Matthew Lopez in Denver, Part 1: Why? The hunger for new work

by John Moore | Nov 19, 2014

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Says DCPA Theatre Company Playwriting Fellow Matthew Lopez: 'I think it's possible to get an audience to actually be OK with the potential for abject failure. Because they know there is also, then, the potential for great, exciting success.' Photo by John Moore


Matthew Lopez is one of the busiest writers in America. That he is making time to serve as the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ first-ever Playwriting Fellow for the 2014-15 Theatre Company season, he says, is a testament to Denver's growing importance on the American theatre landscape.

When Artistic Director Kent Thompson asked Lopez to accept this innovative appointment in August, Lopez said yes for one very straightforward reason: “The emphasis here on new-play development.”

Lopez is the author of The Whipping Man, one of the most-produced plays in America last year, about a Jewish Confederate soldier who returns to his ruined estate just after the cessation of fighting in desperate need of medical help from his former slaves. Lopez is also the author of The Legend of Georgia McBride, a heartfelt comedy about a straight Elvis impersonator who delves into the world of drag performance out of his own brand of desperation – and finds that he likes it. He really likes it.

Colorado audiences liked both plays as well. The Whipping Man, staged at the Curious Theatre, won nine Henry Awards from the Colorado Theatre Guild, including Outstanding Production. The DCPA’s Georgia McBride won two more, including Outstanding New Play.

Denver, Lopez says, is a theatre community that appreciates new work. And nationally, he said, the DCPA is increasingly being seen as an industry  leader.

“It’s everything,” Lopez said. “It's the Colorado New Play Summit. It's the fact that last season, four of the plays from the Summit, including my own, made it into the following season. There is an aggressive push here toward being seen as a premiere theatre for new works. Toward being seen as a playwright's theatre.”

Still, Lopez is one committed man. At present, he has four active commissions. That means four different theatre companies are expecting him to produce a new play for their right of first refusal. He will have two new plays produced for the first time in 2015. There is also the possibility of an innovative collaboration.  He was a staff writer for one season on HBO's The Newsroom.

Oh, and he’s also working on his first film: A little movie by the makers of 12 Years a Slave that would be produced by an up-and-comer named Brad Pitt. It’s an adaptation of a Spanish novel called Your Face Tomorrow.  

“It’s about a Spaniard living in London," Lopez said. "He gets involved with a company he thinks is a consulting firm; but it turns out they are doing really bad things in the world."

As is the case with many theatre, TV and film projects, writing something doesn’t necessarily mean it will get made. But Lopez is writing his first movie as if it will. And those are just a few reasons Lopez’s calendar would have probably preferred he had not also taken this six-month fellowship with the DCPA.

But he accepted the appointment with relish.

The fellowship calls for Lopez to spend one week per month in Denver serving as part of the Theatre Company’s artistic team. Lopez will bring the playwright’s voice into the production process for upcoming world premieres of Benediction and Appoggiatura. He will serve as the Playwright Host for the 2015 Colorado New Play Summit. And he will have input on the selection of the Theatre Company's  2015-16 mainstage season.

Most important to Lopez: Every monthly visit to Denver will include a visit to area schools.

Lopez also will be checking in each month with the DCPA NewsCenter for what will be a six-part series chronicling his visit to Denver. Each part of the series will tackle a different aspect of his fellowship.


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Here are excerpts from our first interview with Matthew Lopez in Denver:

Matthew_Lopez_Part1_300John Moore: When Kent Thompson first approached you with this fellowship idea, why was it intriguing to you?

Matthew Lopez: It came at a time when I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with the opacity of the way theatres around the country make decisions. As a writer, you submit a play for consideration, and you generally get the ‘yay’ or the ‘nay’ – but you are not often privy to the decision-making process. It starts to feel like it's just so random and ad hoc that you forget that there probably actually is a process. So when Kent offered me this fellowship, part of what was interesting was just being part of the artistic staff for a while. That means sitting in on meetings and working on play selection, both for the Colorado New Play Summit and for next year's Theatre Company season. It also means sitting in on marketing meetings and a host of different things. When does a playwright ever get to do that? So that was all really intriguing for me. It’s like being offered a backstage tour of the inner workings of a company.

John Moore: So is that how the fellowship is actually proceeding?

Matthew Lopez: Yes, that’s exactly what I'm doing. The only thing I asked for was not to be given a commission to write a new play.

John Moore: I think a lot of people would naturally expect that a commission would be a part of a fellowship like this.

Matthew Lopez: Yes, but I have so many commissions right now that I would not be able to turn it around for years.

John Moore: So how are you going to make this appointment work with your busy schedule?

Matthew Lopez: Well, it is being scheduled within an inch of its life. Seriously. Before we agreed to definitely do this in August, we looked at what the DCPA's needs were for me; and we looked at what my needs for myself were. Then we looked at the calendar to see if it was in any way even feasible. And it turns out that it actually was. It was going to be a marathon for me, but I think it is worth it. I am really excited.

