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Steamboat Magazine

A Theater in the Woods

09/15/2023 07:00AM ● By Katie Carroll
(Photography courtesy of Trey Mullen.)

From Steamboat Magazine Outdoors Edition 2023.

Steamboat Springs, CO - Dancers as renowned as Agnes DeMille and José Limón leapt across the stage of the Julie Harris Theatre in Strawberry Park for decades, inspired by the forests and wildflowers that surrounded them. But that enthusiasm was limited to the short months of summer, when the open-air venue could be used. Now, after years of contemplation, the theater, on the grounds of Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp, has been renovated for use as a year-round performance and educational space. 

The renovation is the culmination of many years’ work. “[There is] big picture visioning, change in attitude and perspective that is coming from the board and staff,” says Joe Haines, executive director of Perry-Mansfield. During planning stages, Joe says the staff and board found inspiration in founders Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield’s vision: make students better performing artists and better human beings. “I am a steward of that vision. I take that very seriously,” Joe says. 

When it came to restoring the prairie-style theater, a large part of the focus was on preserving its storied architecture. Designed by Willard Sage, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, the building’s historic nature had to be weighed against its modern needs. The results can be seen as soon as you enter: the huge, metal indoor campfire ring remains in the center of the lobby while the newly installed HVAC system abuts the chimney piece on the ceiling. The new storm windows protect the theater from the elements and were carefully installed into the tinted concrete and layered river rock walls – lost craft styles that give the building its distinctive appearance. 

The theater itself was renovated with the education of theater students in mind. The stage has been expanded with an 8-foot thrust, preserving the ability for students to work in three configurations: a traditional proscenium stage, thrust stage or complete black box. A new riser along the edge of the room is flush with the edge of the stage, allowing actors to freely circle the room and interact with audience members on the tier – something to be expected in this summer’s productions. 

Perhaps the most heartfelt renovation work was preserving all of the backstage walls in the theater. These walls are covered with students’ signatures, quotes and inside jokes from years past. “Dustin Hoffman’s autograph is somewhere in this theater,” Joe says. “I haven’t found it yet.” It’s nearly impossible to determine how many alumni have left their mark in the famous theater. As the construction crews moved through the theater, adding bathrooms and refurbishing dressing rooms, each autograph wall was carefully removed, stored, and then reinstalled when the work was completed. 

History collided with the present, as now there are new signatures backstage from the first community production post-renovation: Cabaret, Steamboat Creates’ annual fundraiser. Cabaret is the first of many community productions that Joe hopes to present in the year-round space. This new, inclusive approach is directly inspired by Charlotte and Portia. “I think that part of the vision of Portia and Charlotte was to be engaged in the community and partners in the community,” Joe says. “When it’s done right and it’s done with the idea of being inclusive, it brings lots of people together with diverse backgrounds and diverse points of view for a common idea.”

For more information on Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts Camp and the recently renovated Julie Harris Theatre, visit