In the videos above, watch our interviews with all of the 2020 featured playwrights.
Annual celebration of new plays had its storytelling feet planted in all sorts of different worlds
Something unprecedented happened at the 2020 Colorado New Play Summit: All five of the featured plays were bi-cultural in scope. One play lived simultaneously in the deaf and hearing worlds. One featured an American couple in the Middle East. Another explored an ongoing dispute between Native Americans and Washington’s controversially named NFL franchise.
Everywhere you looked, the DCPA Theatre Company’s 15th signature celebration of new stories for the American theatre showed cultures both clashing and connecting, each arriving at moments of revelation or revolution. Audiences heard Lakota, Spanish, hints of Arabic and saw American Sign Language in action. All of which made for unquestionably the most culturally relevant Summit to date. And that was no accident, said Literary Manager Lynde Rosario.
“This is a real trend among literary managers and artistic teams around the nation,” said Rosario, who, along with DCPA Literary Director Doug Langworthy lead the Theatre Company’s Summit selection process. One important evolution in that process, Rosario said, is that all submissions are read as blind entries, meaning readers are initially unaware of whether the playwright is a Pulitzer Prize winner or a complete unknown.
As a result, Rosario said, “all these writers who are typically ignored are now rising to the top because who they are is less important than the quality of their work.”
Mary Kathryn Nagle was commissioned by DCPA Artistic Director Chris Coleman to write Reclaiming One Star with Suzan Shown Harjo, becoming the first story by indigenous women to be told on a Denver Center stage. Asked what that means to them, Harjo answered, “In a word: Everything. We feel so warmly received and so surrounded by support. I think it’s just marvelous.”
The five featured Summit offerings at a glance:
• Alma, by Benjamin Benne: For Alma, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and her 17-year-old daughter, Angel, a study session uncovers the dreams and despair over their future. Angel is prepping for the SAT while Alma prepares for her citizenship exam. “When these immigration stories become headlines, we don’t get to feel the heartbeat and the pulse of what it means for two people who love each other so intensely to be separated,” Benne said. “Which is a potential challenge that they face.” PHOTOS
• Another Kind of Silence, by L M Feldman: When two women spark an intimate friendship, two couples and their four “shadow-souls” must confront the challenges of communication and the transformative nature of desire. This bilingual play unfurls simultaneously in English and American Sign Language. “I’ve heard it compared to a musical, actually, even though there is no music,” said Feldman. PHOTOS
• In Her Bones, by Jessica Kahkoska: Colorado’s San Luis Valley is world-renowned for its beauty, but the area holds a deeper clandestine heritage: The legacy of Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition five centuries ago. On a snowy night, a young woman encounters a mysterious stranger who gets her thinking about all the things in her life that have brought her to a general store in a blizzard. “To me, this play just has its roots in the ground here in Colorado,” Kahkoska said. PHOTOS
• Hotter Than Egypt, by Yussef El Guindi: For a middle-aged American couple traveling to Egypt, their relationship is put to the test when an old connection leads to new temptation. Says El Guindi: “When you are in a marriage, you want to feel seen. But sometimes in marriages, we stop feeling seen.” PHOTOS
• Reclaiming One Star, by Mary Kathryn Nagle and Suzan Shown Harjo: Equal parts detective thriller and courtroom drama, DCPA commissioned playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle and Suzan Shown Harjo draw from the century-old controversy over the naming of Washington’s NFL team, which many Native Americans consider a slur. “We are not the property of non-Native Americans. And our identity is not for sale, period,” Nagle said. PHOTOS
The Colorado New Play Summit has grown into one of the nation’s premier showcases of new plays. Since 2006, it has introduced 62 new plays leading to 34 fully produced world premieres.
All five featured plays become instant candidates for consideration to be fully staged on upcoming Theatre Company seasons. Summit guests also had the opportunity to see full productions of two audience favorites from the 2019 Summit: Tony Meneses’ twenty50 and Bonnie Metzgar’s You Lost Me.
And for the first time, Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman announced the company’s upcoming season at the Summit. His selections included two plays that were also featured readings at the 2019 Summit:
• Beaufield Berry’s In the Upper Room is the playwright’s unsparing look back at her Omaha family in the 1970s. Their lives orbit around Rose, a controlling matriarch hiding dark secrets from her mysterious past. It’s a dramatic dark comedy about the ties that bind and break us.
• Neyla Pekarek and Karen Hartman’s Rattlesnake Kate is the stage adaptation of Pekarek’s concept album, Rattlesnake. It tells the life story of Kate McHale Slaughterback, a Greeley farmer who, as a single mother in 1925, came upon a migration of rattlesnakes while on her horse with her young son. To protect her child and herself, she proceeded to famously kill 140 snakes.
The Colorado New Play Summit allows for two weeks of development of each new play, culminating in a first weekend of public readings. Playwrights then take what they learn from their first readings back into their writing rooms before more rehearsal and a second round of readings for industry professionals. There is not believed to be another new-play process quite like it.
“I think that’s huge,” El Guindi said of the Summit’s second public weekend of readings. “At most new-play festivals, you rehearse for a day or two, and then you present it in front of an audience, and then you walk away and you look for another festival to try.” Having two weeks in Denver, he said, allows the whole process to slow down and take the time it needs. “We had a table read on the first day of rehearsal, and that was the first time I had ever heard my play out loud,” he said. “And then that first audience told me exactly what was working and what wasn’t. And then I got to go away, do rewrites, come back with new pages – and then I got another shot. Instead of having to look for another festival, I had another weekend right here in Denver.”
This year’s Summit drew industry leaders from 54 local and national theatre organizations, with 35 playwrights and more than 150 directors, actors, artistic leaders, educators and more from 16 states attending or taking part. Visitors represented companies ranging from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago to the Alley Theatre in Houston to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Closer to home, guests hailed from the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Creede Repertory Theatre, Curious Theatre, The Catamounts, Athena Project and others. The 2020 Summit set a record with 99 percent of all seats booked for the two weekends. Overall attendance eclipsed 1,000, with 2,893 total reading tickets sold (most attending more than one reading).
In addition, DCPA Education hosted readings by the three winners of its seventh annual AT&T High School Playwriting Competition: Brandon Guo of Peak to Peak Charter School, Connor Yokley of Highlands Ranch High School and Meghan Frey of Estes Park High School.
The itinerary again included two Playwrights’ Slams, where writers sampled their developing works in a fun and supportive atmosphere. One Slam focused on local playwrights while the other featured national writers. At the local Slam, the Theatre Company announced the 2020-21 class of its Playwrights’ Group to foster the work of local playwrights: Kenya Fashaw, Josh Hartwell, Felice Locker and Frank Oteri. The Denver Center will provide a stipend of $2,500 to each member, twice-a-month reviews and discussions, two table readings during the script development, and the option for further development as a commissioned playwright.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.