Tira Palmquist: Grief for a husband, and a planet

Tira Palmquist. Photo by John Moore
Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

By Chad Henry
DCPA Literary Associate

Tira Palmquist is a funny, tart, plainspoken writer with several plays to her credit and a lifelong habit of writing.

“I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I’m a playwright.’ I was a pastor’s kid in the borderlands between Minnesota and Iowa,” she said. “I fully intended to be an actor from the time I was old enough to memorize the entire cast album of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. But then I also really loved to write, and wrote relentlessly during high school and college. At that point, I was encouraged to go to grad school as a poet, and I thought ‘Well, what the hell!’ I am constantly reinventing myself. I am currently reinventing what it means to be 50.”

Palmquist’s new play Two Degrees brings a human face, and a grieving human heart, to the issue of global warming. Her powerful drama of a female scientist’s quest to bring the hard facts of global weather change to the world’s attention uses the latest scientific research to ground her drama. But she frames that drama in the universal and emotionally wrenching story of the loss of a loved one and the sacrifice necessary to get to the truth and to make it known.

Palmquist said the play’s evolution and subsequent debut at DCPA Theatre Company was part persistence and part timing.

Palmquist, who teaches at University of California at Irvine, said that over the past years she’d been submitting plays regularly to Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, a well- regarded new play development organization based in bucolic McCall, Idaho. Christy Montour-Larson, who is directing the world premiere of Two Degrees, is the board president of Seven Devils, and she chose the play and directed the workshop reading there. The play then eventually made its way to Denver’s Athena Project, where it was once directed by Montour-Larson. It then caught the eye of the Theatre Company’s new-play development department, was recommended to Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson, read at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit and selected as part of the 2016-17 mainstage season.

Photo gallery: The making of Two Degrees in Denver:

'Two Degrees' in Denver

Photos from the making of ‘Two Degrees’ by the DCPA Theatre Company. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

Palmquist, who also has worked closely with dramaturg Heather Helinsky on the play, said the process of workshopping and revising her play began at Seven Devils. “The director and dramaturg were asking me very hard questions about the focus of the play, and encouraging me to make rewrites and changes based on our conversations,” Palmquist said. “At first I thought they were just being mean, but I realized as we went along that these were questions that really needed to be asked to clarify the story I was trying to tell. They actually taught me a new way of approaching my work — they taught me to be relentless.”

Tira Palmquist QuoteAs a result of the workshop, Palmquist felt that she really was able to get to the essence of the play. “My play was revealed to me through the process.”

The workshop process continued at the Center’s New Play Summit, which Palmquist described as “…genius. You get to rehearse for a week, day and night; rewrite, fix and tweak; then see the play in front of an audience. Then, you get to go back for another week and do even more work based on what you, your director and dramaturg and cast learned from the first reading. It’s truly a luxury for a writer.”

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

In Two Degrees, lead character Emma Phelps is a paleoclimatologist studying ice in Greenland. In drilling and studying ice core samples, she sees firsthand the symptoms of our changing planet, which makes the need for immediate remedial action and education all the more crucial and urgent. In addition to her growing sense of urgency for the planet, Emma, a recent widow, is suffering grief and loss that grows deeper as time passes. Now she’s been asked to come to Washington D.C. to testify in a Senate Committee regarding climate change legislation, and in this intersection of science and politics, and of politics and the personal, she finds her own world breaking up under the strain of change.

Palmquist explains that the big themes of the play are not actually global warming, although the two degrees of the title are an explicit warning of the disastrous tipping point our global environment will reach without remedial action. “This is actually a play about grief — about working through grief, about deciding to stand up and move forward and do what needs to be done, rather than collapsing. And the parallel situations in the play are that Emma, our climatologist, learns that she can’t go back and fix the mistakes she made in her marriage, and that we humans cannot go back and fix the damage that we’ve done to the planet.” Emma’s strength and determination in the face of crippling grief make this story a dramatically compelling piece.

Two Degrees cast digs deep into Boulder ice-core research

Palmquist discovered in the course of writing the play that one of the problems in making the scientific realities of global warming immediate to the general public is that scientists are good at science — and bad at communicating their science. “I didn’t want this play to turn out to be a polemic on the subject of global warming; rather, I wanted to open a door to a dialogue about the subject. Scientists and lay people don’t speak the same language — my play is one attempt to bridge this gap.” Denver Center’s world premiere production of this important new drama is bound to spur lively conversation and debate about our own choices in our life journeys. 

Chad.HenryChad Henry is the Literary Associate for the DCPA Theatre Company. He is a composer, actor, lyricist, playwright, and author. He has written more than 20 musical theatre titles. His DCPA credits include acting in Master Class,’ and choreographing ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ He is the author of the children’s book Dogbreath Victorious.’  

Video bonus: Playwright Tira Palmquist talking about Two Degrees

Our video with ‘Two Degrees’ playwright Tira Palmquist, at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.


Two Degrees: Ticket information
Two DegreesEmma, a climate change scientist, is invited to share her findings at a Senate hearing that could define her career and her cause. But if she can’t overcome her tumultuous inner struggle, her dedication and sacrifices may not be enough. Two Degrees was developed at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit.

Feb. 3-March 12
Jones Theatre
ASL and Audio-Described matinee at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 5
303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Two Degrees:

Two Degrees cast digs deep into Boulder ice-core research
Two Degrees
heats up conversation on global warming
Two Degrees: Five things we learned at first rehearsal
Colorado New Play Summit Spotlight: Tira Palmquist, Two Degrees
Video: Look back at 2016 Colorado New Play Summit
2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics

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