Lon Winston Handing Over Leadership
“Don’t be hard on yourself, it takes you out of character.” That’s Lon Winston’s advice to an actor in Rashomon, the last production of Thunder River Theatre’s 2015-16 season.
It’s also the theater’s last season with Winston at its helm.
In an early rehearsal, Winston is animated, engaged. He looks like the biker he is, wearing a Sturgis T-shirt and jeans, his ubiquitous leather jacket tossed nearby. He paces the theater, observing the actors and stage from all over the room, adjusting blocking and discussing technical details in whispers. He’s lanky, his face somewhat gaunt, his eyes intense and narrowed as he coaxes the actor to reach a little deeper, to make the audience remember “that satisfaction you get from suffering over something again.”
In August, Winston will hand over the title of executive artistic director to Corey Simpson, a 44-year-old with an extensive theater background. Rashomon, a thousand-year-old tale from Kyoto, Japan, will mark Winston’s final curtain call after a 50-year career in theater and 20 years as the founder and creative force behind the Thunder River Theatre Company (TRTC) in Carbondale.
It has been quite a run. Since its founding, TRTC has put on 67 stage productions. Winston was artistic director for most of them, as well as playing key roles as fundraiser, set designer and stage director. He’s played roles ranging from a hair-raising portrayal of Lee, the alcoholic thief in Sam Shepard’s True West, to the comedic Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo.
Under Winston’s direction, TRTC won the 2012 Henry Award for regional theater from the Colorado Theatre Guild, which commended TRTC for “raising the bar” for theaters across the state.
Winston credits much of this “bar raising” to Valerie Haugan, his creative partner of 20 years and the actress who played opposite him in a 2012-13 production of Passionate Collaborators: George Burns & Gracie Allen. TRTC has been a labor of love for both of these passionate collaborators; for the first 11 years, the two ran the operation for no money. For the next five, they worked for a combined salary of $15,000.
Winston describes Haugen, TRTC’s only other “lifetime” board member, as “an incredible writer, a brilliant actor and the smartest intellectual I have ever known.” After Winston directed Haugen in 50 plays, Haugen directed him in American Buffalo. The two have written original pieces together, fostered emerging playwrights and explored the classics. Their Greek Shards series, which included Lysistrata, Medea and Antigone, took pieces of classic Greek plays and stitched them together with new writing, bringing an entire myth cycle to a single show.
TRTC’s roots reach back into the Carbondale Council for Arts and Humanities (CCAH). In 1995, Winston was CCAH board president.
Winston and his wife, Debra, had moved to the Roaring Fork Valley three years earlier, leaving behind an intellectual life as professors at Villanova University outside Philadelphia. Winston quickly became involved in theater in Aspen and beyond.
CCAH was mainly concerned with giving grants and scholarships from coffers fueled by Mountain Fair and private donations. But CCAH’s executive director, Thomas Lawley, wanted more. One morning he and Winston met with CCAH board members Chris Bank and Nancy Becker to discuss ideas. Drawing on the Mountain Fair funding model, Winston suggested that CCAH would play the role of “producer” to a roving theater company; the theatrical troupe would get paid for its work and the profits would roll back to CCAH.
Winston even had a name picked out: Thunder River. The moniker came from a sheepskin trading empire that Lon and Debra had started to fund their Aspen theater exploits.
The roving theater proved a golden fleece. Working out of an 18-wheeler in venues all over the valley, the company brought in $80,000 for CCAH in its first five seasons. Then in 2004, the theater sought its independence.
Although Winston has played Greek characters on the boards, it’s the King Midas he’s played offstage that has been a leitmotif for the theater: TRTC began fundraising in February, broke ground in May and opened on New Year’s Eve with a completely paid-for building!
“You make your own luck,” he comments, noting that a core group supporters of brought in more than half of the money while more than a hundred donated in more modest ways.
The new theater’s black box design and wrap-around seating offered a versatile canvas. The productions Winston has staged there draw on what he learned from environmental theater pioneer Jerry Rojo, who taught at the University of Connecticut, where Winston earned his graduate degree. Under Rojo, Winston learned to design, draft and build both traditional sets as well as multilayered, and sometimes mechanical, interactive environments.
While Winston’s recent stage designs have tended more toward the traditional, they exude an aesthetic intimacy. Hamlet as adapted, directed and designed by Winston in 2014-15, drew extensively on Winston’s experimental theater background and his understanding of ritual. Winston used masks as ever-present representations of ego and death, and he drew attention to the language and the humanity of Shakespeare’s play with a minimalist stage.
These days, off stage, Winston, like King Henry II—a role he played to much critical acclaim in TRTC’s 2014-15 season—is much concerned with succession and the health of his theatrical kingdom. Like Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt, who declaimed, “Oh how that name befits my composition! Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old,” Winston is counting his days dear. He’s aware that time flies. “I am handing over the reins because I turned 70 on June 16 and it’s time to do more traveling and have more fun with Debra,” he says.
Winston knows he’s leaving a legacy, and he’s standing on strong shoulders. He describes a ritual the company upholds: “Before each performance, we each look each of the others in the eyes and say, ‘I’m here for you.’ He adds, “If you know everyone is there for you, then you don’t have to worry about you.”
TRTC has deep local roots and devoted group of core funders who will be there for the theater. Lon and Debra, his wife of 42 years, are in the group; TRTC is the main beneficiary of both of their wills. Also in the group is Carbondale’s foremost philanthropist Jim Calaway, who taught Winston that one must be prepared to “give until it hurts.” Winston takes this lesson quite literally. (Though perhaps he truly learned it in grad school when he lost the end of his finger to a table saw while building sets in the middle of the night.)
Unlike Henry II, the character Winston played in Lion in Winter, Lon is not facing a crisis of succession. Corey Simpson, who studied theater at CU Boulder and worked with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and Illusion Theatre, as well as for the National Geographic Society, is a worthy successor and has spent the past year working with Lon.
While supporting Simpson, Winston will remain on TRTC’s board for life, ensuring that Thunder River continues “to challenge the audience and [the players] through communal dialogue about our world.”