Germinal Stage is leaving its theater building, but the memories play on
A half-dozen years ago, Ed Baierlein, artistic director for Germinal Stage, played Captain Shotover in Shaw's Heartbreak House. It was one of those definitive performances: Shotover is the aging paterfamilias of an extended English family that is sailing, smug and unknowing, straight into the storms of World War One. The man is both dotty and wise, tired and idealistic; he represents the soul of his era, and he also sees beyond it.
Kristina Denise Pitt and Ed Baierlein in Heartbreak House.
There's a scene in which Ellie, the spirited young Shavian heroine, talks to him about a marriage of convenience she's about to enter into, and he warns her against it: "You are going to let the fear of poverty govern your life, and your reward will be that you will eat, but you will not live." Somewhere in those moments Ellie decides that this is the man she loves, despite the huge difference in their ages.
I will never see or think of the play again without seeing Baierlein's Shotover and remembering the speech that so clearly illustrates Baierlein's own choices and devotion to his art.
Germinal Stage Denver has been around since 1973, and moved to its current location on West 44th Avenue a few blocks off Federal Boulevard in 1987. The theater is one of a kind -- from the strange, circuitous entryway that leads to the box office window, behind which you'll find Baierlein or his wife, actress Sallie Diamond, giving out tickets, to the intimate auditorium where the walls are lined with photographs of past productions and you can study the astonishingly young faces of people who are now respected veteran actors and wonder what happened to other favorites long vanished.
Then there's the small stage on which Baierlein is somehow able to create complex and expansive worlds, using and re-using a few items of furniture, re-imagining the space, while Diamond works wonders with costumes. "No actor ever more than thirty feet from your nose," boasts the theater
But the building is ancient. "The next time it needed a major repair, I don't think we'd be able to handle it from a financial standpoint," Baierlein says. And though Germinal has a cadre of devoted followers, he continues, "Our audience is graying or dying, with not a lot of young people coming along to take their place."
Inside Germinal Stage Denver.
So late last year, he sold the building to real estate developer Jack Pottle, who has roots in the Sunnyside neighborhood. The company intends to complete its final season, which includes Spoon River Anthology (February 8 through March 19) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (May 3 through June 9) and ends in August. (At the moment, Marat/Sade is scheduled starting July 19, but that's likely to change. Check for updates at www.germinalstage.com.)
After that, Baierlein, who's now 69, hopes to stage a few productions a year in rented spaces, working with son Tad. "It turned out that as I'm getting older, the strain not only of the building and the fact that it might betray us down the line, but also of actually doing a season gets to be like a treadmill," he says. "I haven't had much of a vacation in my whole life. I've never been out of work, and that's great, but a treadmill is still a treadmill."
There was a time when Germinal and Al Brooks's Changing Scene were the only theater game in town. Joey Favre's The Third Eye, which preceded Germinal, closed up shop in the early 1970s. There was no Denver Center Theatre Company. There were no medium-sized professional companies like Curious Theatre, zany experimentalists like Buntport or ambitious small groups mushrooming up in dusty converted spaces around town. While Brooks put on original works in the lively, experimental style of the 1960s and occasionally took dancers out into the woods to be filmed cavorting naked, Germinal evolved out of and remains shaped by Baierlein's primary passion: language and the vocabulary of the theater arts themselves.
He staged all kinds of important plays, American and European: Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, John Mortimer, Chekhov, Ionesco, Moliere, Arthur Kopit, Eugene O'Neill, Edward Albee. Some of the pieces were heavy with thought, others hysterically funny. Baierlein isn't a popularizer; he doesn't court new audiences or plan with a finger in the wind. His seasons have been entirely defined by his own tastes and predilections, and he's more interested in literary and time-tried works than in plays by new or developing writers.
He is also interested in experimentation, but not the kind of loosely Grotowski- inspired experimentation happening all over New York when Germinal was in its infancy, the kind of work that disdained words and tried to make theater out of movement and sound alone, creating rituals intended as primal and also intended -- in some semi-mystical and inarticulable way -- to change the world. Baierlein's vision was postmodern and more austere. An early offering was Peter Handke's Insulting the Audience -- and you have to hand it to Baierlein: What other fledgling company would stage a work whose unapologetic goal was alienating viewers?