A Theater Far off the Beaten Path the Creede (Colo.) Rep Succeeds at What Few Troupes Would Attempt. THEATER

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THE Creede Repertory Theatre carved out a niche for itself 25 years ago in a volcanic ring high in the Rocky Mountains. One of the most successful small arts institutions in the state of Colorado, the company has won awards, received grants, and sold out its house night after night. Odd as it may seem, this summer company actually operates in the black.

Odd because, off the beaten path as it is, one has to look for the little town of Creede to find it. The only settlement in southern Colorado's Mineral County, Creede is not particularly easy to get to, and it's not on the road to anywhere else.

Silver mining has waxed and waned in its 100-year history, and many of its resident families and miners had moved on. Like so many other boom-to-bust economies, Creede's was forced to cultivate a new source of revenue - tourism.

Little by little the town renews its sidewalks, cleans up its front yards, removes mining tailings scarring the landscape, paints its store fronts, and dresses for company. It has a character all its own, quite distinct from other mountain communities, and at least part of that character emanates from the Creede Opera House, where the repertory theater attracts locals from all over the San Luis Valley and vacationers - more and more of whom have designed their entire trips around the rep's programs.

The nonprofit company recently raised $300,000 in remodeling funds to save its dilapidated theater. But it isn't the new plaster walls that matter to the audiences; it's the quality of the productions - surprisingly energetic and engaging, if sometimes uneven.

Some of the actors have been performing in Creede for years. But most are young talents drawn from around the country when artistic director Richard Baxter makes his winter audition tour. The actors he chooses need more than talent to make it to Creede because the theater company has an important responsibility to the small community. "If I don't think they can appreciate and co-mingle with the community I give it up. If it looks like they're too hooked on urban life - the excitement, the fast pace, the lights, and the 24-hour conveniences - if it looks like that's a necessity in their lives, they won't survive here.

"Some are just out of college, but most are making a living as actors," Baxter says, "just not in Equity houses. (Our) roles attract actors. They are attracted to the variety of material we do here - the changing roles day after day. The modest salary helps, but it's not the big drawing card. I think the location for some of them matters a lot - the chance to get out of New York or Dallas and live here in the mountains."

Baxter's formula for success lies in selecting plays and directors guaranteed to please an audience on vacation. And while the standard farce and the light comedy balance off against more serious fare, Baxter likes to take on a new play each season, too.

The formula works. The company brings in $1.7 million in tourist green to nurture not only Creede but the larger San Luis Valley: Theater patrons come to the restaurants, motels, and shops, and every night but Monday (when the theater is dark) the main street of Creede crackles with customers buying trinkets, treats, antiques, even art works before show time. …