We had the good fortune of connecting with Heather and Steven Cole Hughes and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Heather and Steven Cole, can you walk us through the thought-process of starting your business?
We’ve both always dreamed of having our own theatre company, deciding to actually try and make that dream a reality on the heels of a pandemic felt like both the best and worst timing ever, but we decided to lean into the reasons why it felt like a good idea.

Stories and storytelling are life lines for people in the best of times, so when things are hard they become that much more crucial. The evidence of that was clear when the pandemic took hold and all anyone was talking about was being nervous and what they were watching on Netflix. Theatre-making was paralyzed for all of the obvious reasons, but the second we thought of a way to do it safely, we ran with it.

Not only does live theatre provide entertainment, it also allows us to share an experience with our friends, neighbors and strangers, even if we have to be 6 feet apart from each other while we do so. Creating an outdoor festival allowed people to share in all of the best parts of theatre while still feeling safe and comfortable as we navigate new ways of sharing spaces.

Audience members could wave to and eventually hug neighbors they hadn’t seen in nearly a year. It allowed them to be outside in the fresh Summer air, have their feet in the grass and hear a story, together. We humbly asked local businesses to be sponsors, and 42 (!) said yes, so we did spotlights on those businesses on social media and encouraged audiences to pick up lunch or dinner at one of them and bring it with them to the show. We did everything we could to make this festival a community event that everyone felt invited to and part of, because what did we all need more than that?! There were so many things went into starting this, but I think that was the leading one in terms of thought process; how do we make sure it feels like it belongs to our entire town.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
There are two of us, I’ll go first!…

I’m Heather, I’m an actor/director/teaching artist. I don’t think there’s anything easy about pursuing any career, but there’s an extra step when pursuing a life in the arts because so much of it depends on timing and luck. One of the biggest challenges, aside from the everyday stuff (paying bills, etc.), is staying hopeful. There have been LONG stretches of time where there’s been very little work and a ton of rejection, and that can get hard. Being surrounded by supportive, grounding friends helps A LOT. I’ve learned to be really grateful for the work when I have it but to not be so defined by it that I fall apart when there are ebbs. There’s a really dangerous myth that says we have to eat, breathe, walk and talk acting if we want to be actors, but I think that’s false. You DO need to commit to it, but I think loving lots of things helps keep you sane, AND makes you a more interesting person which makes you a more interesting actor. I also think it’s a good idea to redefine success for yourself as you move through your life and career. I imagined a life of Broadway and The Oscars when I first started out and that’s not where I’ve landed, but where I’ve landed is happier and more full than what I could have dreamt up, so…be open to what opportunities come your way. I think that’s my biggest advice. It might not be what you expected and that might be wonderful.

This is Steve. I’m an actor, director, playwright and Assistant Professor and Director of Theatre at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, CO. After spending all of my twenties and thirties as a freelance artist in New York City and Denver, CO, I always tell people that it’s literally a dream come true that I’ve ended up in quiet mountain town running a theatre program at a small liberal arts school and producing an outdoor summer theatre festival with my wife. I wouldn’t trade my time as a struggling actor/writer in NYC – it made me realize that you have to decide what kind of career you want to have. There are a million ways to utilize the skills of storytelling (writing, acting, directing, designing) and I’ve found the way that works for me.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’d definitely recommend breakfast at the Firebrand Deli, right in downtown Gunnison. They’re still only doing takeout, so grab breakfast from Heidi and Kate (FB owners), grab coffee from one of the MANY fab coffee shops (Gunnison Coffee Company, Double Shot, Tributary, Mochas, The Coffee Trader), and head to the Gunnison River Whitewater park where you can eat at a picnic table or on the rocks and watch the water go by.

Then maybe head to Hartman Rocks or The Van Tuyl Trail for a hike (if you mountain bike, DEFINITELY head to Hartman Rocks!) At some point you’ve got to grab lunch or dinner at Mario’s, it’s been there for over 50 years and is a Gunnison staple. It’s sister restaurant, The Dive, is right next door and is super delicious too. Say hi to the owners, Danny and Kerry LeFebvre, while you’re there! High Alpine Brewery has delicious food, great beer and a second story patio that looks over Main Street, a great spot and Scott Cline, the owner, is awesome. Our favorite place for a special dinner out is Blackstock Bistro. Super cozy and the food is FABULOUS.

Get yourself out to The ibar Ranch for an evening too—they host amazing musicians, some local and some big names. It’s absolutely gorgeous out there, and there’s nearly always a giant bonfire accompanying whatever nighttime event you’re attending. You can drive or it’s an easy bike from town—nearly everything is. The Gunnison Arts Center has a really great gallery and a ton of fun events and shows most nights of the week too. If you’re in town during the school year, make sure and find out what shows are happening at Western Colorado University. The Western Theatre Company is their student-run theatre company and they do really wonderful stuff.

Head up to Crested Butte while you’re here too! The Center for the Arts has a gorgeous new space and hosts really exciting events, everything from concerts to poetry readings to classes, and the view from anywhere in their building is breathtaking! Izzy’s bagels are to die for, I’d definitely get breakfast there, and then walk downtown—it’s so beautiful.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Spencer Musser served as another co-producer as well as being the Technical Director and Designer of the entire festival—we couldn’t have done this without him! AND, Western Colorado University, for support in immeasurable ways.
Instagram: @gunnisonvalleytheatrefestival

Image Credits
Erin Chicoine, studio e photography

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