2016 Summit: An infusion of invisible color and hidden voices

2016 Colorado New Play Summit

Photos from the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. To see more, just click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. All photos are downloadable for free by clicking on a photo. You will be taken to the DCPA Flickr account for downloading.

Many numbers were bandied about at the 11th and largest Colorado New Play Summit, among the most telling: Only 20 percent of all plays produced in this country last year were written by women, and half of all developing new works featured at the DCPA Theatre Company’s signature annual event have returned as fully staged productions.

But perhaps the most remarkable stat is one that went almost unnoticed. And if it had not occurred to playwright José Cruz González, author of the 2016 Summit offering American Mariachi, it might have gone completely overlooked.

“I realized that two of the four directors here at the Summit are Latino – and they are both directing non-Latino plays,” González said. “When I reflected on that, I thought, ‘Wow. That’s huge.’ And nothing is being said about it.”

And the fact that it’s not a big deal “is why it’s a big deal,” said González, whose magical realism piece September Shoes was fully staged by Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson in his first season back in 2005, followed by the comedy Sunsets and Margaritas in 2008.

“I have to take my hat off to Kent for his commitment to new work and to the different voices that need to be reflected in this country,” González said. “We don’t see that in a whole lot of places yet. I think what he’s doing here is important, and I hope our colleagues around the country will pick up the ball and do what needs to be done. We need variety, and we need to hear those hidden voices. I think that’s what Kent is doing.”

This 11th Colorado New Play Summit was just the second since expanding to two weeks. Now, four creative teams gather in Denver for a full week of development before a first weekend of public readings. In the past, the playwrights then returned to their elsewhere lives, and that was that. Now, each team takes a breather while the playwrights turn lessons learned into actual new script pages. After a second week of intensive rewriting and rehearsal time, there is another round of weekend readings, with many of the industry’s most prominent national figures in attendance. And that plants seeds for a possible future life for these developing new works.

Four short videos spotlighting each of the featured plays at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Videos by John Moore and David Lenk.

“Time really is the key thing for new-play development, and so the luxury of having that second week is huge,” González said. On a very practical level, the extra time helped him to focus on two unsolved issues.

“One of my major questions coming in was, ‘Is American Mariachi a play with music, or should it just be a full-on musical?’” González said. “Now I’m leaning more and more toward the idea that this is a play with music. Another question I had was about two characters who really don’t ever speak through the course of the play. Having these great actors play those roles has really fleshed out those characters. “

We asked all four featured playwrights to comment on the Summit’s expanded two-week time frame. Here’s what else they told us:

  • Lauren Gunderson (The Book of Will): “Having two weekends of readings is incredibly valuable. You never know a play until there’s an audience. And we learned so much from our first reading. To then be able to really sink in and do the hard thinking and the collaborative work a new play requires …  that’s really what this process allows for, and I am incredibly grateful for that.”
  • Tira Palmquist (Two Degrees): “The reading after the first week feels in a way like ‘proof of concept.’ Like: ‘OK, we did this first week, and we got it on its feet, and we got it in front of an audience.’ And then you get to hear how an audience responds – what lands and what doesn’t. One of the things that’s lovely about the second week is that now you have the opportunity to go through and fine-tune anything that you didn’t really get to polish. And you can answer questions you didn’t really get to answer during the first week.” 
  • Mat Smart (Midwinter): “The second week has made all the difference for me. I took a good first step with the play during the first week, but I would say that I really discovered what the play is and who the characters are and what the big moments are just in the past couple of days. So I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have another week to take a crack at it.

And what of Denver’s growing reputation an incubator of new works for the American theatre?

  • Lauren Gunderson: “Everyone who knows new plays knows about the Colorado New Play Summit now. It’s a place to gather to see new plays. It’s a place for community. It’s a place to just do the work – the real work. Everyone knows about the commitment to new plays here. And I’m excited that the community of people who know it gets bigger every year.”
  • Tira Palmquist: “People are noticing that Denver is really interested not just in having a festival, but actually developing new plays. Not all festivals do both. I’ve been in a lot of festivals where it feels like the plays are sort of thrown up in front of an audience. But if you’re really interested in play development, then really taking the time to do it right and attend to the playwright’s needs, then this is the way it should be done.”
  • Mat Smart: “The Denver Center’s national reputation is that it has a great passion for new plays, and an audience for them, and the resources to back them up and support them the way they need to be supported.”

