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‘Weed’ stirs up feelings of déjà vu in Westcliffe

Article by Donna Walstrom

Mountain Live – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHEN THE PLAY Weed tumbled into Westcliffe, I didn’t know what to expect. Not from a show simply touted as a “one-act play about the modern west.” From the audience reaction to the performance staged at the renovated Jones Theater on September 16, I think lots of other townsfolk were surprised too. One comment during the discussion afterwards was along the lines of: “If I can get my jaw unclenched I’d like to respond to that question.”

I watched in amazement as this play dealt with issues — of growth, tourism, rural culture, and local versus national or state control — that were so similar to our local concerns in Westcliffe that I thought the play must have been written under our very noses in Custer County.

The idea behind the play, written by Micki Panttaja, is to address contemporary social issues on stage and to encourage discussion about those issues in small communities. Using theater to facilitate discussions seems to be working, according to the cast members. This thought-provoking play is being presented in several rural communities in Colorado that face comparable issues in varying degrees.

This approach reminded me of my days in Girl Scouts where we made up skits to deal with issues like peer pressure, saying no to smoking, what to do when friends turn on you and other things related to 13-year-old life.

The play, performed by members of the Creede Repertory Theatre, is presented with a multimedia format that I haven’t seen before and that, for me, helped drive home the point: lots of people out there have conflicting opinions about the same issues, much like here in our own community. The stage play is interspersed with a video that includes statements from actors and community people alike.

My favorite line from the video was “We’ve just moved here and we’ve got to get a handle on this growth.” For me that said it all, succinctly summing up the recent influx of new people to our neck of the woods and expressing their seemingly immediate desire to have new rules and regulations overlaid on our current ones.

The stage play is about how the various characters deal with the situations generated by the discovery of a plant — origin and type unknown — found on public lands that have been used for grazing by the same rancher for years.

AT THE PLAY’S ONSET, the rancher receives a call from the new range manager about a broken section of fence and that his cows are loose. While he’s rounding them up and checking the fence, he discovers a plant growing nearby and takes it home to his “flower sniffing” Native American wife. She doesn’t immediately recognize it and they put it out of their minds.

Meanwhile the range manager is attempting to learn her way around and fit into the small community, but she discovers that the residents aren’t welcoming her with open arms. The locals remember range managers of the past.

When the range manager hears about the plant, she sees it as an opportunity to do her job well. She takes the plant and hopes to find out if it is “an escaped ornamental or a lost plant of the West.”

As the plot unfolds, the rancher and his wife must decide whether or not to pass along what they know to the authorities, and the play focuses around the “weed” and how the situation should or should not be handled.

Finally, by the end, the actors representing different opinions are talking “with” each other about how to deal with the situation, rather than “at” each other about their viewpoint only. In several instances the lines in the play brought laughter from the audience, and in retrospect, most of that laughter was probably uncomfortable since we all saw ourselves in the issues on that stage.

After the play, Dr. Nancy Banham from Colorado State University and organizational consultant Stan Scott asked the audience questions about how the play made them feel, and what issues they saw in their own community that might stir up this kind of trouble.

I SAW, IN THE PLAY, issues that were directly related to our own in Custer County, which has been ranked, for the last two years, the fourth and fifth (respectively) fastest growing county in the nation.

[Cast of Weed. Photo by Donna Walstrom.]

Several folks claimed the play made them tense and a couple of viewers thought that it was because the issues hit so close to home. Some of those big issues potentially impacting our community are: the possible introduction of the Mexican spotted owl to areas of the Wet Mountains; water; the right to be the steward of your own land; real estate development; and the two upcoming amendments, Amendment 21 on tax-cuts that will hurt special districts, and Amendment 24, the one about slowing growth.

The play is part of a collaborative effort of the State Rural Development Councils of Colorado, Idaho, and Utah and has been performed in several communities including Telluride, Cortez, Durango, Salida, Vail and Cañon City. November performances are scheduled in Montrose, Grand Junction and Alamosa.

With the evening over, the play moved on to other rural communities, but it left behind the memory of questions asked and still not answered for our own small town. How we will, as a community, choose to handle these issues?

The answers are still to be determined, but I think the use of theater, in this case, was an interesting way to bring potentially controversial issues and how they affect our future to light.

Some costs of the production were underwritten by the Colorado Council on the Arts, a state agency. For more information about Weed, contact the Colorado Rural Development Council at 970-262-2073.

Donna Walstrom writes for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe and freelances in her spare time.