By Jeffrey V. Smith
Barb Boyer Buck used to hate history. The subject went unappreciated and seemed irrelevant until she began reviving Estes Park’s past with features in the local paper. The experience taught her how the lessons of history can help folks today, because, she says, “people really haven’t changed all that much.” Lately, the writer has brought her new-found appreciation of the past, life-long love of plays and writing talent together to bring the area’s history to life on the stage. Her latest production, Paradise Protected: The Story of Rocky Mountain National Park, will be performed, Aug. 14-16 and Aug. 21-23, at the Baldpate Inn’s Key-Thedral Theatre.
“It took me a long time to appreciate history,” Buck said. “I hated it in school—it was all dates, names and strange places that didn’t seem to have any relevance to me or anyone I knew.” When she took a job as the features/special sections editor at the local paper in the mid-1990s, she often wrote about Estes Park earliest days. “Writing about the area’s history for a newspaper audience, in feature stories, gave me a new appreciation for the way life was actually like for the people who came before me,” she said.
The writer still lives in Estes Park where she works as a freelance writer, newspaper stringer and graphic designer through her company B3 Creative Services. On walks, she often daydreams of how and where she would have homesteaded 150 years ago. “Putting yourself in the position of early pioneers—picking where you would have homesteaded, for example—suddenly opens your eyes to a whole new way of thinking,” she explained. “You start to look at your own life and how it was shaped by the resources, education, and technology that was available to you. You start to understand why people did what they did. Suddenly, you realize these people were not ignorant, or misguided; that there were real, and often romantic, ideals behind their actions.” These thoughts led her to the revelation of how history can be relevant to—and even help— people today.
The playwright and CU Boulder alum has lived in Colorado since 1979 and finds Estes Park’s history to be particularly rich. “In my opinion, the ‘ghosts’ that inhabit the area are really the tangible energy left behind by the extraordinary people who made Estes Park what it is today,” she explained. “They were the most strong, resilient, self-motivated, innovative, intelligent and passionate people you will ever learn about. They were people from all walks of life and origins, and came to the area with varying motives. But they all had something in common: they didn’t follow what society told them they should do and followed their hearts.”
Buck believes plays are the best way for a writer speak to the audience in this way, since they are driven by characters and dialog. “I write plays about Estes Park history because more than anything else, I want to compel the audience to put themselves in the position of the characters depicted and say, ‘that makes sense, I would do that too.’ I want them to understand the situations that shaped the philosophies of the time,” she said. “I want every single character to exhibit some kind of quirk or emotion that people watching him or her can relate to.”
Last year, Buck produced The Impossible Paradise, a play about the earliest Estes Park pioneers and what they faced while trying to settle and thrive in the area between 1866-1874. It is based on the true story of Estes Park’s first settlers and tells the story of the Griff Evans family, Rocky Mountain Jim, Isabella Bird and Lord Dunraven. Abner Sprague and Alexander MacGregor also appear.
This year, her Paradise Protected production explores the period of time roughly from the time Mills first arrived in Estes Park in 1884 to the day of the park’s dedication on Sept. 4, 1915. It details the early life of Enos Mills, the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, and how his experiences shaped his philosophy and led him to campaign for a national park in the Colorado Rockies. It also is the story of the fight between two distinct land-management policies: the sun-setting age of Manifest Destiny and burgeoning conservation movement. “Luckily, in this case, conservation won the day and RMNP was established,” Buck said.
“Both plays seek to dramatize real life in the settings and time periods represented; to show how real people who carried the attitudes of the time would interact with each other and what motivated them to do what they did,” Buck said. “The Impossible Paradise depicted the personalities of the pioneers during the Wild West time period of American history who believed the ‘undiscovered’ land of the west was given to them by God to do with what they will. Wilderness was something to be conquered, wild animals were there to be tamed (read, killed), and anyone who didn’t agree with them was there to be silenced. They were not necessarily bad people—only extremely spiritual; they truly felt called by God to do what they did.”
Paradise Protected says “goodbye to this era and introduces a new way of thinking: that perhaps natural resources are not inexhaustible, that maybe nature plays a more vital role in the lives of man than just providing food, supplies, and wealth,” according to Buck. “This is the first time that the inter-connectedness of living systems—a true understanding of ecology—was widely publicized through writings by naturalists such as John Muir and later, Enos Mills,” she said. “It didn’t go down easy with the people who were asked to change the way they lived.”
