An actor stands onstage, smiling, during rehearsal. She is wearing a colorful scarf and a tan sweater.

Colorado New Play Summit: Where Plays Begin

That buzz you heard the last weekend of February was the sound of creation at Denver Center Theatre Company, where the Colorado New Play Summit sold 2,000 tickets to audiences of playwrights, industry professionals and theater fans.

An actor stands onstage, smiling, during rehearsal. She is wearing a colorful scarf and a tan sweater.

Minita Gandhi. Cowboys and East Indians, Colorado New Play Summit 2024. Photo by Jamie Kraus Photography

Audiences were treated to staged readings of four new works: Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley and Matthew Spangler, One-Shot by Andrew Rosendorf, Godspeed by Terence Anthony, and Ghost Variations by Vauhini Vara. In addition, the Theatre Company offered fully staged productions of two scripts from the 2022 New Play Summit: Leonard Madrid’s Cebollas and Kirsten Potter’s Rubicon.

A professor at Colorado State University, McConigley collaborated with playwright Spangler to bring her Wyoming-set short story to the stage. Vara, who lives in Fort Collins, is the rare writer to submit her play unsolicited and have it accepted for the Summit. It was the first play she had ever written.

“Since my background is not in playwriting, I had not ever written a play before so I showed up on Monday never having heard my work read,” Vara said, waiting for her mother to arrive in town and witness the reading of a play about a deeply personal family grief.

A group of actors stand in a row at music stands. The creative team sits at tables facing them, away from the camera.

Brittany Mendoza-Peña, CG, Janice Amaya, and Christopher Halladay. Godspeed, Colorado New Play Summit 2024. Photo by Jamie Kraus Photography

“It was a magical experience,” she continued. “Tuesday night, Wednesday night, I went back to where I’m staying and rewrote the whole play. All of the actors and the director and the dramaturg are just teaching me everyday, imagining what the play ought to be.”

Vauhini’s script was one of two addressing South Asian families in a lineup that exhibited diversity of cultures and experiences not only as a whole, but within individual plays. Many artists said they had never been part of a season or a festival that included two works by playwrights of South Asian descent, said Denver Center Theatre Company’s Director of Literary Programs, Leann Kim Torske.

“One of the things that we do look at, we look at the work, and we’re looking for diversity of stories,” she said. “It’s six plays that you see in a weekend; we don’t want half of them to do the same thing.”

In addition to whose stories are told, the company looks at how those stories are told, Torske said, “comedy to balance drama, and realism to balance more expressive or lyrical or poetic works.”

Three women stand at music stands in a rehearsal room. Two are looking at the other, concerned, while the third has a smile on her face.

Rani Jessica Jain, Jasmine Sharma, and Anastasia Davidson. Ghost Variations, Colorado New Play Summit 2024. Photo by Jamie Kraus Photography

Among those voices were:

  • Two young men building their own romantic comedy while clerking in a 1990s video store, in Andrew Rosendorf’s One-Shot. The play wove together a deep love of classic cinema – all cinema, truly – with questions of both sexual and national identity, hate crimes and undocumented immigration.
  • The historical road-trip comedy-drama of Godspeed, in which a woman assembles an unexpected crew of supporters as she travels newly postwar Texas on a quest for justice, by Terence Anthony. Nearly bilingual, the play explores the porous borders between the United States and Mexico, and between freedom and slavery.
  • Ghost Variations, adapted by Vauhini Vara from an earlier work. In it, a writer looks to AI to help her move through her grief in order to write about the loss of her sister to cancer. Repetition and a cyclical momentum mirror the impact of profound grief on a young woman.
  • Cowboys and East Indians, based on the short story collection by McConigley, and adapted in collaboration with Spangler. Set in central Wyoming, the play weaves together threads of culture clash, grief, intergenerational assimilation and breaking of boundaries.

Cowboys and East Indians was a commission from Denver Center Theatre Company – in fact, during her job interview, when Torske was asked to name an artist she’d like to introduce to the company, she named McConigley’s short story. A year and a half later, she served as dramaturg for the Summit’s staged reading.

A closeup shot of three actors at their music stands. They are looking at one another as they rehearse.

Janice Amaya, CG, Christopher Halladay. Godspeed, Colorado New Play Summit 2024. Photo by Jamie Kraus Photography

“A commission is more of an investment in an artist’s journey and an artist’s voice,” Torske said. “You may or may not ever produce the work that you commission.”

Two plays which received readings at last year’s Summit will receive full productions as part of the Theatre Company’s 2024/25 season. Clue playwright Sandy Rustin has written The Suffragette’s Murder, pairing the voting rights movement with a whodunit. Denver-born playwright and Denver School of the Arts graduate Jake Brasch’s script, The Reservoir, will receive a co-production with three prestigious theaters: the Denver Center, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, and Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse.

The work that audiences hear read at the Summit, however, is merely the capstone to a full week of furious editing, rehearsal and rewriting.

“The first day, there’s lots of excitement and we gather as a big group,” Torske explained. “It’s a chance to hear from the playwrights. They introduce their own plays to the entire Summit gathering and talk about what inspired them, and then everybody breaks out into their individual rehearsal rooms and begins digging in.”

As in any rehearsal process, the director and actors are investigating the script and how best to bring it to life. “But at the same time,” Torske added, “the playwrights are digging into their own work. Depending on where it is in its development, some plays may have had a workshop or two, and some plays they may be hearing through the mouths of actors with a director for the very first time. All of these plays were on that spectrum.”

Three actors rehearse at music stands. Two are standing and one is seated.

Mishka Yarovoy, Sommer Carbuccia, and Allen Gilmore. One-Shot, Colorado New Play Summit 2024. Photo by Jamie Kraus Photography

Actors are kept busy throughout the process, as playwrights may add lines, reshape some, and cut others entirely right in the rehearsal room. “Then at night, a lot of times the writers go back to their hotel rooms and rewrite an entire scene, or a moment, or just a page,” Torske said. “You have to send it by the morning and the stage manager will print the new pages, and you hear how the new imagining of a scene or a moment might go. For some writers, the process is how they discover exactly what they want to say.”

Once the weekend arrives, theater professionals and fans descend upon Denver, this year including personnel from leading theaters around the country, including American Conservatory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse and South Coast Repertory Theatre. All are looking for new works and new voices.

Danyel Siler, Chief Marketing Officer for Houston’s Alley Theatre, was in town to see how Denver Center Theatre Company curates its audience experience, seeing “how the Denver Center has really extended the experience beyond the stage for these new works,” she said. “It’s really been eye opening.”

She particularly enjoyed the works by high school playwrights and the late-night playwrights’ slam. “I loved having all that community involvement,” she said.

Or in the words of Torske: “It’s a wild, wonderful ride, and there’s a lot that gets packed into it.”