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Merely Players theater company finds home

Marc Arbeeny, far left, Sarah Syverson, left, and Ian Thomas perform in the Merely Players production of “Metamorphoses.”

Merely Players, our shining, home-grown, and carefully-nurtured local theater company, has finally found a home.

“Right now, our new space is simply a large storage area,” said co-founder and artistic director Mona Wood-Patterson. “But we are working steadily to renovate it. We have time to do so, because we are not in production.”

Over the last several months and despite the pandemic, the Players have defied the odds by staging three productions. Two have been available to patrons virtually: “ZOOM Alice” and “Wakey Wakey.” Last September, a lively open-air production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” was staged at Jenkins Ranch Park. Not to be defeated, Wood-Patterson said that sometime in 2021, the company will open in a new space “when the pandemic allows.”

Merely Players has been a wandering troupe of players since 1995. Its first production took place in the Chapman Hill Shed, where skiers warmed up between cold, winter runs. I remember that performance of Sam Shephard’s “True West,” because it was so compelling. I wrote about it for The Durango Herald, and I’ve been an attentive reviewer ever since.

The Players, co-founded by Wood-Patterson and Charles Ford, came into existence out of the crucible of their award-winning Durango High School drama program. After receiving just about every local and state award, not to mention the International Thespian Society and a Fulbright to England, the artistic-and-technical directors envisioned a new company of players that would enrich the cultural life of the community by continuing to provide quality theater.

Charlie Grice and Geoff Johnson duel in Merely Players’ production of “Much Ado About Nothing” last summer at Jenkins Ranch Park.

The Players have had to be endlessly creative about where to perform. Fans will recall productions at standard venues like The Strater Hotel, Durango Arts Center or the two stages at Fort Lewis College. More vividly, the company has transformed spaces in the Durango Public Library or Bank of Colorado, not to mention the former Powerhouse Boiler Room. Most memorably, the company splashed Mary Zimmerman’s Ovid-inspired “Metamorphoses” in the Mountain Shadows Motel swimming pool.

“Someone came up to me after our Shakespeare performance outdoors at James Ranch and said, ‘Being a Merely Players fan is like being on a scavenger hunt. You never know where you’ll be or what you’ll find,’” Wood-Patterson said in a 2018 interview.

For a quarter of a century, then, the Players have been a peripatetic troupe delighting in “found spaces,” a modern arts phenomenon that sprang out of the early 20th century Dada movement and now spans all the arts. Found objects, found sound, found poetry. In drama, a real street, a courtroom, a ski shed or a playground might be chosen to resemble a play’s setting.

From its inception, Merely Players has been part of that international phenomenon. The intention is to create a different experience for actors and audience.

Well, the Players have now signed a lease on an affordable storage space cum black-box theater.

“After years of storing lighting and sound equipment, tools, props, furniture, lumber and costumes in various units scattered across town, we have rented facilities for set building, rehearsals and classes,” Wood-Patterson said. “But the good news doesn’t stop there. The space invites us to create a new vision for our company, and – with the blessing of the building, fire and zoning departments – we have started renovations to transform a portion of it into a black-box performing space.”

To be only slightly more specific, Wood-Patterson added that the new Merely Players home “is a large basement located in Durango’s Tech Center. We have named it ‘Merely Underground.’ It is a serendipitous, funky space that is a playground of possibility. We choose to imagine what it can become.”

There’s plenty of work to be done. Watch for announcements in 2021.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.