PENINSULA WOMAN: She has flair for the dramatic

PORT TOWNSEND — For much of the decade Denise Winter has lived here, she’s been on the road with the Rockettes.

Yes, those tall, leggy dancers who make the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the New York City-born touring show, were Winter’s charges. As production stage manager of “the grandest holiday show of all time,” according to Time magazine, she marshaled a cast and crew of 100 around the United States, from rehearsals in September to the final shows of the season in January.

With all that brightly lit Christmas pageantry ­– from New York to California, from 2000 to 2006 — you might think she’d had her fill of holiday shows.

But Winter, 45, is still all about Christmas — and she’ll be home for it. She’s the artistic director of Key City Public Theatre, a company she’s taking toward professional and regional status — and this season, she’s acting in her first main-stage role of her better-than-20-year career in theater.

The costume is a simple one, in high contrast to the fancy getups she’s used to managing for other performers.

Winter wears a set of antlers to tell audiences that she’s Dancer, one of Santa’s transportation team, in “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues,” at the Key City Playhouse through next Sunday, Dec. 19.

“The Eight,” a play by Jeff Goode, isn’t your run-of-the-mill Christmas sweetness. It’s a dark and sly comedy about reindeer Vixen’s accusation of sexual harassment in her workplace, and the testimonies given by her colleagues Cupid, Comet, Dancer, Blitzen, Donner, Dasher and Hollywood, who is Prancer’s replacement in this particular story.

“Dancer is on the fence,” Winter says of her character. She’s not sure whether to side with the other females, out of sisterly solidarity, or to speak up for the alleged harasser — Santa, of all people — who she says has always been fair to her.

The story is “pretty outrageous,” said Winter. “It’s so different from what we normally do.”

And while “The Eight” is funny with a poignant ending, it also rings true on its topic, she believes. Winter herself watched a sexual harassment case unfold during a tour of a children’s show she managed some years back.

“The Eight” as just one of the holiday shows Winter has chosen for this year. The others are “The Little Match Girl,” a Hans Christian Andersen-inspired family story that closes today with a 2:30 p.m. matinee and a 7:30 p.m. show, and “Seven Poor Travellers,” a Charles Dickens play about wanderers who meet at an inn on Christmas Eve. “Travellers” opens Tuesday night and plays through Dec. 22.

This is one of the busier Christmas seasons Winter has spent in Port Townsend; she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Key City is not calling itself a community theater group any longer, Winter says. And she is part of a paid staff steering the organization into a new era, in which professional actors as well as amateurs have a place on the stage.

And Key City’s growth has been dramatic.

When Winter arrived five years ago, the company’s annual budget was $25,000. Today, it’s nearly $250,000, and the Public Theatre puts on about 130 events per year, from simple, staged readings to the West Coast premiere of the musical “Here’s to the Ladies.” There’s also Shakespeare in Chetzemoka Park in summertime and a nearly three-week, nine-show Playwrights Festival with guest Lee Blessing this coming February.

Then Winter and her partner, audio engineer Albert Mendez — who commutes from Port Townsend to his work at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall — will take a vacation.

“This year, we might just blow out at home,” Winter said.

They’re going to have a Christmas tree — for a change.

But how does an artistic director, who also acts as an executive director balancing the budget for the growing theater company, keep her energy up through the rest of the year?

“I surround myself with a staff that has a sense of humor,” Winter answers quickly. “It’s really important to laugh. So I work very hard on staffing, and just on compatibility of energy.”

She also goes for another form of old-fashioned refreshment: juicing.

As in drinking smoothies.

She and Mendez know from juices, having run a bar called Fresh Press in Port Townsend from 2002 to 2005.

Since departing from the Christmas Spectacular job and becoming a year-round resident here, Winter has learned to compartmentalize her life.

This is key, she says, since show business can be all-consuming. She doesn’t take work-related phone calls after hours, and the only work she brings home is script-reading.

“If I’m at home relaxing, I would be reading anyway,” she says.

As for the big holiday, Winter still feels it. Her Christmas Spectacular years sparkled with children — enchanted children — as well as on-the-road rituals.

