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Building the oasis in a cultural desert

We were, frankly, looking at a modest Sunday this past week. The usual cartoon fest pre-me dragging my redolent and indolent hairy carcass into the kitchen, comatose, to make a pot of coffee and plant myself on the couch for Meet the Press. Later, whip up some bacon and egg, do the dishes and figure out what the rest of the day would entail.

There was no reason to get particularly ambitious and no one was arguing that point.

A little before ten, the phone rang. Huh? Anyone who really knows me is aware that my Sunday mornings involve a process of evolution, with me pretty much at the amphibian stage at nine, barely simian by eleven and just entering homo sapiens by noon. If the knuckle dragging ends by mid-afternoon and I’ve mastered too use by five, it’s a good day.

Mustering up whatever a.m. language skills I had, I lifted the receiver and grunted a “Hello? Whatever?”

It was Laura Moore, director and co-owner of the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. Apparently unaware of my chronic Sunday condition and uncommonly cheery for that hour of the morning, she was inviting me and the brood to attend a matinee performance that the PSCA was featuring.

A matinee performance in Pagosa Springs? Really — theatre? An honest-to-God play on stage with lights and curtains and an audience not prone to warhoops?

I was skeptical, certainly. After all, this is a place where the aroma of the Old West lingers like the smell of a hard-ridden horse, where any black-tie affair allows Stetsons, ostrich skin boots and belt buckles the size of hub caps. Where turquoise set off with silver feathers still qualify as haute coutre and a beaded blouse (rhinestones arranged in a rough resemblance of a thunderbird) will win high praise from the local cognoscenti.

Um, sure, I said, ambivalent at least and, at worst, wondering if I was going to spend ninety minutes watching two kids in a cow costume stomp around and passing Shredded Wheat while some yokel reached too far with cracks about birth certificates and New Mexico drivers.

Look, for those of us who have decided to set down roots in Pagosa Country, the reasons for settling down here are as diverse as our local flora and fauna. But that’s the point — most of us settled here for the proximity to wildlife (many for huntin’ n’ fishin’), forests, streams, water, mountains ... a vibrant cultural life was probably not a priority for the vast majority of us.

For those who made a cultural environment their priority, I’m reminded of the exchange in “Casablanca” where Louis asks Rick, “Why Casablanca?”

Rick: “I came here for the waters.”

Louis: “Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.”

Rick: “Obviously, I was misinformed.”

When Tim and Laura Moore made the decision to relocate here, purchasing the old Paint Connection building for the purpose of creating a performance space, I doubt they chose us for the waters (although we all know there’s a lot to recommend in the waters we have).

Indeed, it appears they made Pagosa Springs their home for the purpose of creating an amenity that this area had sorely lacked: a professional, inviting performance space that would suit the sophisticated tastes of theatre fans in any major city.

In that, they have succeeded.

The matinee we attended on Sunday — “Fully Committed” — was a pleasant surprise. Admittedly, on hearing that it was a one-man show, I was very leery. Bringing to mind some D-list comedian doing pathetic character imitations (obviously, I have endured my share), it was in fact a full-on performance, a real play and not some maudlin autobiographical monologue.

Still, as the house lights went down, I girded myself, prepared for an afternoon of eye-rolling and groans.

Fortunately, in no time my guard was down and I was engaged, attentive, entertained and laughing out loud.

As Sam Peliczowski, a New York actor making his living taking reservations for an upscale Manhattan restaurant, Christopher Willard displays a range and depth that never overreaches or comes across as cloying. Performing the voices of demanding (and self-involved customers), clueless restaurant staffers and friends and family, Willard’s corybantic performance never rings false as anyone who has had a thankless job like Sam’s knows: how it is to have far too many demands with little or no appreciation, all while aspiring to bigger and better things.

The standing ovation at the end of the performance was spontaneous and well-deserved. I assume anyone attending would recommend getting out to see “Fully Committed” (performances are scheduled for tonight, tomorrow night and Saturday night).

The play was not the only thing that far exceeded my low (and frankly, cynical) expectations. Although my daughters participate in Laura’s acting class (which they thoroughly love), the last time I’d been inside the PSCA, the Moores were in the process of setting up for the Rotary’s Mardis Gras Casino Night and the space was still well under construction.

The transformation since then has been miraculous, not just in how much (and how well) the Moores have done in a short amount of time but in the sense that, really, I would never have expected a space like PSCA to emerge in lil’ ol’ Pagosa. Sure, Denise and Michael Coffee have been exceeding tiny-minded expectations for about ten years but I always considered SHY RABBIT to be an anomaly, an alien visitation in a small mountain town. The PSCA builds on what the Coffees wrought, in a big way.

Yes, there are a host of galleries and shops in Pagosa but frankly, they mostly appeal to a narrow audience seeking western or southwestern art. That’s fine and I’m not here to diminish the value in that. But not expecting to find that here is like going to China and being surprised that there are so many noodle dishes on the menu.

What the Coffees do — and now the Moores — is like finding a French restaurant in Beijing.

The PSCA lobby is absolutely gorgeous. Combining gallery space for local artists along with a space large enough to host music and events, there is nothing like it in the Four Corners area (as far as I’m concerned).

That lobby also serves as a large entry way to the “black box” stage space. Again, my own bloated and boorish snobbery was taken down several notches as I entered the “black box” room. It was obviously the work of people who knew what they were doing, the pièce de résistance on a space that, I believe, greatly raises the esteem of our little town.

I’m sure home furnishings fashioned from deer antlers have their place with residents who go for that sort of thing. Lamps made from rusting replica revolvers are, to some extent a statement regarding some connection to Wild West authenticity. Obviously, there is a market for that kind of kitsch.

Likewise, there is also a market for art that is well done and doesn’t require a road trip to Santa Fe or Denver (at least). I know I’m not the only Pagosa resident that has craved something different, that momentarily lifts me out of my gorgeous rural home and doesn’t require the footprint of cowboys or Indians.

My recommendation? Put on your best (even if that means beads or big buckles) and stop in the PSCA. Support our newest addition to what will hopefully be another step towards providing an oasis in a cultural desert.

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