Valeka Holt (left) and Jasmine Hughes read Donetta Lavinia Gray’s Last Night and the Night Before at the 2017 New Play Summit.
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Douglas Langworthy, literary manager and resident dramaturg for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, has been on the job for ten years and has never lost his enthusiasm for the company’s annual Colorado New Play Summit, helmed this year by associate artistic director Nataki Garrett. The summit, now in its thirteenth year, was the idea of former artistic director Kent Thompson, who believed theater can thrive only with a steady influx of fresh and exciting plays. It “allows playwrights the opportunity to try out an unfinished work with great tech, professional actors and all kinds of feedback,” says Langworthy. The summit is also a place where professionals network and exchange ideas and members of the public can get a whiff of what’s happening in the ever-changing theater world.
Some of the summit’s playwrights have gone on to national and international success. Jason Grote, whose 1001 received a full production in 2008, got a job writing for the television show Smash through the connection he made with Smash lead writer Theresa Rebeck in Denver. Other television credits include Mad Men and Hannibal. Samuel D. Hunter was already somewhat established when his play, The Whale, was given a full production in 2012, wowing local audiences. He has since won several awards, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Matthew Lopez saw two of his plays produced in Denver in 2014: The Whipping Man, at Curious Theatre, and the far lighter Legend of Georgia McBride — in which an out-of-work Elvis impersonator realizes he can make a living as a drag performer — at the Denver Center as part of the summit. “Georgia McBride is such a big-hearted play,” says Langworthy. “I was so thrilled to see it go on and have other productions. Matthew Lopez is opening a show at the Young Vic in London now loosely based on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.” The Inheritance is directed by Stephen Daldry, and Vanessa Redgrave stars.
In some ways, this is a pivotal year for the New Play Summit — the first without Thompson at the helm, and with incoming artistic director Chris Coleman starting work only in May. There are two commissioned plays, The Couches and Christa McCauliffe’s Eyes Were Blue, chosen while Kent was still in charge, according to Langworthy. The other two featured works were agent-submitted and chosen by him and Garrett. Coleman “has been asking questions to find out how it works,” Langworthy says. “This year will be his first time to experience the summit, and when he comes in, he might have some new ideas. He has read all of the plays and passed his blessing on them.” Langworthy has worked with Coleman in the past and is delighted that he’ll be taking over at the center. “I think he’s going to be great for the theater,” he says.
“A lot of issue-driven plays follow a certain trajectory,” Langworthy says, “but I really like plays that have a more expansive view and experiment with form. We’re maybe seeing more of that in the plays that come through now. All our plays in some way experiment with form.” Barbara Seyda’s Celia, A Slave tells the story of an African American slave hanged for killing her master: “It’s written as a series of monologues based on court transcripts and interviews. There are more than 23 characters, and Barbara wants to go in and restructure it so it will be more woven together.”
One of the commissioned plays, The Couches, by David Jacobi, is based on news stories about Ethan Couch and his mother, who fled to Mexico after he was convicted for killing four people while driving his truck drunk. His lawyer earned almost universal derision for mounting a defense of “affluenza.” “From first draft to the second, Jacobi has inserted more monologues out to the audience; they’re a little more stream-of-consciousness,” says Langworthy.
Kemp Powers is the author of Christa McCauliffe’s Eyes Were Blue. It explores the lives of a pair of twins born to a biracial couple: “One passes as white and one as black,” says Langworthy, “and they lead completely different lives. It deals with race, but I look at it from an almost primal Cain and Abel point of view, and it’s very interesting how the play spins out. The black brother was very interested in space and had all this promise, but he got discouraged and ended up a petty criminal; he was deeply affected by the explosion of the Challenger.
“There’s also Mama Metallica, about a woman trying to write a play that’s avant-garde about her mother, a flashy woman suffering from Parkinson’s who all her life overshadowed her daughter; the daughter is taking control by writing this play. There’s Metallica music in it, a band that has always given her hope, and sometimes she talks to the audience, kind of accusing them of not being open-minded enough.”
Those attending the summit will also be able to see full productions of plays read in past summits: American Mariachi, by Jose Cruz Gonzalez, and Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap, as well as a new play by Matthew Lopez, Zoey’s Perfect Wedding.
Since last year, the summit has been broken into two sessions. This “gave writers longer to really work and try out different things,” says Langworthy. “There’s rehearsal and workshopping, reading for a local audience, getting feedback, meeting with the artistic staff, and going back into rehearsals and making more changes.”
The first session, February 17-18, features low-key early readings as well as a Local Playwrights’ Slam. During the second weekend, February 23-25, audiences can hear more developed drafts of the workshopped plays, go to readings of work from the High School Playwriting Competition, attend the full productions and meet and mingle at meals and parties. All events take place in the Denver Performing Arts Complex; for tickets and schedules, go to https://www.denvercenter.org/events/colorado-new-play-summit.