The Denver Center for the Performing Arts has a long history of cultivating new works. Since its inception in 1979, the DCPA has produced 147 world premieres, presented readings of 210 new works, and commissioned 47 playwrights. Even before the Colorado New Play Summit’s creation in 2006, the DCPA has been involved in the enrichment and development of significant work.
Success came early for new play development at the Denver Center. In 1982, the Theatre Company presented the world premiere of Quilters by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek. This joyous and moving celebration of American womanhood went on to be the most widely produced play among regional theaters in the following season before its presentations on Broadway and at the Edinburgh Festival. Quilters went on to be nominated for six Tony Awards.
Shortly thereafter, Donovan Marley became Artistic Director of the Theatre Company and was dedicated to creating a catalyst for new play development in the country – and with international impact.
He created Prima Facie, which later became U.S. West TheatreFest. In 1993, DCPA Theatre Company’s 15th anniversary season kicked off with Black Elk Speaks. The production was so popular it was produced the following season and later brought national and international acclaim when it toured to Hong Kong and transferred to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
The next success sprouted from DCPA Education programming in 1994. It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues toured statewide through DCPA Education before undergoing development into a full-length musical which was originally premiered by the Theatre Company and remounted for Denver’s Buell Theatre the following season. It then played around the country and opened on Broadway in 1999. It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues was met with critical acclaim, receiving three Drama Desk and four Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.
The new millennium started with a ground-breaking world premiere — The Laramie Project. Headed by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, a town’s reaction to the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard took the theatre world by storm. It was optioned by companies across the nation and ultimately developed into an HBO Special Presentation.
That same year, the Theatre Company and London’s Royal Shakespeare Company co-produced Tantalus, the ten-hour epic cycle of the Trojan War. Tantalus had its world premiere in Denver to audiences from 38 states and seven countries before touring the UK. The culmination to the season came when both The Laramie Project and Tantalus were named among TIME magazine’s ten best plays of 2000.
In 2004, Kent Thompson succeeded Donovan Marley as Artistic Director of the Theatre Company. He established the Colorado New Play Summit and the Women’s Voices Fund, a first-of-its-kind endowment designed to foster the work of female playwrights and directors. Since the endowment’s establishment, Theatre Company has produced 38 plays by women (including 17 world premieres), commissioned 24 female playwrights, and hired 38 female directors.
As proof of the rising popularity of the Colorado New Play Summit, this seventh annual new play festival showcased Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, which was quickly picked up by Playwrights Horizons for an off-Broadway run. Now, The Whale has been watched in movie theatres internationally featuring a Golden Globe and Oscar nominated performance by Brendan Fraser.
The 2013 Colorado New Play Summit featured two acclaimed readings: The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez and black odyssey by Marcus Gardley. The Legend of Georgia McBride went on to premiere at the Denver Center in 2014, has been produced Off-Broadway, at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and regional theatres all over the country. It also has been optioned by actor Jim Parsons for a possible movie adaptation. black odyssey premiered at the Denver Center in 2014 as well and will open off-Broadway later in 2023.
Summit successes kept coming when DCPA Theatre Company produced the world premiere of The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson after a venerated staged reading at the 2016 Summit. The Book of Will went on to immediate success being produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Northlight Theatre, Main Street Theater, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and more. The play also made Gunderson the most produced living playwright in America in 2017 and 2019.
In 2018, audiences in Denver, San Diego and Seattle welcomed the world premieres of American Mariachi and The Great Leap. These new works, which were originally read as part of the Colorado New Play Summit, were developed as co-productions, which debuted in Denver before transferring to the West Coast.
Other notable world premieres that went on to stages across the country include:
- Love, Janis (1993/94) adapted by Randal Myler
- Almost Heaven: Songs and Stories of John Denver (2001/02) written and adapted by Peter Glazer
- Lydia (2007/08) by Octavio Solis
- Just Like Us (2013/14) by Karen Zacarías. Based on the book by Helen Thorpe
- twenty50 (2019/20) by Tony Meneses
- Theater of the Mind (2022/23) by David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar. Produced by Off-Center
The DCPA is proud to be a cornerstone of new play development in the Denver artistic community and beyond. The dedication to uplifting new work has only continued to grow and will continue to blossom for another 40 years and beyond.