The Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center is a bit of high-end architecture in a town that hasn't seen a lot of that lately. (Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
Art didn't sneak into the suburbs like so many strip malls, or slip in quietly like another subdivision.
It entered with the blaring of classical trumpets and the stomping of Irish dancers. It sailed in on the voices of children's choirs and strummed onto the stage playing country fiddles. It sang "Hello, Dolly."
And it carried a message heard loud and clear by performing-arts fans at every backed-up exit along the interstate: YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY FOR PARKING ANY LONGER!
Well, that's one benefit for folks in Denver's south suburbs who are taking full advantage of the two theaters that appeared there last fall, upending the cultural landscape along the Front Range: the Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center (PACE) and, just 11 miles away, the Lone Tree Arts Center.
While taking different approaches, the two centers are defining for a new age what it means to be an arts hub in the land of cul-de-sacs and and park-n-Rides, combining touring stage shows with local performers, classes, meeting spaces and small-scale community programs. They are gleaming buildings with high ambitions, but they are not trying to duplicate what's available up the road in Denver.
"People ask if we are competing with the ballet or the symphony or the DCPA and the answer is no," said Lone Tree executive director Lisa Rigsby Peterson.
They couldn't if they wanted to, really. Both Parker and Lone Tree are limited to roughly 500 seats in their biggest spaces. The Ellie Caulkins Opera House, by comparison, seats 2,225.
"If you want to see the flagship works of those groups, you still have to go downtown," said Peterson. "But we are offering another opportunity to see first-rate artistic groups performing in a theater that is appropriate to the work they are presenting."
And rather then worrying that audiences will lose their incentive to drive a half-hour north, Denver's big acts are embracing what they see as an attractive outpost and an opportunity to expand audiences. The Colorado Ballet just announced it will bring its next production, a program of smaller dances called "Tribute," to Lone Tree on April 7, following four performances at the University of Denver's Newman Center. And the Colorado Symphony is in talks about how the Lone Tree center might work into its plans to present smaller chamber ensembles around the region. Possibilities exist for Opera Colorado and Central City Opera.
That's a big change for mid-sized municipalities that only a few months ago got their local theater in high school auditoriums and converted churches. It'll be a treat for the people of Parker to see Ballet Ariel's "Cinderella" in their own backyard next month. Though there's more than convenience at hand.
Building an arts center is rite of passage for a town; it hints at a heightened level of confidence and an enriched sense of identity. Arvada has found its soul over the past 20 years as the Arvada Center has grown and developed into a solid suburban space for theater and visual arts. It's no small deal that both Parker and Lone Tree — in tough economic times and in a political climate that isn't always friendly to government-supported art — chose to use public money to join the fold.
Municipally owned and operated, the theaters bring reward but also risk. A city goes into show business when it becomes an arts presenter, and the good citizens can take it personally if they don't like what's on stage.
Building, a dream
Truth be told, Parker and Lone Tree could have put up corrugated steel sheds and called them theaters. That's not how it went.
Parker spent more than a decade planning and building its center and it did so thoughtfully, spending $21.7 million on a detailed building created by Semple Brown Design, one of the region's best firms. PACE is a bit of high-end architecture in a town that hasn't seen a lot of that lately.
It's the rare building that succeeds in telling a town who it is, but PACE actually does give clues to what it means to be Parker, Colo. Like the people, it is connected to the outdoors. It is set on a network of walking trails and its windows frame curvy views of the landscape. One of its best features is a rough outdoor amphitheater, a welcome spot for concerts on cool Colorado evenings.
Red-brick walls offer a nod to the existing architecture of Parker's old downtown where it is located, and there's a recurring motif on the walls and floors, a sort of slanty tic-tac-toe design that references the rail line that used to cross the site.
"Parker was a town before it was housing developments and there is some real history you can touch," said Semple Brown's Chris Wineman.
The design evolved as Parker figured out what was possible in a cultural center. In the end, it came to include a dance studio, a meeting room that doubles as a black box theater, dressing rooms, a teaching kitchen, an art gallery, media lab and classrooms. The theater has great acoustics and 536 seats, but it's just part of the programming and the building reflects that; the open windows of the dance studio you see from the front of the building are a signal that that PACE is a place to participate, not just watch.
"We didn't want to be a Lincoln Center, beating you over the head with the obligation to be cultured," said Wineman. "We didn't design a three-story lobby or sink resources into impressing you."
PACE cultural director Jeannene Bragg sums it up this way: "This is a place where you can come in your little black dress or you can come in your jeans."
In Parker, the public is already taking advantage of its meeting space, which also brings in rental income for the center. But its main events will take place on stage. There aren't a lot of 500-seat theaters around, good ones anyway, that aren't already promised most nights to resident companies, and that positions the center as a regional draw for audiences beyond the southern suburbs.
"The advantage we have as a presenting house is that we can pick a diversity of work they might not have had the opportunity to see anywhere else in Colorado," said Peterson.
In that regard, the possibilities are endless. Family shows like the upcoming Spencers Theatre of Illusion, international grown-up fair like this month's Tartan Terrors, and even the occasional off-beat title, like the recent (and self explanatory) "One Man Star Wars Trilogy," are filling a local void. There isn't a lot of non-music programming around here aimed at 20-somethings.
Theaters that rely on presenting, rather than producing, face the danger of becoming downscale vaudeville outlets — all magicians and dog acts (dog acts are fine, really, but not art). That's not likely to happen in Lone Tree, which has developed a clever set of partnerships with some the state's best producing companies. The highly regarded Creede Repertory Theatre, which usually performs five hours away, will bring its work. Musicals will migrate down from the Arvada Center. Denver's Stories on Stage will perform and so will the music group Kantorei. They city recently announced a round of grants that will make even more things possible.
Still, like Bragg, her counterpart in Parker (with whom she shares information, not bookings), Rigsby points out that the center isn't just for ticket buyers. The $23.5 million facility, with its intimate theater, dressing rooms, gallery and and rehearsal spaces, is there for community groups to use. High-school plays are already booked.
Well-designed buildings with top-notch theaters send a signal that the arts are important. And access to them elevates kids' imaginations, and their art. "'They get the same advice and assistance the professionals get, Rigsby said.
Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540 or firstname.lastname@example.org
PARKER ARTS, CULTURE & EVENTS CENTER. 20000 Pikes Peak Ave., Parker. For tickets and information: parkeronline.org or 303-805-6800.