Playwright School: Report from the Colorado New Play Summit 2018

It’s worth a plane ticket to Denver once a year to see what other playwrights are writing and thinking. This was my third (or is it fourth?) year I’ve attended the Colorado New Play Summit – a chance to see seven new plays in three days. For invited playwrights it’s an opportunity for them to workshop their pieces for a week with professional actors, directors and dramaturgs, plus get feedback from a live audience. For the uninvited, it’s a chance to talk to other playwrights, to have lunch with literary managers, and to experience COLD weather without strapping on the skis. I particularly enjoy attending because the Colorado New Play Summit makes the uninvited playwrights feel as welcome as those whose works are being put onstage. It’s also like a crash course in playwriting. I always come away with half a dozen new writing tips.

Here’s my overview of what I saw and what I heard:

It was a good year at the New Play Summit. Every one of the new plays was full of promise. Every one of them was unfinished and flawed in some way. Every one of them was exciting and stimulating.

And every one of them taught me something about playwriting.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Decide what to leave out

“Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue” by Kemp Powers is a tough piece about how racism in America affects a pair of biracial twins (one light skinned, the other dark.) The inciting incident of the play takes place the day that the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The question for a playwright is: how much of the gruesome details do you include onstage? Is the audience old enough to have experienced it for themselves? Powers withholds specifics until almost the last scene. And then he lays them on with graphic delight.

Is it more powerful this way? I know that I’m a writer who could stand to go a bit more for the jugular. But I also wonder whether the graphic details about the Challenger disaster overshadowed the larger questions Powers wants to address.

  • Bad exposition

Several plays used the phrase, “did you know…?” or “do you remember…?” It seemed like a lazy way to take care of exposition. I’m going to scour my plays for this lazy playwright way of sharing information with the audience.

  • Take theatrical chances

In the play “Mama Metallica,” playwright Sigrid Gilmer puts herself front and center, working out her grief at losing her mother to Parkinsons. Sounds dreary, right?

It’s hysterical. Our main character is a playwright and both Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill drop by to chat. The band Metallica also makes an appearance and plays a few numbers. The play is weird and wonderful and funny and touching. It’s truly theatrical. I only wish I’d thought of it. At least now, I’ll ask myself: have I missed an opportunity to make magic onstage?

  • Let your protagonist be the star

Two years ago, I saw a reading of José Cruz González’ “American Mariachi.” The reading was more of an ensemble piece. It sported a very large cast of women – something every high school drama teacher in Los Angeles would snap up in a heartbeat.

The full production in Denver focused on a single mother/daughter and father/daughter relationship. The story was easier to follow with a single protagonist and one main conflict. It was as though you could commit to the play because you only had to give your heart to one person onstage.

In the play “Celia, A Slave,” playwright Barbara Seyda took the trial transcript of a young woman hanged for killing her master and turned it into a poetic series of monologues. The language was beautiful, though we heard little from Celia herself. Instead, a cast of thousands told her story. Does a large cast make a play more powerful? Would an audience be more willing to give its heart to Celia if we had more of an opportunity to hear from her?

  • The power of music

Sigrid Gilmer had Metallica onstage. José Cruz González had an entire mariachi band! The music was both powerful and exciting. Plus, the musicians became our guide as the play weaved in and out of time and space. And how can an audience not be satisfied when they get a play and a mariachi band for one ticket?

Of course, music can work against you, too. Matthew Lopez’ play “Zoey’s Perfect Wedding” is one of those wedding-gone-wrong stories set in a crummy hotel with an awful DJ playing all the worst hits you can imagine. The groans from the audience were audible. And very funny.

  • Do you have to like everybody onstage?

One of my own favorite plays features a main character everybody loves to hate. It’s my orphan play that’s had lots of readings and no premiere. Most of the criticism for “Western & 96th” is directed at the ex-cop-turned-politico Mike Marcott. Me? I love the guy. I can’t understand why my audience doesn’t love him as much as I do. Is that the reason nobody wants to produce the play?

I thought about that watching David Jacobi’s “The Couches” – a piece inspired by the “affluenza” trial. It’s a wonderfully written play, but it’s not pleasant spending 90 minutes with the two main characters. They were horrible human beings. Horrible. I’ll be happy if I never have to spend another moment in their presence. (But I’ll bet Netflix snaps it up as their next series!)

Contrast that with Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” – a tale about basketball and Tiananmen Square. I dare you not to fall in love with every one of the characters in her play. I saw a reading of it at last year’s New Play Summit. The minute her characters came onstage, it was like seeing old friends. You actually missed them!

I don’t think it’s necessary to fall in love with all the characters in a play. But it’s sure a lot more fun when you do!

Hope you’ll consider joining me next February in Denver for the next Colorado New Play Summit!

6 thoughts on “Playwright School: Report from the Colorado New Play Summit 2018

  1. Thanks for the great insights!
    P.S. I struggle w/ plays where I detest the characters and none of them learns anything — it feels like a long slog for no good reason.

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