurial financially viable, and Foo is doing just that by producing what it calls “playful immersive entertainment experiences,” including a popular fantasy video drinking game called “Beer Quest” and its next annual interactive mystery game called “IllFooMinati” (June 10-12).
But when it comes to producing traditional art forms like live theatre, he said: “I’m here to tell you it’s not sustainable. There just isn’t enough funding there.
The Catch-22 irony: “If people want there to be an organization like the Black Actors Guild performing stories of traditional theater,” then you should be prepared to support tickets that cost $75. And if we did that, we would be overvaluing the very people whose stories we are telling. So if we want to support artistic innovators, there must be public funding available to support people of color as (for-profit) entrepreneurs. »
The BAG has had seven “forever homes” in 13 years – as if such a thing exists. But his greatest existential challenge has been overcoming the numbing regularity of unconscionable loss. Two of the four founders died before the age of 25. Chavez, the company’s artistic director and master improviser, died suddenly in 2015; Thorne in 2017 from a severe asthma attack.
Andrew Boeglin (aka poet William Seward Bonnie), who helped build sets and served as stage manager for several stage productions, died of a seizure in 2019. There was one suicide and at least one other attempt. Danny Ramos, who credits his work as a senior comedy writer at the Black Actors Guild for launching him into Denver’s DIY comedy scene, was seriously injured last May – and his fiancé was killed – when a van hit them as they were crossing a street in San Francisco.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that wanting to leave some of this tragedy behind is part of this decision,” Foo said.
But while most of that loss was strangely unexpected, Marchman saw firsthand that having the courage to dance forever on the tightrope that is an artistic life with the pervasive demons of economic insecurity and self-doubt. , combine to make artists particularly vulnerable souls.
“It’s extremely stressful and eye-opening to be an artist, and there’s no safety net for us,” Marchman said. “We live and die by what we are capable of achieving, and there is an overwhelming insecurity that comes with that. I think to some degree we don’t expect to live long, and that can lead to abuse and destructive behavior.
No one can blame the company’s two surviving founders for moving from a dream that began when they were juniors in high school to brilliantly coming to fruition. The Black Actors Guild was among the first to respond to the police killing of George Floyd by staging Goodwin’s ‘Hype Man’, a play that dives headfirst into issues of sexism, racism and justice social through the multicolored prism of a white rapper, a black DJ and a mixed-race beatmaker.
While most theaters were locked down, Mykail Cooley, Bianca Mikahn and Baris Loberg performed live in a streaming camera at the People’s Building in Aurora.
“They rose to the challenges of the pandemic and presented a play that spoke directly to the climate at a time when other theaters around the world were paralyzed,” said Goodwin, who until his resignation on Friday was the Executive Director of the Center for Fine Arts. at Colorado College.
Marchman is woefully young to talk about legacy, but he hopes that when people look back on the Black Actors Guild, they’ll grasp in three words what the experience meant most to him: Dopeness. Joy. Pride.
“The Denver art scene that we grew up in and helped grow in was like a garden,” he said. “Everyone was unique and different, but we were able to share the same sunlight, soil and nutrients. And messy as it was, sweet fruit grew from it.”
The Black Actors Guild, said Goodwin, will certainly be missed. “But I also know that their example will spark and inspire others to fill the void,” he said.
The question is… will there be a funding model to support them?