By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff

Thunder River Theatre Company has long struggled to assemble the judges necessary to qualify for the Colorado Theatre Guild’s Henry Awards — although they received a special honor in 2012.

This year, however, some hard work to encourage more of the fewer than 50 qualified judges in the state to make the trip and the reduction from six judges to five to qualify appears to have borne fruit. TRTC received 11 nominations and two top prizes: Outstanding Sound Design for “The Tempest” and Outstanding Set Design for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — both credited to Sean Jeffries.

“Sean worked so hard this past year and I was so happy to see him get this recognition,” said Executive Artistic Director Corey Simpson. “A great designer adds an ambient magic to create the world of the production around the actors. He’s incredibly talented and we feel so lucky to have him.”

It’s also a significant sign for the theatre itself.

“These awards represent the highest honor theatres can get in the state, and there was a big effort by some of us to make sure that what’s happening up here gets seen,” Simpson observed.

“This is an indicator that we are working at a competitive level and it confirms we’re on the right track.”

Simpson himself also was nominated for production and direction awards as well as outstanding supporting actor for “The Tempest,” along with Nathan Cox and Owen O’Farrell. While designers compete in two tiers based on budget, most categories pit theatres of all sizes against each other for the top seven ratings, so having multiple nominees in a single category is impressive.

“It’s pretty exciting that three actors who are all scrambling to make a living were there in that category,” Simpson said.

He noted that the next smallest staff he encountered for a theatre of the same size was five compared to TRTC’s two. The nonprofit relies on part time acting talent and donations — both financial and practical — to keep producing content. In fact, one of the big items on the wish list is a better sound system, which makes the Sound Design win all the sweeter.

The nominations and awards also are great exposure for both the theatre and the Carbondale Creative District. In the end, though, the response the company cares most about are the folks right here at home, and it’s looking good.

“We’re getting the message that the audience responds to innovative theatre,” Simpson said.

“Now we get to see how much further we can go.”

The company’s upcoming 2017-2018 season, which opens at the end of September, includes “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Constellations,” Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” and “Bat Boy: The Musical.” Season tickets are available at or 963-8200.

Sean Jeffries, behind the curtain (or above the round)

If the audience breaks into applause at the sight of the next Thunder River Theatre Company set, Sean Jeffries may or may not be pleased.

His various roles as facilities manager, technical director and sound and lighting designer are the kind of things spectators aren’t really supposed to notice consciously, but recognition is always nice.

Take, for instance, the “Outstanding Scenic Design” and “Outstanding Sound Design” Henry Awards Jeffries took home recently after receiving a record five nominations.

“It feels so good,” he said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand what goes into the images you see onstage, but creating the backdrop and the world of the show is pretty extravagant. When that curtain goes up, there’s no mulligans.”

It’s been a long journey from his “dinky” hometown of Hughesville, Maryland, where he had his first formal role in the form of a pantomimed death for a seventh grade production of “I’m Really Rosie.” He must have caught the bug, because the next year he played the title character in “Hyronomous A. Frog” and started taking on off-stage tasks in high school.

“We had six lights, none of which matched,” he recalled. “It was the most ridiculous thing.”

It wasn’t until he ended up studying theatre at Frostburg State University in Maryland that he began to understand the sort of specialization that most bigger troupes had, and found himself more behind the scenes. The trend continued at Kent State University in Ohio, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in lighting design and technology. He gained professional experience with shows from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” to “Titanic the Musical” and found himself in an unsustainable routine.

“It was about three month cycles and I was moving someplace,” he explained. “After a couple of years of that, I got a little tired of that.”

Jeffries had family on the Front Range, so he started searching for jobs in Colorado, and, on the First Friday in November 2015, came to Carbondale for the first time to interview at Thunder River. He was swept up in the festivities, and ended up getting the position and moving here in January 2016. Before that, TRTC founder Lon Winston had been running things pretty much on his own.

“We doubled our capacity for the art and it allowed us to really focus in,” Jeffries observed.

Now, with Winston still involved but no longer dealing with the day-to-day, he pretty much takes on whatever current Executive Artistic Director Corey Simpson doesn’t — and he likes it that way.

“I get really bored doing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “Having the big picture view of what’s going on in this theatre is important to me. It’s basically my own 40- by 50-foot design studio.”

He’s had a chance to work with Winston, Simpson and the rest of the team to find his own style within the theatre’s signature minimalism.

“The great thing about growing as a designer is to be able to pick and choose what you like,” he observed. “Appropriation is the name of the game, and you do it with great love in your heart.”

He’s quite proud of the work on “The Tempest” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” that earned him awards, and hopes to build on that success in the future.