In the beginning was the Word. In the beginning of every play — before the set, the costumes, the makeup — are the words that make the story, the story that ultimately becomes the play. Lovers of words and the stories they create converged February 25 at 26 at the DCPA’s Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex for a celebration of creativity and the power of the written word to inspire, illuminate, and entertain.
Now in its 17th year, the Colorado New Play Summit showcases the works of four promising young playwrights, read by seasoned actors and guided by some of the country’s most talented directors, who come together to explore new ideas, push boundaries, and experiment with new forms of storytelling. Beloved by local enthusiasts, the event has also become a destination for industry professionals from across the nation eager for a glimpse of emerging talent and a chance to spot plays that may become the ‘next big thing.’
Jonathan Hetler is the Artistic Producer at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and a first-time attendee. “I think it’s fascinating to see new work being developed that is expanding our canon of theater,” he says. “And I’m excited that Denver Center is putting and investing money into such a necessary thing of expansion — giving voices to more people, hearing more stories that need to be told.”
The New Play Summit has read more than 70 works since its inception, none bigger now than — ironically — The Whale. Written by Samuel D. Hunter, the play was read at the 2011 Summit and had its world premiere at DCPA Theatre Company the following year. A smash with critics, the film adaptation of The Whale is currently nominated for three Academy Awards. Other Summit plays that have gone on to notable local productions include Rattlesnake Kate (2019), Plainsong (2007), The Book of Will (2016) and Hotter Than Egypt (2020), which is running concurrently with the Summit this year.
This year’s plays grapple with addiction and police abuse, faith and feminism — potentially dark subjects that are nonetheless lightened with humor and lifted up by hope. “I would say both Polar Bears and Joan Dark have a lot of levity in them,” Summit director Grady Soapes told The Denver Post. “But we’re also really addressing some very important social justice or of-the-moment issues, even in these dramedies.”
The four 2023 Summit plays are the reservoir by Jake Brasch; Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids by Vincent Terrell Durham; Joan Dark by Christina Pumariega; and The Suffragette’s Murder by Sandy Rustin.
Cherry Creek Reservoir and the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center are two of the settings in the reservoir, a semi-autobiographical work by Denver native Jake Brasch. College student Josh has taken medical leave from NYU and returned to Denver to (once again) attempt to address his alcoholism and put his life back together. (Brasch celebrated nine years of sobriety the week before the Summit.) Arriving home he reunites with his three unrelentingly funny grandparents — and finds the fourth lost to the mists of Alzheimer’s. Refusing to accept that they (and he) can’t recover, he drags them into a world of vitamins, cognitive challenges and JCC Jazzercize, before ultimately accepting that some declines are inevitable…but his isn’t.
A fellow in the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juillard, Brasch had his professional debut at the Denver Center at age 11, appearing in A Christmas Carol. An alumni of the Denver School of Arts, he also participated in the Curious Theater Company’s young playwright program. “It’s so amazing to sort of crash back into a world that raised me as a professional artist,” Brasch told The Denver Post. “My experience [at the School of the Arts] was so deeply formative.”
POLAR BEARS, BLACK BOYS & PRAIRIE FRINGED ORCHIDS
“I always wanted to write a cocktail party play,” says Vincent Terrell Durham. “Something in the vein of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or God of Carnage. Cocktail parties are all about cocktails and cocktail conversation so it’s a perfect setting to introduce strong topics and watch how your characters react. And I especially wanted to address the topic of police violence against Black bodies.”
And written that play he has. Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids has the audience confront awkward and uncomfortable subjects that are treated with unflinching honesty and unsparing, often laugh-out-loud humor.“I want the audience to have a conversation,” says Durham. “I want the characters and topics in the play to follow theatergoers from the theater to their cars and all the way home. I want them to not stop talking and examining their views on gentrification, racial identity, climate change, and police violence.”
An LA-based playwright, Durham is a Samuel French OOB Short Play Festival winner, a National New Play Network finalist, and Eugene O’Neill semi-finalist. “A big thank you to the DCPA audiences for supporting live theater,” he says. “My plan for the play is to seek a full production from a theatre company. My blue sky hope is that we receive the honor of being programmed in an upcoming DCPA season.”
A seasoned actress, the Summit reading of Joan Dark marked the first time Christina Pumariega heard her own words spoken on a stage. Tracing the story of a Latina woman who hopes to one day serve as a Catholic priest, the play follows idealist and unwitting iconoclast Joan Ruiz as she enters a pilot program for females, serving as a deacon in a hardscrabble Connecticut parish.
Pumariega says the play is an “unabashed exploration” of her spiritual journey growing up as a Roman Catholic. “[It is] an uncomfortably close one, an angry one, a joyful one,” she told The Denver Post. “It’s pure validation that the work could mean something to theater audiences.”
THE SUFFRAGETTE’S MURDER
Crime and humor are no strangers to Sandy Rustin. Her adaptation of the film Clue has been produced more than 3,000 times, making it one of most-produced plays in the country. In The Suffragette’s Murder, hijinks ensue as the tenants and owners of a Lower East Side boarding house try to prove that they aren’t murderers. And since this is July 5, 1857, a number of the occupants are also hiding their involvement — and a little light vandalism — in the (gasp!) shocking campaign to grant women the right to vote. Melodrama, mistaken identities and slapstick shenanigans are in abundance in this humorous examination of politics and human rights.
“I was commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of women’s rights to vote in the U.S.,” says Rustin. “After doing some research, I became curious about the cusp of the women’s movement and the intersection with the civil rights movement. I gravitate towards comedy in my writing, so I felt the pull of the challenge of approaching my curiosity through a comedic lens and The Suffragette’s Murder was born! I was honored to be selected as one of four of this year’s New Play Summit playwrights. It’s a golden opportunity to both hone and showcase new material for the stage and I feel so grateful to have been chosen.”
Artistic Director Chris Coleman couldn’t be more pleased with both the Summit’s plays and their reception. “It was heartening to see how much the writers were willing to try and tackle in their four days of rehearsal, in terms of changes to their scripts,” he says. “The number of industry attendees from around the country was up this year, providing an opportunity to meet new colleagues. And I particularly enjoy hearing the audience’s thoughts after the readings, as it proves super informative in our decision making about future productions.”
See you next year!