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Jamie Ann Romero and Ben Huber in the DCPA Theatre Company's "The Legend of Georgia McBride" in February 2014. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen


John Moore: Obviously you are high on the DCPA, especially after they staged The Legend of Georgia McBride last season.

Matthew Lopez: Which means they have excellent taste.

John Moore: Of course. So tell me what you see happening here at the DCPA that made this a company you wanted to do this with.

Matthew Lopez: It’s the emphasis on new-play development. What’s happening here doesn't usually happen at "institutions" as large as the DCPA. Institutions often coast. Look, they also do Hamlet at the DCPA. They do Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. So they are not ignoring the mandates of a major regional theatre company. They do both.

John Moore: But there is a lot of economic trepidation in the American theatre as a whole, which affects the ability of an institution to be consistent with its commitment to new work, including here at the DCPA.

Matthew Lopez: Yes, and that just proves that it's hard. That is not a mystery to me. I think audiences are trainable -- and I mean that in the most respectful way. There will be growing pains. But over time, if you get an audience accustomed to new works, they are going to become hungry for it.

John Moore: Another important factor is how you define new work. You mentioned Vanya. That may be the most-produced play in America this year, but it's still new to a Denver audience. So is the new The Unsinkable Molly Brown. This stage adaptation of Lord of the Flies. Appoggiatura. Benediction. One Night in Miami. The 12. I mean, other than A Christmas Carol, it's all new work by the DCPA Theatre Company this season.

Matthew Lopez: Yes, it is all new work to the Denver audience. For theatregoers at Curious Theatre, The Whipping Man was a new play, for all intents and purposes. And yet if it were to be done in New York again, it would be considered a revival. Still, there is a difference between the Vanya example and having the playwright there, embedded in your company, continuing to develop a new piece. Having a real relationship with the people who are bringing your story to life for the first time. I mean, let’s be honest: Christopher Durang is not going to come to Denver to see this production of Vanya. But to me, there is something special about developing a relationship between an audience and an author in a specific town. For example: I don't have a relationship with New York City audiences. I've not been given the opportunity to have one. I have only had one production there. But I am beginning a real relationship with the Denver audience. My last visit to Denver, I walked through the plaza on my way to see Molly Brown, and one of the ushers said to me, 'Oh, you are that playwright!' That doesn't happen in New York. No one stops me in midtown Manhattan and says, 'Oh, you are that playwright!' By next year, Hartford Stage will have done three of my plays in five years. So I have a relationship with audiences in Denver and Hartford.

John Moore: Hartford is presenting the world premiere of your play Reverberation in 2015.

Matthew Lopez: Yes. Hartford audiences were introduced to me with The Whipping Man, and they got to know me a lot better during Somewhere. So they trust me. But Reverberation is a play that would keep even the most stout-hearted of artistic directors up at night deciding whether or not to do it. (Hartford boss) Darko Tresnjak is banking on the good will the community has for me and my work. Now, one of the things that I will say about plays like Vanya, The Whipping Man and Clybourne Park -- these plays that are ubiquitous in regional theatres around the country -- they do blaze a trail in some ways for audiences. For a lot of regional theatre audiences, if it ain't by Arthur Miller, it's a new play. 

John Moore: Sometimes even if Arthur Miller writes it, it's a new play.    

Matthew Lopez: True. And that's what I mean when I say audiences are trainable. When there is an openness, you can create in them the hunger for the high-wire act that is a new play. I don't run a theatre, so what the hell do I know? But I think it's possible to get an audience to actually be OK with the potential for abject failure. Because they know there is also, then, the potential for great, exciting success.

John Moore: With your schedule being so busy, I’m intrigued that so much of your fellowship is being dedicated to time teaching in area schools. I could see how if this gets to be too busy, the class time might come to be considered optional.

Matthew Lopez: It will never be optional for me.

John Moore: So why is that so important to you?

Matthew Lopez: First of all: My parents are both teachers, so I value education. I would have killed for an opportunity to attend a school like the Denver School of the Arts. When I was growing up, I didn't have access to anything like this. If I can be seen in any way as someone who is capable of providing mentorship or inspiration to these kids, then I am happy to play that role. Finally, I have been the beneficiary of a lot of kindness, and a lot of favors, and a lot of people who didn't have time to give me giving me time when I was coming up. I would be tempting fate by not giving it back to the next generation. I'd be the guy out on the deck of the Titanic talking about how there are no icebergs out there.

COMING NEXT, Part 2: Matthew Lopez visits Denver School of the Arts

Selected previous coverage of Matthew Lopez in Denver:
Matthew Lopez named DCPA Playwriting Fellow for 2014-15
Matthew Lopez's trip down the straight and fabulous
2015 Colorado New Play Summit expands to two weekends
'Georgia McBride' team: 'Subtlety is our enemy'

 

 

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John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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