Thin Air Theatre Company Calls It Quits In Cripple Creek

New Chapter Unfolds for Butte

~ by Rick Langenberg ~
Final curtain time is looming for the main company that has performed shows at the Butte Theater for the last decade. 
Pending any last-minute developments, the Thin Air Theater Company (TATC) will perform its final production at the Butte during the annual Christmas show, entitled Angel of the Christmas Mine  
“It’s unfortunate. We were really looking forward to next year,” said Chris Armbrister, the artistic producer of Thin Air Theatre Company in an interview on Sunday. He said the company had planned to perform about seven shows for 2018, including such highlights as My Partner, Young Frankenstein and the Christmas show.  
He cited artistic and financial differences with the Butte Theater board as the main reasons for the company’s final curtain call at the end of this season. “We just couldn’t agree on the terms,” said the TATC producer.  
However, live theater will still continue at the Butte. The city has tentatively secured a new company to operate professional productions at the facility, according to a report from a recent council meeting. City officials will probably make a more detailed announcement regarding the situation at the Butte at their next meeting in December.
“It will be business as usual,” said Mayor Bruce Brown, who doesn’t see any letdown in activity at the Butte. “We will have a new company to run it.”  According to the mayor, Butte Theater veteran Mel Moser, who works for the city, is finalizing the arrangements with a potential new operator, called the Mountain Repertory Theatre (MRT).
“MRT is co-led by longtime Butte actor Kevin Pierce, as well as by Molly Wissinger and Aaron Stahlecker, longtime friends of the Butte, who bring a high level of experience and dedication to the theatre,” according to an e-mail by Emily Andrews, executive director of the Butte Theater board. “The Butte is nothing but grateful for the many wonderful shows produced by TATC, and additionally is so excited for the future of the theater with MRT,” she added. 
Armbrister regretted the decision, noting that TATC has served the Cripple Creek area for the last 10 years, and has done more than 50 productions, featuring top actors and performers from across the globe “This was an important part of my life for the last decade,” said the TATC producer.  
But apparently money played a key role the curtain being drawn for TATC.  For next year, the Butte board, according to Armbrister, wanted to change the payment structure. Instead of offering TCTC a flat fee to operate and produce the shows, the proposed arrangement called for a good portion of the funds to come from a certain percentage of the box office proceeds.
“That would put a lot of risk on TATC, said Armbrister, who wasn’t sure the company could pay its performers under the proposed structure.  In the past, TATC worked directly under the reins of the city, and were provided a flat annual fee for producing shows, actor salaries, set designs and a TATC payment. This fee had hovered close to the $300,000 mark in the last few years, according to the company producer.  
Two years ago, the city formed a Butte Theater board for the purpose of trying to do more fund-raising and to generate grants. The ultimate goal of the Butte Theater is to become more financially independent from the city.
But the TATC producer concedes that more than money was involved.
“There were some artistic differences and that’s not surprising in this business,” said Armbrister. “That is life.”
That said, he lauded the quality of their shows that offered much diversity and covered the gamut from classic melodrama and Broadway musicals, to community performances and popular comedies/dramas. TATC and the Butte shows won top laurels in virtually every Best Of Cripple Creek contest, hosted by The Mountain Jackpot newspaper. And in a letter to the editor, the TATC producer stated that he enjoyed working with a variety of city leaders.  
Butte board members and city leaders say great care and diligence was taken during the recent negotiations with TATC. They are optimistic about the city’s new theatrical direction.  
The Thin Air Theatre Company was founded when the original family that started the Butte, Steve and Bonnie Mackin, called it quits a little more than a decade ago. The Mackins every year produced the melodrama and a Christmas show.  They operated a private theater company and received a small financial contribution from the city. The Mackin family actually played a key role in putting Cripple Creek on the theater map years ago with their legendary melodrama shows at the old Imperial Hotel. In fact, a few of the veteran TATC peformers, such as Moser, actually got their theatrical start in doing melodrama shows for the Mackins at the Imperial.    
The city, under the leadership of former Mayor Ed Libby, then embarked on a more aggressive year-round Butte season, with live theater becoming more of a city-based operation.
According to Armbrister, TATC may still try to find a new home in another locale. He said they are mulling a number of options in Colorado and in other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, the Butte will soon embark on a new theatrical chapter.  This will mark the third major professional company that has operated the Butte in the last 17 years.