Published: June 21, 2014
WESTCLIFFE - If not for a Siren from Laguna Beach, the Tempest might not have touched down in this tiny town high in the alpine hinterlands of the Sangre de Cristos.
Veteran stage and screen actress Anne Kimbell Relph first came to the Wet Mountain Valley from California in the early 1990s in search of affordable land where her daughter could ride horses. Once in town, though, a different property caught her eye - the historic Jones Theater, which opened on Main Street in the 1920s in a building that had previously housed a pool hall and saloon. The movie house was for sale but, Relph was disappointed to learn, under contract to buyers who planned to convert the space into a laundromat.
"A theater is more than just a place to see movies. It's the center of social activities for a town," Relph said. "Once a town loses a theater, it never builds another one. Especially in a small town like this."
By the time she returned to Custer County to purchase the tract of land that originally drew her there, the contract for the theater had fallen through. Relph bought the building with money from her the estate of her late mother, who'd once worked as an agent in Hollywood.
"She loved small theaters more than anything in the world, and I thought that would be a good thing to do with her money," Relph said.
In the 22 years since Relph took over, the theater has grown to serve as both cultural hub and wide-ranging beacon to artistic types seeking a creatively vibrant - and visually stunning - place to lay their berets, for at least part of the year.
Relph helped found the nonprofit Westcliffe Center for the Performing Arts and oversaw the addition of a stage for live theater, dance and music performances, as well as a new addition that houses dressing rooms, performance and living space for summer acting interns. A recent $60,000 upgrade to a digital projection system for first-run movies was paid for through grants and local fundraising. New-age musician George Winston has performed fund-raising concerts at the venue as part of his project to keep rural movie houses from disappearing from the American landscape.
Because a thriving theater scene can inspire more than just stage-bound action.
"Most people think small towns are boring, but Westcliffe is anything but. There's so much creative and artistic talent here," said Bev Allen, a Westcliffe resident and community theater actor who works at Colorado State University at Pueblo. "I never acted before. In a bigger city or town, I never would have been given a chance to do this."
The nonprofit theater group's premiere summer event - "Shakespeare in the Sangres" - kicked off Thursday with the Bard's "Comedy of Errors;" that play, along with Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid," will be performed on an alternating basis through July 6.
The summer Shakespeare program began serendipitously eight years ago, after Relph's Westcliffe neighbor - Beverly Hills landscape architect Garett Carlson - ran into a hitch with plans to continue beautifying the open space behind his 2nd Street restaurant. Carlson had built a "grotto-like" stage and was going to put in a lake, but ran into water permitting issues, Relph said.
"We walked by and saw that grotto he built and said, 'The Tempest.' It was perfect. That's how we started the Shakespeare festival," said Relph, who has her own ties to acting.
She starred with Eddie Bracken on Broadway in "The Seven Year Itch," with Marlon Brando in a summer stock production of "Arms and the Man," and was leading lady at the Elitch Theater in Denver. Billed as Anne Kimbell, Relph appeared in a number of low-budget adventure movies in the late 1940s and 50s, including "The Golden Idol" and "Monster from the Ocean Floor," the first film by horror-camp king Roger Corman.
"I got the part because I could swim, more than anything else," said Relph, who during the summer moths lives in an apartment behind the movie house. "I had been in the theater but I had never been in community theater, so when I started this I had to start from scratch. Over the years, we've put (the theater) back together."
Dan Hiester,who teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver, helped found the festival and returns to Westcliffe each summer to direct and act in the season's offerings. For his version of Shakespeare's work, Hiester adapted some parts of the original play to connect with more modern - and local - audiences.
"People tend to be afraid of Shakespeare because they had to take it in high school," he said. "The chief thing we try to do is let the audience know off the bat that it's not scary. It's just great storytelling. We make it accessible. We'll make a few jokes about Westcliffe, too."
For Westcliffe's visitors and residents - both those descended from homesteaders and those with seasonal addresses - "Shakespeare in the Sangres" is about more than sharing the great works of the stage. Much like "The Comedy of Errors," the endeavor at large is about identity, and changing perceptions.
"The people of the town and the valley have really embraced this. They're proud of it," Heister said. "It's their festival."