When a painter or sculptor begins a new work, she or he sets a pace and probably has a fairly clear vision of the desired end product. While it may undergo some critical input along the way, the process is a solo one in general. But works on stage have many moving parts and depend on more than one creative brain before they are finally up and running … The playwrights chosen for the annual Colorado New Play Summit work for two weeks with an experienced director and actors, reworking at times, perhaps rewriting for added clarity or special effect — then they absorbed input from prospective audience members to shape and polish scenes further.
In 2006 the Denver Center for the Performing Arts initiated the program called the Colorado New Play Summit that allows audiences to watch the process as a new play begins its life onstage, with readings and rewrites as playwright and director and actors take a new script and begin the road to what perhaps becomes a full production. The 2019 summit plays ran on Feb. 16-17 and/or 22-24 and introduced readings of four new plays and a concert version of a new musical, “Rattlesnake Kate,” based on the story of the colorful Kate Slaughterback.
The playwrights who are chosen work for two weeks, then they need to find a theater that will mount a full production—a considerable financial commitment. From this 2019 summit program, Denver Center will probably choose a couple for future production. More than 50 readings have been presented since the program began in 2006 and a full production of “Last Night and the Night Before” by Donetta Lavinia Graves (2017) is running as part of this season.
Scenery and costumes come later. Presentations consist of a cast of actors in street clothes, standing and reading through a script in the polished manner a well-trained actor can, after a read-through and rehearsal process. The audience brings imagination.
A ticket involves Friday afternoon and evening, all day Saturday plus Sunday afternoon and is just a really fine experience for the theater lover — words, words, words in assorted flavors, precisely arranged to set a mood, spin a story — and create response(s) from the audience. One finishes the experience a bit tired, but also filled with new images and ideas to sort through. What a joy it is to watch these pros at work!
Some of these new plays will be chosen for full Denver production in a couple years — and it is really rewarding to return to enjoy a final, reworked, polished product a few years hence.
The 2019 plays included:
● “In the Upper Room” by Beaufield Berry, about a multigenerational black family in the 1970s. Matriarch Rose is the center of the circle, although she frightens and frustrates everyone involved in family dynamics. Omaha-based Berry said in an interview that her ancestors came back to visit her and the house felt haunted. The dialogue as parallel stories develop is especially warm and wonderful. I’d love to see this one fully developed.
● “Wally World” is based on his mother’s experiences as a Walmart manager in El Paso, according to playwright Isaac Gomez. It’s Christmas Eve and a staff of varied characters prepare to close on the only day the store closes. Eleven different folks, clearly drawn, “try to find purpose in a place that has never seen purpose in them,” Gomez said.
● “You Lost Me” by Bonnie Metzger is set on Newfoundland’s Shipwreck Coast and begins a tale of family history with one Ann Harvey, who saved 160 shipwrecked Irish people from a wreck in 1828. Today’s Shipwreck Inn, in the original Harvey family home at the same location, is run by another Ann Harvey, who has just started a blog for the inn. Her teenage nephew Joe-L lives with her and is perhaps slated for wreckage, as numerous other, carefully drawn characters pass through the Inn.
● “twenty50” by Tony Meneses looks at the year 2050, when Andres Salazar is running for political office in a time where Latinos are a majority and the political environment is still difficult. His family is also supportive and stressed as a stranger appears …
● “Rattlesnake Kate” is a musical in development and had an engaging concert presentation — not an element generally included in the play series, but a bonus for this year. Neyla Pekarek, formerly cellist and vocalist with the Lumineers band, has been fascinated with the tale of Rattlesnake Kate, a Greeley area legend, who happened on a migration of hundreds of rattlers while out on horseback with her young son. She fought them off with her gun and a no-trespassing sign — and ultimately had a 1920s-style dress made from the skins! Kate Slaughterback had six husbands and a lengthy correspondence with another man she never met. (Lots of story material for certain.) Pekarek has worked this bit of history into a song cycle, released her debut album, “Rattlesnake,” and is commissioned to write music and lyrics for “Rattlesnake Kate,” paired with playwright Kate Hartman. We saw a presentation with three Kates, a band and narrative sort of singing by Pekarek. Watch for this bit of local lore to appear fully staged eventually at the Denver Center. And when it does — be sure to see it!
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