Video: Curious Theatre's radical embrace of 'Serial Storytelling'

Video: John Moore reports from the set of “In the Red and Brown Water,” opening tonight, about Curious Theatre Company’s newly announced commitment to serial storytelling. Featured are Laurence Curry, Damion Hoover, Jada Roberts and Cajardo Lindsey.

Over the past 18 years, Curious Theatre founder Chip Walton has nurtured his company from nothing into Denver’s only truly mid-sized professional theatre, with an annual budget of about $1.25 million and a full-time staff of seven.

Curious has presented five or more “new to Denver” plays each season, a mix of the most heralded new plays from Broadway along with a variety of emerging playwrights. It has been a reliable but hardly unprecedented programming strategy. And it has worked.

Theo Wilson and Kristen Adele in 'In the Red and Brown Water.' Photo by Michael Ensminger But last month, Curious announced a very much unprecedented programming strategy. One Walton hopes will position his company to be on the vanguard of the American theatre.

Moving forward, Curious will regularly program theatrical serials that audiences will follow over several seasons. Walton calls the concept “Serial Storytelling” – and he has HBO to thank for it.

That’s because while Walton has been busy growing his company over the past two decades, he has had at least one regular escape: His Sunday night routine has been to plant himself in his basement and watch whatever it is that HBO has to offer.

And over the past year, as theatre companies across the nation have watched their attendance numbers continue to slowly erode, Walton has been studying how America’s premier premium cable channel has managed to spin one series after another into “appointment television”: The Sopranos. Deadwood. The Wire. Game of Thrones. He came up with a few constants, among them:

  • Quality of writing
  • Consistency of casting
  • Opportunity to get to know characters over several years and in different circumstances
  • Audience loyalty grows when stories are developed slowly over time

Last year, Walton announced that Curious will stage all three of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Brother/Sister Plays” over the next two seasons, starting with tonight’s (March 7) opening of In the Red and Brown Water. It is a strange and yet somehow universal collection of plays inspired by McCraney’s interest in Yoruban mythology and his own childhood growing up in the inner-city housing projects of Miami. Set in the Bayou, McCraney’s poetic ruminations are remarkable plays about the loves and tribulations of ordinary Louisianans.

“Regardless of the color of the playwright, these stories are so palpable,” said actor Cajardo Lindsey. “Who doesn’t know about brotherly loves? Who doesn’t know dreams deferred? Who doesn’t know all these things that we go through? But here, we get to know them through the context of these individuals down in New Orleans.”

Trilogies are rare in the American theatre because of their inherent creative and financial risk, but they are not unheard of. The DCPA Theatre Company last month finished its mammoth “Plainsong Trilogy,” which was all the more remarkable because the Denver Center commissioned and individually presented each play for the stage as successive world premieres, a process that took eight years. Because “The Brother/Sister Plays” are already written, it will only take two years to stage all three at Curious.

But with last month’s announcement of Curious’ 2014-15 season, Walton has gone all in: Curious will stage multiple trilogies over the next three seasons with the hope of “extending and enriching the theatrical experience of both audiences and artists alike,” said Walton, who is also a DCPA Education Guest Teaching Artist this winter.

In addition to “The Brother/Sister Plays,” Curious has committed to becoming the first company anywhere to present Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “The Elliot Plays.” Curious audiences know her work from 26 Miles, staged in 2010. Her trilogy, beginning next spring, follows a Puerto Rican soldier from North Philadelphia who is sent to Iraq.

“I think contemporary audiences are looking for deeper, more meaningful narrative experiences today,” said Walton. “This new programmatic format allows everyone involved to discover and inhabit characters and dramatic worlds more deeply; to explore complex, imaginative stories and questions; and to develop a meaningful appreciation of the work of several incredibly talented American playwrights. “

Walton said a third trilogy will be scheduled, possibly even a commissioned one. At an announcement event on Monday, an audience member asked flat-out if enough American playwrights are writing trilogies to warrant the commitment. But trilogy writing appears to be on the rise. DCPA Playwriting Fellow Matthew Lopez, who wrote the DCPA’s world premiere The Legend of Georgia McBride, and Curious’ runaway hit The Whipping Man, has just started work on a trilogy himself.