“We always did ‘secret Santa’ with the cast and crew, and I always made sure we had a cool place for the company to have Christmas dinner,” she remembered.

Winter loved giving backstage tours to families. “It always makes me feel really good to see people enjoy Christmas . . . to see the delight in people’s faces when they see something magical.”

So when she had a bunch of youngsters in tow, she’d have the crew make it snow on them. “They went crazy for that — and for the tall soldier hats,” worn by the Rockettes in their falling-down-like-dominoes dance.

Winter doesn’t have children of her own — “I have plenty all around me,” she says. She remembers well, though, what it was like to be a little girl in awe of stage performers.

Her father Ed Miller was a concert and event producer, and she met all kinds of stars, from Bruce Springsteen to Lily Tomlin, as she was growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

One night, her father took her out for dinner with Tomlin, who “was hysterically funny,” and animated.

Tomlin accidentally dropped her salad in her lap, Winter remembered.

“See, even famous people make mistakes,” the comedienne told her.

That response crystallized what Winter’s father taught her about show business. He had his children spend time with movie and music stars “because he wanted us to know what was possible,” Winter said. “They were regular joes who had some talent, and they were doing something with it.”

Her father wanted her to see that with some confidence and determination, you can go somewhere.

Winter added she didn’t come from a well-to-do background, so she had to work hard, and summon her courage, to get jobs in theater. After earning her degrees in theater and English at Ohio’s Kenyon College — Paul Newman’s alma mater — she applied for jobs above the skill level indicated on her resume because those were the jobs that paid decently.

“I’ve had a lot of luck, and early on in my career, I had some great mentors,” Winter added. The first stage manager she assisted took a vacation, she said, so Winter could move into her position and get her Actors Equity union card.

Charlie Bethel, an Equity actor who worked with Winter when they were both with the Minneapolis Children’s Theater, is in Port Townsend this season as a guest artist. He directed Key City’s TeenLab program for young writers and actors, and a short version of Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy “Intimate Exchanges” in November, and is the solo performer in “Seven Poor Travellers.”

Bethel says Winter has something many artistic directors don’t.

“Denise teaches me how to be patient,” he said. She’s patient with him and with other actors, who can be “difficult,” Bethel said. Actors “have to be brought along,” and Winter knows how to do so with grace.

“I’ve never seen her stamp her foot to get something done,” said Bethel, who has worked with other artistic directors who not only stamped, but yelled.

As Key City Public Theatre goes into the 2011 season, dubbed “Monsters, Mirth and Music,” Winter shows her excitement about what’s coming. She’ll orchestrate the Playwrights Festival in February, bring in Italian director Germano Rubbi for “The Soup Is Served,” a commedia dell’arte play in April and May, and herself direct the world premiere of “The Garden of Monsters” by Mara Lathrop in June. Then come “Macbeth” in the park and “Bark! The Musical” in August, “Dracula” through October and Winter’s second directing turn of the year with “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” next December.

“We are really transitioning,” Winter says, “into the Olympic Peninsula’s regional theater . . . we have a huge opportunity. The door is wide open; there is an incredible number of professional theater artists in the area.”

A place for all

She emphasizes that there will always be a place for amateurs on Key City’s stages — as well as for Equity actors and crew.

“To me, it’s about inclusivity,” Winter says, “and creating real jobs for artists.”

She spent many years moving around, going where the work was. But when she and Mendez came to Port Townsend, they came because this was a community they wanted to be part of.

When she was considering the Key City job — and a salary far below what she could earn with a touring company — Mendez gently reminded her that they had decided, together, to make their lives here.

“Why wouldn’t you put your talents forward for your community?” he asked.

“I said, ‘That’s a good point,'” Winter recalled.

These days, she finds satisfaction in the caliber of Key City’s productions, the fact that they’re creating paying jobs for artists, and in the flowering of the company as a whole.

The growth Key City has experienced in recent years — in number of shows and in the people who come to see them — has happened amid the recession, Winter added.

“That,” she said, “is something I’m really proud of.”

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