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Author: Jill Kimball

CSF brings student talent to the stage

(Above, left to right: Alicia Baker; Paige Olson; Elise Collins)

Check the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s cast lists and you’ll find a few oddities. Some of the male leads’ names have been changed.A few burly Trojan warriors have become women. And in “The Comedy of Errors,” which typically takes place in ancient Greece, there’s an entirely new role called The Parisian Minstrel.

What’s going on here?

For more than a year, director Geoffrey Kent knew he wanted to set “The Comedy of Errors” in the romantic, bohemian days of 1930s Paris. When he went searching for University of Colorado Boulder opera students who could evoke Edith Piaf and set the Parisian tone, he found someone who could do that and more: a world-class accordionist named Alicia Baker.

Throughout her childhood and adult life, Baker has graced more stages than she can count for performances in operas, musicals and professional competitions. But here’s her dirty little secret: “I’ve never done straight theater before, let alone Shakespeare.”

Each year, only a small handful of lucky University of Colorado Boulder students get to work alongside John Hutton, Geoffrey Kent and other theater legends on stage at CSF.

You might think these are the sorts of students who’ve dreamt of a career in theater since preschool. But for many of them, the road to CSF has been full of twists and turns. Along the way, there were stops in the culinary arts, diversions to the backstage soundboard, and 16 years of annual trips to an international accordion festival in Kimberley, British Columbia.

Baker first discovered the squeezebox at age 6 on a family camping trip in Kimberley. She and her parents stumbled on the festival by accident.

“I’d had a couple years of piano lessons, so I recognized the keyboard side,” Baker says. “My parents got me a lesson and bought an accordion. Then we just kept going back to the festival … we never missed a year. I won some money, which kept me interested. I arrived at the accordion so randomly, but ever since then opportunities just keep creeping up.”

Baker says accordion has never been her only passion—right now, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in vocal performance at CU-Boulder—but she’s always happy to play exciting new gigs.

“This was probably the first time I had to audition for a gig with a one-and-a-half-minute monologue,” she says, laughing.

Just like the professionals who come from all over the country to audition for CSF, CU-Boulder students must perform monologues and read scenes for a panel of festival directors to be considered for a role.

For CU-Boulder senior Paige Olson, who will play Balthasar in “The Comedy of Errors” and Andromache in “Troilus and Cressida,” the audition was an invaluable experience: it was her first brush with professional theater.

“I’ve never been in a production outside of CU, and I’m honestly just really excited for it as a learning opportunity,” Olson says. “In school, we have so many things going on that it’s hard to focus on any one thing. I’m really happy to be performing with CSF at a time when I can put all my energy into it.”

In high school, Olson’s elective of choice was band. And for years, she thought she’d pursue a career as a chef. Though she always thought theater might be interesting, she never had time to pursue it until college.

“I spent my freshman year taking a lot of classes and figuring out what I wanted to do,” she says. “I was in a Beginning Acting for Non-Majors class when someone came in and talked about auditioning for the BFA program, and I just decided that was what I wanted to do.”

For Elise Collins, a sophomore at CU-Boulder and a Boettcher scholar, the decision to commit to theater came a little earlier in life. She was cast in her first play as a first-grader in Highlands Ranch and it was love at first line.

Discovering the genius of William Shakespeare only intensified her passion.

“I read ‘Twelfth Night’ in middle school and I was in love,” Collins says. “I found the stories and the language fascinating. I once saw a Shakespeare play and asked the actors, ‘How do you die?’”

Whether she did it with drive, talent or a little bit of both, Collins earned a coveted place on the CSF stage as a 19-year-old freshman. The 2016 season will be her second with the festival; this time, she’ll play Judith in “Equivocation.”

Though Collins has seen a marked difference between professional performances and university shows, namely that “speaking the Shakespearean language comes so much more naturally” to seasoned CSF actors, she says she’s been impressed with the high quality of CU-Boulder’s productions longer than she’s been a student here.

“In high school, I came to CU and saw a production of ‘Metamorphoses’ and it blew my mind,” Collins says. “I thought, I’m set. I’m going here.”

Olson is similarly overjoyed she chose CU-Boulder. Between CSF’s recent penchant for gender-flipping and gender-bending and a long history of all-female productions at CU-Boulder’s Department of Theatre & Dance, she believes there’s nowhere better for a passionate female actor to be.

“Usually, any time I read the script for a play, I’ll only read through the few parts I know I’m eligible for as a woman,” Olson says. “But with all the gender flips in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at CSF, suddenly the possibilities were endless.”

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