By Ryan Conarro, Visiting Teaching Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre
In April 2021, with the support of the DU Grand Challenges (DUGC) Advancing Community-Engaged (ACE) Student Scholarship Grant program, SAINTS OF FAILURE was presented at Historic Grant Avenue Church in South Denver. Co-produced by the DU Department of Theatre and Generator Theater Company, SAINTS OF FAILURE is an interdisciplinary performance work and community engagement initiative led by artist Ryan Conarro, exploring the frictions of LGBTQ+ experiences and religion in America, using storytelling, original organ music, and live makeup transformations. SAINTS uses autobiographical stories of spirituality and queerness to invite audiences into raw, humorous, and profound reflections on loss, discovery, and liberation. After its premiere in 2019 in New York City at Brooklyn’s Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, for which it was recognized with a 2019 NBC OUT Queer Performer Spotlight, DUGC’s ACE Grant support made possible a new performance run in Denver.
The ACE Grant supported student researchers Ashley Wagner and Newt Fantalis, as they collaborated with faculty mentors Ryan Conarro, Shannon McKinney, Janice Benning Lacek, and Steven McDonald, and with three community partners: our venue, Historic Grant Avenue Church and Sacred Space (HGA); The Center on Colfax; and PFLAG Denver. Facilitators from these advocacy organizations hosted a series of conversations in which audiences/viewers engaged in reflection and story-sharing.
DUGC’s ACE award specifically supported the work of student artists Ashley Wagner and Newt Fantalis on the production and performance run of SAINTS OF FAILURE. Wagner and Fantalis worked as technicians for several aspects of production design, with a particular focus on lighting design (under the mentorship of faculty member Shannon McKinney) and makeup design (under the mentorship of guest artist Risha Rox, Los Angeles-based makeup artist, and faculty member Ryan Conarro). Wagner and Fantalis were integral to the load-in and load-out of the production at Historic Grant Avenue Church, and they assumed leadership roles throughout the 2-and-a-half-week production process and performance run, including stage management, board operation, and house management. The students were able to accrue real-world production and community engagement credits with Generator Theater Company, while also being compensated, thanks to DUGC’s support, for their vital contributions to realizing the production. The students stepped into roles in which they engaged in impactful work alongside faculty, with real responsibility and agency, all the while being supported by faculty guidance and mentorship.
Both Wagner and Fantalis will apply their learning from this project in their future paths as theatre majors and artists. Fantalis continues to pursue opportunities for stage and production management; Wagner’s learnings about site-specific technical production will directly inform her work as a sound technician in an outdoor professional theatre production in Colorado this summer.
SAINTS OF FAILURE reached over 200 audience members who attended the performance live, as well as the community engagement dialogues.
We thank the DUGC AGE Grant Program for your support!
Editor’s Note: This work was supported with an ACE Student Scholars Grant, thanks to the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations for DU Grand Challenges.