Features, Print February 13, 2019

Old Ghosts Make For New Friends – A Diverse Greeley Brought To Life By Its Legends

by Dan England

Years ago, a fellow Greeley Central High School teacher suggested to Noel Johnston that more Mexican American kids would try out for his theater program if there was a play for them. Johnston thought so too, but there was a risk. Not only was there a dearth of good material available, but what if no Mexican Americans tried out for it? The worries kept him from finding something that fit, and he always felt bad about that. Even more maddening was that more than 20 years ago, he was inspired by a play he saw at a theater convention in Montana, featuring the three major languages of Quebec, Canada: Chinese, French and English, but he never found a place to put that inspiration.

And yet, Greeley’s population continued to diversify — Latinos are close to 50 percent now, in addition to the Africans who have moved here as refugees. Something told him it was time.

He told the Board of The Stampede Troupe Community Theater, of which he is president, that he’d have it ready for this spring and that they should schedule it as one of their children’s productions. He works better under deadlines. At age 70, he is an accomplished writer, director, teacher and performer, but was about to write his first proper stage play.

The Troupe will perform that play, Teensy Taylor and the Daughters of Doom in “The Ghost of the Chief Theater on Feb. 22-23 in downtown Greeley.

Johnston envisioned the play’s protagonists as group of middle-school girls who were smart, curious, friends, and – most importantly – different from one another. Some have tough family lives while others simply don’t. Three speak Spanish and English fluently, and several other characters give a second language a solid effort.

Then he needed a plot. What would the kids be into? Well, how about ghost-hunting? It worked in Stranger Things, but it’s not what he had in mind. “I like that show, but it’s so weird,” he said with a laugh. So instead of the Upside Down, Johnston based his spooks on Greeley’s old Chief Theater, which was allegedly haunted. The theater no longer exists, though the ghost apparently might, and the play isn’t based in Greeley, but long-timers will have fun recognizing the shoutouts to the history here.

Johnston also likes the idea of embracing people for their differences, with other messages middle-school kids should relate to, such as those about bullying. “I didn’t want it to be this really heavy thing,” he said. “But I did want to put in some gentle themes of tolerance.”

Presenting this play was a challenge as well, Johnston said, but this time, he went for it. They did some recruiting from the arts community to find Latino kids to cast. “I didn’t want it to be white kids in Spanish 3 faking their way through it,” Johnston said.

That was especially important. Just like the play that inspired him 20 years ago, Johnston didn’t want to translate the Spanish for what he expects will be a mostly English-speaking audience.

“I wanted the idea to be that they are all such good friends they don’t need the translating,” Johnston said, “even if they may not understand everything they’re saying to each other.”

So – the kids do find a ghost. Saying anything more would be too much of a spoiler, though the themes presented by Johnston appear in a key scene between the ghost and one of the girls.

“That’s the scene that made me want to do this play,” said Kayla Boldry, the director. When Johnston was close to an early draft, he brought Boldry into the process for feedback. A couple drafts later, the play was ready to go, and he had to hand it off. Now, the play is doing some inspiring of its own.

“There’s a lot of ‘grand scheme’ things that I hope the kids will really latch onto,” Boldry said, noting that the play will be presented to middle school audiences for a few special performances. Boldry wants to show it as often as possible for middle schools in Greeley and the surrounding region.

That’s Johnston’s hope as well. If the play is successful, he has many more ideas, like writing a play for the African kids here, or possibly a Teensy Taylor series. And this time, he has the ultimate deadline to get him going. “I may be getting too old for this,” Johnston said with a laugh.

Teensy Taylor and the Daughters of Doom in “The Ghost of the Chief Theater” plays February 22-23; Friday and Saturday nights with an afternoon show on Saturday as well. All take place in the Hensel Phelps Theatre in the Union Colony Civic Center. Call (970) 356-5000 for tickets or go to ucstars.com.