For Betty Hart, theater is both a call and a response. What happens on stage is a crucial piece of her work as a new co-artistic director at the Boulder-based Local Theater Company — but how the play reverberates in the lives of audience members looms just as large.
That’s why community engagement is a central part of Hart’s focus as she helps bring stage productions to life across the Front Range. While traditional post-show “talkbacks” offer a glimpse into the minds of a play’s performers and creators, the exchange fostered through her role as audience dialogue facilitator brings theatergoers into the conversation in a way that’s more collaborative, dynamic and human.
“True learning isn’t going to take place in the moment we’re engaging with the play. It’s going to happen on the ride home. It’s going to happen in the shower. It’s going to happen on your run the next day,” Hart says. “I’m interested in helping that learning deepen.”
To that end, Hart encourages audience members who stick around for discussion after the performance to leave their hang-ups and preconceptions at the door. The post-show conversation surrounding a Boulder production of the racially charged political drama The Firestorm by Meridith Friedman, for example, offered Hart an early chance to bring new understanding to a potentially uncomfortable subject. She sees such moments as an opportunity to do what theater does best: foster vibrant and critical communities.
“There’s just something magical that happens when we get to be in dialogue together. It enriches the entire experience,” Hart says. “I love when people walk out saying, ‘I never even thought about that.’ If you can help people feel seen and heard, and help them be open to other people’s ideas, you want to come back for more.”
Of course, Hart’s work on the stage isn’t limited to facilitating community conversations. She’s an actor and director in her own right, while also co-running Local Lab 11, Local Theater Company’s new-play festival. Her latest and most high-profile credit is co-assistant director for the immersive Theater of the Mind experience, co-created by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
But when Hart moved from Atlanta to Denver in 2013, the theatrical polymath found her career strained in a way it had never been before.
“‘In Atlanta, I was only seen as an actor. I had never done a traditionally Black role with the exception of Tituba in The Crucible. I played roles like Portia in The Merchant of Venice because I could, and I just assumed that’s how the world worked,” Hart says. “Then I came here, and suddenly I was seen as a ‘Black actor.’ I’m used to being able to do whatever, and suddenly I was being limited.”
But Hart’s performing arts career, which arguably began with a childhood hairbrush-mic rendition of “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” for her parents’ friends, eventually found new life on the Front Range.
“I finally just said, ‘You know what? You’re here to help all the things you’re seeing.’ I really feel like I was called to Colorado,” Hart says. “So then, instead of thinking of Coloradans as ‘them,’ it became ‘us.’ I made a shift, and that shift changed everything.”
Part of what helped Hart find her place here was falling in with the team at Boulder’s Local Theater. She began with the company as an actor in 2016, eventually taking on facilitator and directing roles before settling into her current position as co-artistic director. Hart says a big part of the draw is using her skills within the organization to spur communication and collaboration.
“We’re allowed to be uniquely human. We don’t have to show up with the guise of perfectionism. So we create something really beautiful and extraordinary that we all believe in, as opposed to it just being a job,” Hart says. “Something powerful happens when everyone is working together, moving in the same direction.”
With those crucial components in place, Hart says any lingering questions of where she belongs are largely settled.
“It’s completely home — much to the chagrin of all my Atlanta friends who want me to come back,” Hart says of her new Front Range community. “It just speaks to me. I feel like Colorado wants me here, and I want to be here. Isn’t that what home is all about?”