Video: Colorado New Play Summit Spotlight: Tira Palmquist, 'Two Degrees'

Our interview, in video and words, with Colorado New Play Summit featured playwright Tira Palmquist, author of Two Degrees. Palmquist describes her play as “a cheery story about climate change.”

Here are highlights from DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s conversation with  ‘Two Degrees‘ playwright Tira Palmquist:

John Moore: Do you remember your first encounter with the Denver Center?

Tira Palmquist: Yes, my first encounter was as a spouse. My husband came here to coach dialect, voice, speech and text for the Theatre Company’s production of Richard III in 2009.

John Moore: Tell us who your director is here at the Summit.

Tira Palmquist: My director is Christy Montour-Larson (Curious Theatre’s ‘Sex With Strangers.’) It turns out we did summer rep theatre together in Duluth (Minn.) when we were in college back in 1981 and ’82.

Two Degrees Michelle Shupe Summit John Moore: Can you introduce us to the world of your play, Two Degrees?

Tira Palmquist: I would say Two Degrees is a play about climate change, but it’s also a play about grief. That was really the entrance point for me to tell the story, because I feel the grief for the planet so palpably that it became the predominant metaphor of the play. Two Degrees is about a woman who’s doing her best to help people understand why climate change is an important issue. And at the same time, she’s coming to terms with her own personal grief. (Pictured: Michelle Shupe as Emma in ‘Two Degrees.’ Photo by John Moore.) 

John Moore: Tell us about your protagonist.

Tira Palmquist: The writing of the play really began with a challenge from an actor friend of mine who had just turned 45. We were having beers on her porch when she said, ‘You know what sucks is being 45 and being at the height of my abilities, and having all the opportunities dry up. So what for your next play, you need to write a part for a woman over 45.’ And I said, ‘OK. I will do that, Stacy.’ And then it really churned in my head for a long time because I thought, ‘Well, I know I don’t want to write a play about a woman who’s had a divorce, or an empty-nester or a woman going through menopause, because I feel like that’s low-hanging fruit. So what am I going to write about?

John Moore: So you wrote about a scientist.

Tira Palmquist: I really like science. I think science is important. It’s an important issue for me because we see science being dismissed to a certain degree in this country. There’s a kind of anti-science sentiment running in our country. And I’m trying to do my best to put science on stage, because science is going to save us.

Two Degrees Tira Palmquist quote Summit

John Moore: And you’re a pastor’s kid?

Tira Palmquist: Yes, but science and religion were never in conflict in my family. My father was never anti-science. He was always a curious individual. I remember having a conversation with him when The Last Temptation of Christ came out about whether Christ could have been married. And he said, ‘Of course Christ would have been married. They called him Rabbi – and a Rabbi had to be married.’ And he was never upset about that. It didn’t diminish the story of what Christ. And I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just learned something about my father that I didn’t know before.’

John Moore: Has being a pastor’s kid affected your voice as a playwright?

Tira Palmquist: Oh, absolutely. I sat in church week after week listening to my father telling stories in the form of a sermon. But I feel like my life as a playwright has been about finding my own voice. All your life as a pastor’s kid, you’re trying your hardest not to be the pastor’s kid – to set yourself apart from the expectations people have of you. And I think to a certain degree that fuels my passion for telling stories, But at the same time, being a pastor’s kid means you spend a lot of time watching your father or mother attending to a congregation. It’s not just ‘theatre.’ It’s about your relationships with your congregation. If there’s anything I learned from that, it’s that your stories on stage need to have that kind of impact. If you’re not changing people’s lives; if you’re not changing people’s minds; then I don’t know why you’re doing it.

Two Degrees. Michelle Shupe and Jason Delane. John Moore: So you have written a play that is about climate and grief and science. That sounds kind of mournful. Is it a sad play?

Tira Palmquist: It’s actually a pretty funny play, oddly enough. There’s a lot of humor in it, and a lot of it comes not just from the fact that we are dealing with real people who have complicated and difficult and sometimes messed-up lives, but from seeing our protagonist struggle with these issues. If this were the story of a woman who can’t be a good scientist, and all we did was see her struggle, that would be kind of pathetic. But instead, this is the story of a scientist who’s actually a full, rich and complicated human being. (Pictured: Michelle Shupe and Jason Delane in ‘Two Degrees.’) 

John Moore: Tell us how your play made its way to the Denver Center.

Tira Palmquist: It got here because of Christie. I had sent my script to The Athena Project Festival in Aurora, which is helping to increase the exposure of female artists. They have a playwriting festival that focuses on female-driven stories. When Christie saw that I was coming to the Athena festival, she asked if she could direct. She loved the play, and she wanted to see it go forward. So she brought it to the Denver Center.

John Moore: What are your thoughts about the Denver Center’s commitment to the woman’s voice?

Tira Palmquist: I feel incredibly supported by that. And I don’t think that it’s just, ‘Oh we had to have x number of female playwrights.’ It seems to me there really is a genuine interest in telling a variety of stories here. And as I’ve been sitting in on different plays here, like FADE and the Summit reading of American Mariachi, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really fantastic.’ We’re seeing a lot of different kinds of stories that I don’t think are always being told, and that feels very exciting and very genuine to me.

John Moore: What are your thoughts on having the second week of development time here at the Summit?

Tira Palmquist: The reading after the first week feels in a way like ‘proof of concept.’ Like, ‘OK, we did this first week, and we got it on its feet, and we got it in front of an audience.’ And then you get to hear how an audience responds – what lands and what doesn’t. One of the things that’s lovely about the second week is that now you have the opportunity to go through and fine-tune anything that you didn’t really get to polish, or answer questions that you didn’t really get to answer during the first week. 

John Moore: What are people saying about Denver as a place for the development of new work for the American theatre?

Tira Palmquist: First of all, people are jealous of me that I get to be here. And second, people are noticing that Denver is really interested not just in having a festival, but actually developing new plays. Not all festivals do both. I’ve been in a lot of festivals where it feels like the plays are sort of thrown up in front of an audience. But if you’re really interested in play development, then really taking the time to do it right and attend to the playwright’s needs, then this is the way it should be done.

Two Degrees:
Cast list

Tira Palmquist, Playwright
Christy Montour-Larson, Director
Heather Helinsky, Dramaturg
Michelle Shupe, Emma Phelps
Jason Delane, Clay Simpson
Lisa Bostnar, Louise Allen
Robert Montano, Jeffrey Phelps/Eric Wilson/Malik Peterson
Janet Noble, Stage Directions

2016 Colorado New Play Summit: Ticket information

Second weekend (Festival Weekend): Friday, Feb. 19, through Sunday, Feb. 21
303-893-4100 or INFO

Previous NewsCenter Coverage of 2016 Summit (to date):
Summit Spotlight video: Lauren Gunderson, The Book of Will
Summit Spotlight video: José Cruz González, American Mariachi
Summit Spotlight Video: Tira Palmquist, Two Degrees
Summit Spotlight Video: Mat Smart, Midwinter
DCPA rolls out the welcome mat: It’s Summit weekend
2016 Summit playwrights introduce their featured works
Three major Summit events to be streamed live
Featured playwrights named for 2016 Summit
Audio: Colorado Public Radio on the 2016 New Play Summit

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