RINO — The Denver Metro area has a new option for youth theater, and judging by the recent production of Romeo and Juliet in a North Denver warehouse, it is high quality, edgy, innovative, and drawing committed and talented teens. Modest Arts is the brainchild of Neil Truglio, the recent former theater teacher for Aurora’s Eaglecrest High School. Truglio offers classes and productions for high school age youth that he describes as college preparatory, “high school theater without the walls of the high school.” He and the students might also add, without the frustrating intervention of school administrators.
We acknowledge that there are usually two sides to every story, but because the focus of this article is on Modest Arts going forward, we did not reach out and follow up with the school.
I spoke with Truglio following a performance of the show in mid-January. He described his goal as preparing high school students for college theater programs, giving those with a passion for performing an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve as actors. Truglio also works with the kids collaboratively throu
ghout the rehearsal process, letting them drive some of the content and style, taking advantage of the unique and special skills that they eachbring. Romeo and Juliet included music, dance, and singing throughout, with much of the creative force behind those aspects coming from the youth.
In this first production, all of the teens in the cast and crew were Eaglecrest students. Truglio is intent on expanding on this base to include other students, but his core will likely be his former students from the high school. He has a very loyal following among the students and their parents, notable considering that the performance venue used for this show, a beautiful vacant RINO warehouse just a bit too close to a nearby rail line, is 25 miles from Eaglecrest High School. Even so, the students made the trek many times, some undoubtedly relying on parent chauffeurs. And even without being allowed to post flyers at the school, the audience was chock full of high school aged kids, many of them most likely friends and supporters from Eaglecrest.
All Modest Arts performances are followed by a talkback with the cast and crew, and these kids were not shy about expressing their opinions. They emphasized the importance of taking a classic like Shakespeare and tying it to “what we experience today.” They talked about having the freedom to push themselves, saying that “the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward,” and “the sky’s the limit.” They also mentioned that they were “not censored here, and it opened us up,” describing a few things that they did which would not have been allowed in a school production, at least not at Eaglecrest. Most importantly, they talked about how this production of Romeo and Juliet “helped us grow, helped us get a sense of the real world.” These kids, like most high school theater kids, had only experienced working on productions inside the cocoon of their own high school, and sometimes this can be problematic when they graduate and try and go out into the wider world. Even with a progressive teacher that pushes boundaries as Truglio apparently did, working outside of the school environment is a big step, but one that these kids clearly appreciate, and will learn the full benefit of once they go off to college.
In this production, Truglio and his cast put the timeless classic Romeo and Juliet into a context and setting that tied closely with what kids experience today. One choice was to cast Capulets and Montagues based on race. Given what I expect is a predominantly white Eaglecrest student population, this meant Romeo had a much smaller family, but it did transport the issues of the show directly into contemporary culture. The set, with multiple levels of scaffolding, the rock concert style lighting with flashing strobes and saturated colors, and the contemporary costumes in blacks and grays, all helped make the show much more accessible to today’s audience, especially the younger crowd.
Several things particularly impressed me about the performance. The energy level was high throughout, and very intense at times. These teenagers handled the language very well, speaking quickly at most times, and rarely if ever stumbling on the Elizabethan language. This comfort with the language enabled them to communicate much more through their tone, movement, expressions, and interactions with each other. And there were no weak actors in the cast. Even those with smaller roles handled everything well. With a large cast of 27, this is particularly remarkable, and is a reflection of the quality of the leadership and the commitment and dedication of the youth.
Having only one show to base predictions on is risky, but the performance of Romeo and Juliet that I experienced bodes very well for the future of Modest Arts. Integrating acting courses with regular productions is an effective way to have each support the other; it ensures that the students have opportunities to perform, and it raises the quality of those performances. The company plans to present a musical in the spring, though specifics such as which musical and where it will be produced are up in the air. But Neil Truglio and his loyal students seem to thrive on this uncertainty, so I expect it will be something creative, unique, energetic, edgy, and fun to watch, whatever and wherever it is.