Denise Simone played 32 roles in the production of “The Syringa Tree” at Company of Fools.
To Denise Simone, excellence in the arts means “serving our community and serving our state through the arts.” Through doing this, we are able to reflect on who we are as community and who we are as state through the filter of the arts, she said.
The Idaho Commission on the Arts and Gov. Butch Otter announced the 2014 Governor’s Awards in the Arts this August. Local artist and educator Simone has been chosen to receive the Excellence in the Arts distinction.
Simone is a founding member of Company of Fools theater troupe in Hailey, as well as a director, teacher, playwright and actor with more than 30 years of experience in the world of professional nonprofit theatre.
The biennial Governor’s Awards in the Arts were established in 1970 by the Idaho Commission on the Arts to elevate recognition and awareness of Idaho arts and artists. Idaho was among the first in the nation to establish such a program. Since its start, each sitting governor, along with the commission, has determined winners of the awards and presented them to Idaho’s most creative citizens and organizations. Past honorees include filmmaker Michael Hoffman, painter Charles Gill, Mexican folk dancer Norma Pintar and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
Simone was modest about the award.
“The excellence part—I’m not sure if I really define that because I’m always a work in progress, as we all are,” she said. “Excellence, for me, is the desire to continue to learn and explore, and to bear witness to stories of others that we would normally not. So, artists become the community story tellers—we tell stories, we share stories, and reflect on stories for the better of our collective humanity.”
Simone was exposed to the arts from a very young age.
“I have a classic, immigrant-Italian family on both sides,” she said. “My father really put a premium on having a house full of books and albums, and going to see music shows—it was seen as the ‘American Dream’ to have those things. I was surrounded by the arts, and my father really instilled in us that creative expression was of the highest value.”
Simone’s theatre teacher turned her on to the greats—Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare and Strindberg.
“I was a really shy kid—like most actors,” she chuckled. “But I gravitated to theatre in high school … I remember in ninth grade reading Tennessee William’s ‘The Glass Menagerie.’”
She then decided at 13 years old that she would play Amanda Wingfield, the play’s Southern matriarch, in a high school drama competition. After that, she was hooked.
“As artists, it’s nice to have the state take a moment to recognize us all, because one
artist represents hundreds of artists that work collectively.”
Jump to 1992. In Virginia, Simone started Company of Fools with several other artists and founder Rusty Wilson in a converted garage. There, the artists trained for an entire year before their first performance. Their mission was taken directly from William Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize acceptance speech—to tell stories of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Because Tennessee William’s cannon exemplified these stories, the company’s first project was titled “Something Unspoken: Two Evenings of Tennessee Williams One-Acts.” The actors performed five one-acts “environmentally,” so the audience could go room-to-room to see a different play. The run was a huge success and finished with a long wait list.
While in Virginia, Simone was also the director of community outreach for Theatre IV, which is now Virginia Repertory, the nation’s largest touring theatre for children. The Richmond Foster Care system approached Theatre IV to develop a play that would help raise the visibility of children waiting for adoption. In response, Simone wrote “Me and My Families.” The play toured for over four years and served as a recruitment tool for Virginia adoption agencies looking to match families with children. On her dedication to theatre and the arts, Simone said, “When theatre is good—living and organic and truthful—a transformation occurs that is shared between artist and audience. Theatre then becomes an extremely powerful art form.”
This transformation, she said, “keeps taking me to the next character” and further along in her journey as an actor, director, writer, teacher and arts administrator.
Of all Simone’s performances, one of the most personally rewarding was “Shirley Valentine.” The play’s central theme is relatable—getting through life versus experiencing life. Simone has played Shirley three times and has a “sweet spot” for the character. Simone’s roles in “The Syringa Tree” pushed her artistically, and she expressed a fondness for that production as well as “Other Desert Cities.”
Simone has also contributed as a teacher; she’s taught theatre and creative writing classes in Virginia and Idaho and created the in-school program called Stages of Wonder, now entering its 18th year. The program goes to elementary schools and strives to take away the stigma of right/wrong and pass/fail. The goal is to replace benchmarks with individual and collective creativity.
Simone’s additional support of the arts includes serving as a commissioner on the Idaho Commission on the Arts from 2003–2010, as a theater panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, and on the boards of the Wood River Arts Alliance and the Hailey Chamber of Commerce.
“It is wonderful to have Denise Simone’s commitment to her work acknowledged in this way. We are truly honored to have people with Denise’s talent sharing their craft with our community and the state,” said Kristin Poole, artistic director for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
According to John Glenn, a Fools core company artist and Simone’s colleague, the Governor’s Excellence in the Arts Award is a fitting and well-deserved honor for Simone.
“She has dedicated her life to the arts,” he said, “and dedicated the past 20 years to the arts in the state of Idaho.”
In light of Simone’s “deep conviction and unfailing dedication” to the performing arts and arts education, Glenn stated, “It just doesn’t get any better than Denise Simone.”
Ultimately, Simone is happy to be one member of the talented tribe of artists in this state.
“As artists, it’s nice to have the state take a moment to recognize us all, because one artist represents hundreds of artists that work collectively,” she said.
The awards ceremony will take place on Tuesday, Dec. 2, from 2-4 p.m. at the Capitol Rotunda in Boise. Otter and his wife will be on hand to present silver medallions, designed by Idaho artist Elizabeth Wolf, to the 2014 recipients. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Sun Valley Center for the Arts at 726-9491 or visit its website www.sunvalleycenter.org.