A Summit 600 2
The cast of ‘American Mariachi’ at the closing party for the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Summarizing his Summit experience, González said: “I have to tell you, it is a rare thing in this country when you can feel like this is an artistic home, and you can take chances and create art.”

Summit QuoteGunderson’s The Book of Will, which explores how Shakespeare’s friends rallied to have his complete works published for the first time following his death, is a commissioned piece through the Denver Center’s Women’s Voices Fund. That is a $1 million fund dedicated to making plays written and directed by women. “Just give women the agency, the encouragement, the support both financial and personal to write more plays,” she said. “Sometimes when you have a problem, you just have to fix it – like they have done here in Denver.”

More than ever, the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit spotlighted playwrights who are currently working in the Theatre Company’s commissioning pipeline. Commissioned playwrights are those who have been contracted by the company to write a new play, and Thompson then gets first consideration whether to further develop those plays.

Robert Schenkkan (All the Way, The 12), Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), Regina Taylor (Crowns, Drowning Crow), Rogelio Martinez (When Tang Met Laika), Anne Garcia-Romero (Earthquake ChicaLauren Yee (Ching Chong Chinaman), Eric Schmiedl (Benediction) and Andrew Hinderacker (Colossal) were among those who came to Denver for the full two weeks. In addition to giving the playwrights time to focus on their own developing works, most also participated in panel conversations and other activities.

Read our Week 1 Summit re-cap

One event, “Dialogue on Dialogue,” was a panel conversation that explored what makes for a great first scene. But rather than have the playwrights simply read from their own works, host (and Theatre Company Playwright in Residence) Matthew Lopez assigned them roles from both contemporary and classic plays such as The Glass Menagerie. Those in attendance who saw Regina Taylor and Robert Schenkkan read as George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf won’t soon forget it (photo below).

summit Regina Taytlor Robert Schenkkan

Kemp Powers, who was attending his first Colorado New Play Summit, said he “was completely humbled” by the experience. He was particularly impressed by the span of industry leaders visiting from theatrical nerve centers such New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and here in Denver.

“Being a playwright is such a solitary endeavor that it’s easy to forget how valuable it is to connect with your peers within the national community,” he said. “Getting some much-needed time to work on my commission was wonderful. Seeing the works of other playwrights at this early stage of development was nothing short of inspirational.”

Summit Teen playwritingThe Saturday program culminated with a lively presentation of readings by three teenage Colorado writers. The one-acts were chosen from among 212 statewide submissions to DCPA Education’s third annual Regional High School Playwriting Workshop and Competition. At the Summit, professional and student actors joined forces to read plays by Kendra Knapp of Valor Christian High School, Jessica Wood of Denver Christian High School and Gabrielle Moore of D’Evelyn High School (pictured above).

The three finalists received mentorship from Rogelio Martinez, Anne Garcia-Gomez and Lauren Yee. Education staff will choose one of their three plays to be fully produced as part of its 2016 summer program.

“This opportunity was a great help,” said Wood. “Maybe we are not all going to be playwrights when we grow up. Maybe we are not even going to write. But this has certainly helped us improve our skills. We understand more about the theatre. We understand more about the massive process that goes into creating a play. And I think we understand a lot more about the power of words.”

Previous NewsCenter Coverage of 2016 Summit (to date):
Summit Spotlight video: Lauren Gunderson, The Book of Will
Summit Spotlight video: José Cruz González, American Mariachi
Summit Spotlight Video: Tira Palmquist, Two Degrees
Summit Spotlight Video: Mat Smart, Midwinter
DCPA rolls out the welcome mat: It’s Summit weekend
2016 Summit playwrights introduce their featured works
Three major Summit events to be streamed live
Featured playwrights named for 2016 Summit
Audio: Colorado Public Radio on the 2016 New Play Summit

DCPA commissioned playwrights. DCPA commissioned playwrights and staff. Clockwise from left: DCPA CEO Scott Shiller, Andrew Hinderacker, Lauren Yee, Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson, Kemp Powers, Robert Schenkkan, Mat Smart, Regina Taylor, Anne Garcia-Romero, DCPA Playwright in Residence Matthew Lopez and Rogelio Martinez.

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