Most area actors have day jobs. John Ashton’s happens to be as communications officer with FEMA, the federal disaster response team. His first assignment was Hurricane Katrina back in 2006. Since then, he has been sent to fires, floods and tornadoes across the country to help organize the dissemination of critical public information both to victims and the media.
From the moment heavy rain started on Sept. 9, triggering catastrophic flooding from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, Ashton knew he would be deployed somewhere in his home state. And while FEMA has had response teams in place “since before the first raindrop fell,” he said, Ashton’s call to action came this morning.
This morning also happens to be three days before Ashton is set to open in one of the biggest roles of his acting career. He’s starring in the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s “Seminar,” opening Friday at the Dairy Center for the Arts in flood-ravaged Boulder. Ashton will play Leonard, a rising, reckless author who is hired by four grad students for private writing classes. And as acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck’s story plays out, the wordplay is not the only thing that turns vicious.
Oh, let’s just say it: Leonard is a (bleep).
Ashton will only admit: “I can see how people to whom he speaks the truth might regard him to be a (bleep).”
It is not an exaggeration to call Leonard the role of a lifetime for Ashton. Alan Rickman said as much when he played the part on Broadway. Only now, Ashton is also staring at 12-hour shifts during the daytime working out of a temporary four-story office that FEMA opened this very morning in Centennial.
Ashton is well-known in the local community as a theatre critic for three newspapers before founding the Avenue Theater. He now runs his own production company, Ashton Entertainment, which earlier this year staged “The Seafarer” at the Aurora Fox. And he picks up the occasional acting job, such as Edward Albee’s “Seascape” for the Modern Muse Theatre Company.
Ashton will be on the job with FEMA starting at 7 a.m. each workday for up to six months. That would would far outlast the run of “Seminar,” which plays through Oct. 20. His daytime title is a mouthful: Deputy Assistant in the External Affairs Office for Planning and Products. His job involves writing press releases, public service announcements, managing in-house communication and developing talking points for the media about the government’s response efforts. When he gets relieved each day, he’ll zip up to Boulder for rehearsals or performances.
Ashton said he’s not worried about pulling it all off because of the importance of the relief work, and the strength of his cast, which includes Matthew Blood-Smyth, Devon James, Mary Kay Riley and Sean Scrutchins.
“I am blown away by the talent and professionalism and dedication of these young people with whom I am working,” said Ashton. None of the characters come off all that well in this biting drama, during which conversations on writing fiction erupt into far more personal clashes. But Ashton can’t wait to be the first actor in Colorado to play Leonard.
“He’s brilliant,” Ashton said of Leonard. “Irascible. Hotly dedicated to quality writing. Horny. He’s so dedicated to speaking the truth that gentility is secondary.”
“Seminar” director Stephen Weitz admits to feeling a little selfish when it comes to Ashton’s time this week. But he and his crew take pride that their star is actively helping the local community after one of the greatest disasters to hit this state in the past half-century.
“Would I rather he were locked up in a dark room with his script and no other distractions? Of course,” said Weitz. “But this is something that has affected our entire community, and everyone’s focus should be on doing whatever we can to help. John is in a unique position to do that.
“He’s going pulling some long hours, but I think can handle it.”
Weitz, who will be directing the Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Jackie and Me” in November, has designated a special “Seminar” performance on Wednesday, Oct. 9, as a benefit for local flood relief.
While Ashton’s new obligations will seriously complicate his final preparations for Friday’s opening, he says he is going to do whatever it takes to do pull both jobs off. It’s a burden he’s happy to bear.
“I am proud to be a part of an organization working with people who are dedicated and trained to help,” Ashton said. “That’s the good part.”
And the bad part?
“It looks like the only chance I am going to get to practice my lines this week will be on the drive to and from Boulder each day,” he said with a laugh.