“Curious remains dedicated to developing relationships with playwrights who are even now crafting the next series of epic plays that will immerse patrons in edgy, moving, beautifully realized stories in a theatregoing adventure that can only be found here,” Walton said.

Chip Walton. Photo by John Moore.

There are obvious risks in attempting to apply the HBO formula to live theatre, Walton admitted. Part of the reason TV serials like The Walking Dead are thriving is because, increasingly, people don’t want to leave their houses. And audiences who are left wanting more typically need only a week for their appetite to be sated. Netflix is taking the “immediate gratification” concept one step further by releasing each season of House of Cards in its entirety, rather than doling it out over time.

But Walton thinks live theatre audiences will embrace the communal nature of live serial storytelling, and the opportunity to experience the trilogies in the kind of group setting that makes theatre different from TV. And increasingly, TV shows such as Mad Men are actually making their audiences wait far longer between new episodes, and audiences are not declining.

Curious’ greatest challenge may be disappointing future audiences who have not yet even discovered that Curious exists. Once the first chapter of “The Brother/Sister Plays” closes, it’s closed. There is no such thing as “on demand” for live theatre you may have missed. With Denver’s ever-shifting population base, Curious will be challenged with how to entice new audiences after a trilogy has begun – which can be like walking in on the middle of a movie.

“That – and more – is what makes all of this a risk,” said Walton. “But at Curious, we take risk and make it part of our everyday.” Added actor Laurence Curry: “It’s a new era, and it calls for bold and innovative approaches to appeal to your audience in a new and different way.”

Then again, most playwrights who write trilogies write each chapter as a self-contained story that can stand on its own. Curious proved that in 2013 when it first staged The Brothers Size, and it won True West and Henry awards for outstanding drama. Most audiences probably didn’t realize The Brothers Size is in fact the middle chapter of McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” trilogy.

It was the ability of that production to stand on its own, Walton said, that gave him the confidence to go ahead and stage the entire McCraney trilogy, including The Brothers Size, from scratch.

“The Brother/Sister Plays” will be anchored by the same three actors – Lindsey, Curry and Damion Hoover – but audiences will see their characters undergo significant changes over different parts of their lives. “The Ogun you see in In the Red and Brown Water is very different from the Ogun you see in The Brothers Size, said Lindsey, who appeared in last season’s Just Like Us at the Denver Center, and more recently, at the Colorado New Play Summit Local Playwrights Slam. Castmate Kristen Adele appeared in Jackie & Me and Jada Roberts in black odyssey. Curry is another DCPA Education Teaching Artist.  

Roberts believes the additional time it will take Curious to stage the entire “The Brother/Sister Plays” will only strengthen the audience’s ultimate appreciation of the experience.

“These characters will live within their soul,” she said, “because they will find a piece of each of them and say, ‘Yeah, I get that. That’s me.’

“I think this completely changes the landscape.” 


Cajardo Lindsey in 'The Brothers Size.' Photo by Michael Ensminger THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS”
By Tarrell Alvin McCraney
In the Red and Brown Water: March 7-April 18, 2015
The Brothers Size: July 9-Aug. 1, 2015
Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet: 2015-16 season

Photo right: Cajardo Lindsey in ‘The Brothers Size.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.

By Quiara Alegria Hudes
Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue
The Happiest Song Plays Last
Water By the Spoonful
Beginning Spring 2016

Ticket information
Curious Theatre
1068 Acoma St.
Click here to go to www.CuriousTheatre.Org

Additional DCPA NewsCenter coverage of Curious Theatre Company:
Curious Theatre’s 2014-15 season bring trilogies and Laura Eason
2014 True West Award: Curious Theatre’s Michael R. Duran
Henry Awards: Big night for ‘The Whipping Man,’ Denver Center
Denver Center supports Curious Theatre’s Denver Stories
Curious Theatre’s 2013-14 season includes Martin Moran, The Brothers Size

What companies can learn from the reinvention of Curious Theatre

Video bonus: Cajardo Lindsey’s contribution to The Denver Sonnets Project: 

For more information on the Denver Sonnets Project, click here