Enos Mills, the “father” of Rocky Mountain National Park, is the main character of Paradise Protected. According to Buck, “his was a personal journey of transformation when he arrived in 1884 and made a piece of the Rocky Mountains just south of Estes Park his home. He was a sickly boy turned hearty mountaineer, a homesteader turned conservationist, a self-educated man turned writer, a peace-loving man turned activist. He fought against his neighbors, all fellow homesteaders and inn-keepers, locally to push the national park idea. He was a visionary like none other for this area, and affected more change than any other single person could do. Due to Enos, the paradise that is RMNP is protected, even if it looks much different now than even he envisioned.”
Buck’s theater experience is comprised of decades of performing as an actor—she was in her first play at age 13. She’s also worked as director, stage manager, tech director and more for almost as long. She’s directed three previous plays at the Baldpate Inn, including one adapted from a longer play into a 1940s-era radio play. Buck even wrote radio jingles and skits about local businesses to include with the production. “Acting is wonderfully expressive, but it’s not as creative as directing, so I prefer that,” she explained.
Bringing history to life isn’t easy, or cheap, but Buck pulls it off. She is the writer, director, tech director, costumer, props person, set designer and more for all of the productions. “Eventually, I hope to be able to… start being able to pay people to do some of those jobs,” she said. “Right now, though, I can honestly say that [the plays] have been a labor of love, made possible by some very hard-working, dedicated people at my side. I could have never put on any play at all without the invaluable assistance of the Fine Arts Guild of the Rockies, Lois Smith and her staff at the Baldpate Inn, and my fabulous cast and crew.”
Although not much, the cast and crew, other than Buck herself, get paid first. “It’s… generally a percentage of whatever the production receives from ticket sales, but it’s something,” she explained. “It is extremely important to me that my actors and stage manager (the only crew I can afford to pay) realize that their involvement is the most important thing to these productions. These are not ‘my’ plays, they are ‘our’ plays in every sense of the word.”
Doing all of the jobs necessary to bring the plays to the stage can be challenging. “Live theater is unpredictable. Sometimes people forget their lines, or fudge their lines, or say them out of order. As a writer, I am very dedicated to every word I put in the script,” Buck said. “As a director, I have to think of the production as a whole and try to overlook it when the actors don’t say the words exactly as written. But, I keep reminding myself that this is a joint effort, and it has always worked out very well.”
Some of the hard work is made easier by “the goodwill of the Estes Park community” according to Buck. “I am extremely blessed to be able to pick the brain of Dr. James Pickering, Estes Park’s historian laureate. He has endured hours of interviews with me for various projects, including my plays. For Paradise Protected, Enos Mills’ great-grand daughter, Eryn Mills who runs her famous ancestor’s homestead cabin as a museum, has been very helpful and has contributed much to the effort. Also, Kurtis Kelly, a local character portrayal artist who specializes in researching history for each of his roles, has uncovered some very useful information for me. These people—and many, many others—are not just knowledgeable, intelligent, and extremely helpful, they are wonderful human beings and I’m proud to call them friends.”
Attendance at all the performances of The Impossible Paradise has been high and have frequently sold out. “All kinds of people come to my plays, it has appeal to both locals and visitors, of all ages,” Buck said. “I hope Paradise Protected will drum up the same interest.”
Buck’s plays, while also produced in other locations, have no better home than the historic Baldpate Inn, built in 1917 near Mills’ homestead. “Lois Smith first approached me in late 2013 and asked that I write a play to tie in with the upcoming 100-year anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park and this year, that I write another original one,” she said. “The Key-Thedral Theatre, the inn’s outdoor performance venue, is probably the most beautiful spot in the whole world to see a play. When it rains, the productions are moved indoors to the Key Room, also a very amazing setting.”
The playwright reminds theatergoers to be prepared at the productions. It always cools off and sometimes there are brief rain showers. “We don’t move our show indoors unless it’s impossible to be outside. Bring layers, an umbrella and prepare yourself for a new kind of outdoor adventure,” she said. Blankets and umbrellas are provided to those in need. The Baldpate staff also provides a cash bar with beer, wine and coffee. After the show, the innkeeper passes out fresh-baked cookies.
Paradise Protected premieres at the Baldpate Inn in August. In early 2016, both The Impossible Paradise and Paradise Protected will be performed at the American Legion Post 119 in Estes Park, as a fund-raiser for that organization.
Catch Paradise Protected, Aug. 14-15 at 7 p.m., Aug. 16 at 3 p.m., Aug. 21-22 at 7 p.m., and, Aug. 23 at 3 p.m. at the Baldpate Inn’s Key-Thedral Theatre, 4900 S. Hwy. 7 in Estes Park. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the inn or online. Call 970-586-6151 or visit http://www.baldpateinn.com, http://www.facebook.com/TheImpossibleParadise and http://www.barbboyerbuck.com to learn more.
Photos from Impossible Paradise
Originally published in the August 215 issue of the MMAC Monthly