Playwriting Lab

Colorado Companies Foster New Voices in Theatre

Theater, by its very nature, is a collaborative enterprise. But creating the raw material – the scripts themselves – can be a lonely one. Without hearing the words spoken by actors, the playwrights are left with the voices in their heads. That access to a full company of theater specialists makes the DCPA’s Colorado New Play Summit an invaluable resource for the actors chosen each year for a staged reading, which can also be a crucial stop on the path to a full production. Beyond the Denver Center, multiple area organizations provide resources and opportunities for new play development, workshops and the opportunity for world premieres.

BETC Writers Group

For Denver playwright Josh Hartwell, the BETC Writers Group allows him to read works in progress with a group of playwright peers. “It’s funny, when I first started in the playwright group, my reason was that I’m terrible at sharing my work,” he says. “It’s funny, because when I teach, two of my big rules are ‘Don’t edit while you’re writing,’ and ‘Don’t be afraid to share,’ and then I end it with, ‘I’m pretty bad at both of those things.’”

BETC’s group, led by fellow company member Heather Beasley, also holds him accountable. “Knowing that there’s a deadline coming up, that really helps me,” Hartwell says. “If I know it’s my turn to share, that means I have to sit down and work on something. If there’s no commission (a company paying him to write for them), I used to tend to get complacent, and I would find other things to do.”

If his fellow playwrights are helpful, it’s the promise of a funded staged reading at the end of the process that means the most to Hartwell, who recently completed The DEVOlution Revolution, a jukebox musical based on the philosophies of the band Devo.

“The rehearsal process, the casting process, and then hearing it out loud in front of an audience is exponentially more helpful than just hearing other writers sit around and read your work,” Hartwell says. “It’s given me a little boost and made me think, maybe this will happen, maybe this will actually get produced somewhere.”

And Toto, Too

Susan Lyles wouldn’t recommend starting a new theater company right after giving birth, but for her, it was a way to work in theater while caring for her five-week-old and three-year-old sons. It was 2005, and not only were there not enough roles for women in theater, there were dramatically few plays written by women being produced. She founded And Toto, Too with the goal of producing new work exclusively by women playwrights. “I threw it out to the universe and I started getting submissions,” she recalls.

The company’s first production, Appliance by Lindsay Price, was about a woman with breast cancer, but more fundamentally about female friendship. Since then, the company has gone on to work with local playwrights, including Rebecca Gorman O’Neill, a playwriting professor at Metropolitan State University.

The company is very much homegrown, with Lyles and her husband, Darren Smith, doing all of the company’s management – and Lyles doing the directing – without salary. All income goes to the artists, and funding comes only through ticket sales and individual donations.

Lyles focused on new talent, realizing that while there was development funding for established playwrights, there was very little for newcomers. “I give them direct feedback, especially for working through the workshop process, and the playwright’s in the room with us, taking notes and editing as we go along.”

Today, the company produces an annual Play Crawl, an evening of short plays produced in galleries and shops in a single neighborhood. All of the plays that night are written by local women. The topics they write about are as far-reaching and diverse as those by men.

“I’ve had a lot of cancer stories come in and the way women deal with it,” Lyles says. “We’ve stretched out as women in our writing to go beyond babies and the lack of control we have with our bodies to other things. One of our first pieces also was about war, it was very absurdist. We have so much more to say than our bodies and stuff, which has been a part of my driving force as well.”

After nearly two decades of running And Toto, Too, Lyles still sees a large gender disparity in which playwrights get produced. “I don’t know that it’s ever going to be even for women or other marginalized voices either,” she says. “It’s hard to get in – not just for women.”

Flamboyán’s Emerging Playwrights Project

Jonathan Marcantoni founded Flamboyán’s Emerging Playwrights Project as a way to develop Caribbean voices in the theater. Born in Puerto Rico, Marcantoni worked as an actor in Georgia before becoming a playwright and moving to Colorado.

“I’ve always wanted to tell stories that are a little bit different, and the Puerto Rican experience is very distinct among Latin American groups because we have been an American colony since 1898,” Marcantoni says. “I’ve related that distinctness to the way that I approach writing and storytelling and building up writers. With writers of color, there is way too much pressure to conform and to play it safe. I wanted to make my theater company a place where we could develop these narratives and different storytelling styles.”

Flamboyán focuses not only on developing the scripts, but also works with playwrights on collaboration, finding venues, and all of the practical skills they need to bring their plays to life. The company is currently preparing Denise Zubizarreta’s play, Cody, for a staged reading in March.

“Being Puerto Rican and wanting to put my culture front and center in my writing, I was so often told to whiten my characters, make them Mexican, or maybe not be so dark,” Marcantoni says. “As a result, I had to figure out how to do things independently, how to make connections in the publishing industry, and in the theater industry. I see it as a way around the passivity that writers are forced into. We’re always having to submit and wait for someone to approve our work. No, we can take control and guide our own ship.”