Perry-Mansfield to incorporate Friends of Yampa Valley Arts

Gabriel Rogers, who plays 'Drunk 2' in the Yampa Valley Players' Old Western Melodrama holds up a sign that encourages audience engagement during a rehearsal on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. The show will open on Friday, Aug. 19.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Starting in January, Friends of Yampa Valley Arts — formerly Friends of the Chief Foundation — will be absorbed into the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp, capping off what has a been a difficult stretch of years since losing the Chief Theater as a venue. 

The incorporation was first announced a little over a year ago, but because Friends of Yampa Valley Arts received a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, Perry Mansfield couldn’t absorb the grant’s recipient because that money was restricted for eligible venues affected by COVID-19. 

Friends of Yampa Valley Arts and Perry-Mansfield have been ironing out their relationship for over a year, and after that grant money is off the books next month, the two entities can officially operate as one. 

“Enhancing our impact in the local community is exactly what our founders Portia Mansfield and Charlotte Perry really envisioned for this organization,” said Joe Haines, executive director of Perry-Mansfield. 

Founded in 1913, Perry-Mansfield is the oldest continuously operating dance and theater school in the United States. 

While Perry-Mansfield is known for its camps and high-level instructors, Haines said absorbing Friends of Yampa Valley’s Arts resources should help expand community-centric programming at their venue, the Julie Harris Theater. 

“That’s something we’ve struggled with, is how do we get back engaged in the community and be a community partner?” Haines said. 

Back in August, the Yampa Valley Players, the theatrical branch of Friends of Yampa Valley Arts, performed a western melodrama at the Julie Harris Theater at Perry-Mansfield. It was their first stage performance since the beginning of the pandemic. 

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Haines expects the relationship to be mutually beneficial; Perry-Mansfield receives a batch of experienced instructors, students and local performers across a variety of disciplines who know how to perform for the community, while Friends of Yampa Valley Arts gets stable access to a venue and the opportunity to learn from top-tier instructors of the performance arts. 

“I think what we’re going to be able to do with those programs is challenge them to perform at that level of quality,” Haines said. 

He said that once renovations are finished at the Julie Harris Theater, the venue can host programs year-round.

Kirk Aigner, who had performed with Friends of the Chief since 2013, said he was excited about working within an organization with the history and mystique of Perry-Mansfield. 

“I mean, Dustin Hoffman was a camper/student at Perry-Mansfield,” Aigner said. 

When the arrangement is formalized in January, it will cap off what has been a challenging stretch of years for Friends of Yampa Valley Arts since early 2020 — back when the group was still Friends of the Chief and the Chief Theater was still open.

The organization had over 200 days of the year programmed at the Chief Theater, according to Scott Parker, the former executive director of Friends of the Chief Foundation. Including rehearsals, Parker said his organization used the venue for over 300 days in 2019. 

But COVID lockdowns put Parker’s team into a financial bind, the organization struggled to pay rent and the owners of the property prematurely terminated their 10-year lease. 

“They evicted a nonprofit during a pandemic, and they spun it as a mutual separation agreement,” said Parker, who added that once his group received the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, they had enough money to pay all of the owed rent. 

“I was devastated,” Aigner said, explaining that most of the friends he’s made in town came from the community theater.

The Chief Theater was closed for renovations shortly after the eviction, and so far, there is no timetable for the venue’s reopening.

“It’s just sitting there collecting dust,” Parker said.

Aigner plans to continue performing with the Yampa Valley Players. 

Parker said that although he’s no longer a part of the Friends of Yampa Valley Arts, he’s excited for the direction things are going. 

“I just think the sky’s the limit,” Parker said.

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