Several playwright-driven organizations have found success featuring local writers and are building cohesion in the Colorado theatre community
The large digital clock hanging from the soundboard reads 5:15 p.m. It’s a Tuesday night at the Walnut Room; an hour and 45 minutes before showtime. A combined restaurant, bar and music club, the location is a perfect setting for the not-too-serious atmosphere Rough Draught Playwrights advocates for in its quarterly Denver shows. At the door to the performance space, “One-Minute Monologue Challenge” writers trickle in toting laptops, and in some cases paper and pen, along with cases of nerves and adrenaline highs.
At 5:30, they’ll each draw a prompt out of one hat and an actor’s headshot out of another, find space amenable to their personal writing M.O., and create a monologue that will be performed in front of that night’s audience sometime after 7 p.m. When the actors show up in person at 6:30, read-throughs, writer tweaks and some direction ensues. In the meantime, more writers arrive, clutching scripts, some with actors and directors in tow, others looking to meet up with performers who are ready to jump in and rehearse the 10-minute scenes, all new works in progress that have been prepared for that night’s performance.
Since I’m the emcee — and one of the co-founders and co-producers of RDP, alongside Nina Alice Miller and Jeffrey Neuman — I’ll do my standard pre-performance sound check and make whatever adjustments necessary to the stage setup so the performers can be comfortable and heard well. Nina and Jeffrey make sure people feel welcome when they arrive.
Following our usual protocol, we had sent out a link two weeks earlier to a shared Google Doc inviting all Colorado playwrights to log in and sign up for an open-mic slot for the upcoming RDP Theatrical Playground which includes up to six 10-minute scene slots, up to three one-minute monologues and a reading from a featured artist. After the writers fill all the slots, we help connect actors with roles that suit them.
RDP has been producing the Theatrical Playgrounds for six years with the mission of giving Colorado playwrights an opportunity to share new works in progress in front of a live audience and to build a theatrical community that thrives on relationship, connection, and shared responsibility. Open to amateurs and professionals alike, the egalitarian, non-vetted, lightly curated evening offers writers access to a development experience that can be difficult to find.
Our inspiration for this venture came after experiencing the stultifying effects of writing in isolation while competing with a multitude of other writers for extremely limited local development opportunities, and finding practically no path toward production. While some organizations that focused on producing new work by local writers existed, they seemed to come and go at an alarming rate, with rare exceptions. Many of them also had gate-keeping systems in place — non-blind submission processes and little opportunity for playwrights to choose their actors, attend rehearsals or get dramaturgical help — that took power away from the playwright instead of keeping them central to the process.
RDP flipped that model on its head: Playwrights would produce other playwrights, putting a playwright-driven development process front and center. Through personal contacts, word of mouth, and enthusiastic social-media posts by early Playground attendees, RDP grew a robust and comprehensive network of writers, actors, directors and producers who now look forward to these quarterly events as a way to expand professional connections and maintain personal relationships.
The “playwrights love playwrights” attitude is currently thriving in Denver, as several playwright-driven organizations have recently found success featuring local writers or self-producing, such as:
- Theatre 29 is a 40-seat, beautifully appointed black-box theatre conceived and developed by local playwright Lisa Wagner-Erickson. It is not a production company, but rather a venue for four bold collectives established and run by Colorado playwrights. Having opened in March 2018, Theatre 29’s shows have performed to sold-out audiences and received critically positive reviews.
- 5280 Artist Co-op, a theatrical space cofounded by playwright and poet Kenya Fashaw that focuses on promoting events that feature Colorado-area artists. The space sponsors regular appearances by local musicians, dancers and other creatives. The Co-Op produced Colorism, a full-length play by Fashaw that shared the 2018 Henry Award for Outstanding New Play in Colorado.
- Dirtyfish Theater is a collaborative venture of seven mid-career playwrights who have banded together to effect change in the landscape of new-play development and production in the Rocky Mountain region. After its first original production of Wedding Cake Vodka, Dirtyfish won a Westword award for “Best Move by Local Playwrights.”
Any city with a theatre community that desires a greater sense of cohesiveness could easily replicate the Playground model. All it takes is a team of administrator-playwrights with basic social-media savvy who are able to commit to a regular schedule of small-scale marketing and event implementation, and who are willing to invest in some up-front networking and relationship-building.
About the Author: Leslie C. Lewis
Leslie C. Lewis is a writer and producer with a background as a musician and conflict-resolution specialist. She is the author of non-fiction essays and articles for the academic and popular press, receiving awards for subject matter on the environment and contemporary culture. Her short and full-length plays have received performances, staged readings and workshops in the West. Leslie is also a founding member of Dirtyfish Theater, a playwrights’ collective creating and producing original work in Denver. Radio credits also include a series of essays addressing contemporary social issues which she wrote and broadcast for Connecticut Public Radio. She lives in Longmont, with her husband, daughter and assorted critters.
Note: The next Rough Draught Playwrights quarterly playground will be held at 7 p.m. on a date to be determined in the second half of October (16 or 23) at The Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut St., in Denver. $5 cover charge (cash only). For information, email roughdraughtplaywrights@gmail.
This essay was originally published on Howlround and is being re-posted here with the permission of the writer.