Boulder Arts Outdoors moves from drive-in setup to Boulder Bandshell for six-week series

Jul. 23—At the height of the pandemic, Mara Driscoll — a creative with a richly layered dance background — had a vision to bring a variety of Front Range performers to the stage safely.

In March 2020, she moved back to her native Boulder from New York City, as her role with Metropolitan Opera Ballet was put on hold due to a global shutdown.

Restless and craving a project, she poured her efforts into providing entertainment and work for artists at a time when spotlights were extinguished and venues empty.

During August and September of 2020, she formed Boulder Arts Outdoors and hosted a slew of acts — from magicians to Native American dancers and singers to folk bands — at the parking lot of the Gerald Stazio softball fields in Boulder. Attendees watched from their vehicles at the drive-in shows, that featured nearly 30 acts and 79 local artists.

Now, the series and corresponding nonprofit continues to evolve and has secured a six-week run at the Glen Huntington Bandshell through Aug. 26. While it held its opening show Thursday — with acts that included American folk duo By the Lee and circus artist Peter Davison — there are plenty of more opportunities to catch a smorgasbord of local talent.

Tickets are $20 and there are also series packages available for purchase.

We caught up with Driscoll — who grew up dancing at Boulder Ballet and 3rd Law Dance/Theater — to find out more about the evolution of series, what she looks forward to about upcoming dates and what's been the most rewarding aspect of keeping the performing arts flourishing during the COVID-19 epidemic.

Kalene McCort: When you first started Boulder Arts Outdoors, did you ever see it turning into the six-week series it is today?

Mara Driscoll: That is a great question. Yes and no. Boulder Arts Outdoors was born in a moment of great need, when most performing platforms were closed due to the pandemic and also when Black Lives Matter and the pre-election political division were at their height. The drive-in aspect of BAO's inaugural shows was very specific to the pandemic, but the programmatic mission — which seeks to engage diverse artistic voices and communities — remains just as important as the world opens up. I received feedback from both audiences and artists that they saw BAO as an important addition to Boulder arts offerings, so I started to imagine possibilities.

Arts in the Park at the Bandshell offers the perfect platform to continue BAO's work and I wanted to create a format that would encourage the community to experience as many of the region's incredible performing artists as possible. Holding performances every Thursday for six weeks gives audience members the chance to come again and again and build BAO into the weekly routine of their summers.

DC: I know the prior Boulder Arts Outdoors took place when we were still in the height of the pandemic. With more folks getting vaccinated and guidelines loosening up, how will these events look different?

MD: Boulder Arts Outdoors is continuing to pay close attention to the pandemic and CDC updates, but we are also thrilled by the freedoms afforded by vaccinations and the rollback of restrictions.

The biggest difference between this year's performances and last year's is that audiences will be out of their cars. The Bandshell is such a visible and accessible venue that really emphasizes the feeling of in-person community and is located right in the heart of Boulder. This year, we are able to offer audiences food and beverages and host bigger groups of artists. We are opening doors and concessions a full hour before the show begins — at 6 p.m.—to give audiences the chance to eat, drink, mingle and join in an introductory salsa or samba lesson. This year's season is really a celebration of the live, in-person, interactive community we have all missed so much.

DC: Love the diversity of acts scheduled to perform. How did you go about curating this lineup and who are some you are particularly excited to host?

MD: (The) lineup is all about creating a diverse, multicultural platform that brings many communities together. To curate the series, I did intensive research and collaborated with an advisory committee of local arts leaders, including Carmen Reina Nelson, Helanius J. Wilkins, Mark Heiser, Maria Eugenia Semprun and Katie Elliott. Every performance is designed to offer audience members something they already know and love and also to introduce them to new artists and cultural traditions.

The mixed-bill format will feel something like the performance version of a dynamic chef's tasting menu and the acts all come together as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is hard to name particular acts because I am really so excited about every single one, but I am particularly thrilled to have Helanius J. Wilkins back with a brand new work on July 29 and also to have Los Chicos Malos, the Elisa Garcia Trio, 3rd Law Dance/Theater, Alfredo Muro, and Ball/Lune, a unique act that combines the vocals of Juilliard grad Joan Hofmeyr and LeCoq trained mime and juggler Blake Habermann.

Two of the ballet acts, Claire Davison and Leah Baylin, are Boulder natives who now dance with American Ballet Theater — arguably the best ballet company in the world — and their performances will be terrific. I also cannot wait to have Brazilian vocalist Gui join Ginga on Aug. 19 and local legends Chris Daniels and the Kings with Freddi Gowdy on Aug. 26.

DC: After the series wraps, do you plan on offering more performances at different area venues?

MD: As a young organization, we are pursuing opportunities and openings and also connecting with supporters in the community who make our work possible. As our name suggests, we focus on outdoor venues and platforms that take the experience of performance beyond traditional theater walls. The Bandshell is such a perfect location for our work, but we have also eyed the Sunrise Amphitheater on Flagstaff and a variety of parks and non-traditional spaces.

DC: What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of running Boulder Arts Outdoors?

MD: That's a really tough question. This work is so multifaceted and through it I engage with the community in many different ways that I really enjoy — be it learning about and interfacing with artists I deeply admire, passing out flyers at the Farmers Market or greeting audience members as they arrive at the Bandshell.

That said, after all of the preparatory work, there is an ineffable magic that happens when the energy of the audiences and performers meet. I can feel a truly electric liveness and sense the inspiration and discovery that comes with this diverse, multidisciplinary format of programming. Creating those experiences is enormously rewarding and validates the intense effort that goes into producing the series.


Upcoming BAO Dates

July 29

Lady Romeo — soul/pop/rock band

Claire Davison — neoclassical ballet

Helanius J. Wilkins — contemporary dance

Marcela Lay and Toqui — Cuban-style salsa

Alfredo Muro — Latin guitar virtuoso

Aug. 5

Dandelions — folk rock, bluegrass

3rd Law Dance/Theater — contemporary dance

VisKosity Dance Collective — contemporary and street-dance fusion

Ball Lune — mime, juggling, experimental vocals

Los Chicos Malos — cuban jazz/salsa/cha cha

Aug. 12

Elisa Garcia Trio — Latin-American folk music

Dance Aspen — contemporary ballet

Yesutor Kotoka — Ghanaian dance and drumming

Andrew Krimm and Rosemarie Mientka — viola and contemporary dance

All Wheel Drive — bluegrass/Bela Fleck tribute band

Aug. 19

Sherefe — Arabic music

Leah Baylin — classical ballet

Celia Perarnaud — contemporary dance

Block 1750 — Cypher-style hip hop

Ginga — Brazilian music

Aug. 26

Boulder Symphony Percussion Trio — chamber percussion

Rueda de la Primera — Rueda de casino

Boulder Ballet — neoclassical ballet duet

Paul Fowler with 3rd Law Dance/Theater — vocals and contemporary dance

Chris Daniels and the Kings with Freddi Gowdy — blues/funk/jam band