A student playwright’s work launched Springs Ensemble Theatre into its 14th season in equally horrific and endearing fashion, tackling a topic seldom explored on stage: transgender identity.

“Midge and the Butcher” chronicles a transgender teenage girl named Midge, played by Rose Mitchell, who reaches her breaking point after ongoing harassment and summons a demon named Xantheus the Butcher, played by Isaiah Culling, to exact revenge on the perpetrator.

The show is packed with lighthearted moments fit for any classic buddy comedy. Midge paints The Butcher’s nails and teaches him how to hug. The Butcher develops a knack for knitting with his claws and grows protective of the girl who summoned him, all the while plotting the grisly demise of her primary bully, Hunter, played by Gabriel Meadows.

That’s where the trauma and viscera come in. A content warning on the play’s program alerts theatergoers of impending language, blasphemy, transphobia, dysphoria, self-harm and suicidal ideation, religious trauma, body horror and strobing lights.

Springs Ensemble Theatre to open 14th season with "Midge and the Butcher"

“It is a weird kind of mixed-genre piece,” director Sheppard Shaver said. “There are people who are drawn to the buddy comedy, wholesome, friendship parts and then are like, ‘Oh, my God, what kind of horror is this?’ And then there’s people who are like, ‘I’m here for the blood, oh, and a little friendship is good on the side, too.’ I hope there’s a little something for everybody.”

This unusual mash of genres makes this play special, Sheppard Shaver said. That, and the impeccable writing of her former Pikes Peak State College student, Quinn Smola, whom she described as “the next great American playwright.”

Smola is transgender, an identity he wanted to cover in one of his first-ever plays. He’d never explored the creative medium before taking Shaver’s introductory playwriting course.

“You’re sort of creating your own world that you’re inhabiting, and the way I wrote my play is sort of based on personal experiences but projecting them onto a fictional world of fictional characters. In a therapeutic way, I’m copying down my feelings,” Smola said. “I haven’t seen too many plays about the trans experience, let alone the coming out process and being a trans teenager.”

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Chad Orr, an audience member during the Thursday showing at the Fifty-Niner Speakeasy in Old Colorado City, commended Smola and other young writers as trailblazers, pushing the envelope on stage in ways only their generation can.

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“These fresh perspectives are so much more bold and have an ability to press into subjects in ways that we are sometimes scared to do,” said Orr, who also serves as the vice president of local theater company Theatre’d Art. “The only way we can talk about the things that are more complex, like gender, are through new playwrights. These are the topics that haven’t been fully broached or developed at this point.”

Smola said he hopes people will leave with more empathy than when they walked into the show and an understanding that people are going through different experiences, the extent of which we may never fully comprehend. Nevertheless, Smola said, parents, friends and family members should extend love and support to queer youth who often feel isolated.

The show’s goal in part is to give audience members a window into the lived experience of many transgender people. Smola and Shaver say the casting of Culling, a nonbinary person, and Mitchell, a transgender woman, in leading roles made the play even stronger in that regard.

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“We have gone through certain things that cisgender people never will,” Smola said. “While acting is a place where you can pretend to be someone else, and I feel that’s kind of the point, but going into it with a worldly knowledge and passion for repping people correctly is so important and can’t be replaced by someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care to know.”

Inside Out Youth Services, a nonprofit organization catering to LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, partnered with Springs Ensemble Theatre for several events, including an upcoming poetry workshop before the Oct. 8 show and a queer open mic for song, dance, spoken word and poetry before the Oct. 15 show.

Keeley Griego, the nonprofit’s digital and community editor, said SET’s commitment to representative art and inclusive environment makes them a natural partner for the show, especially in a city with limited trans representation in media.

“It’s huge. It’s just so important to have trans people telling trans stories,” Griego said. “It’s a way to tell stories from our perspective, and with that we get to own our power, and that builds confidence.”

Despite the horror elements, Smola said the ultimate message is one of hope: There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, even if matters feel grim in the moment.

“For trans youth to see it and be like, ‘I can do this,’ both from a plot sense of having renewed hope and life and feeling they can get through anything, but also from an artistic sense of being like, “I can try anything, I can do art, I can go into music or science,” Smola said. “There is a future for them in this world, and it’s not all oppression and darkness and depression.”

“Midge and the Butcher” runs through Oct. 15. A full list of dates, showtimes and prices can be found at springsensembletheatre.org.

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