Posts tagged: Denver

Report from the Colorado New Play Summit

By Kitty Felde

The delicious set for THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson. Set design by Sandra Goldmark.

This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.

As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.

Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:

STRONG WORK

It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.

MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:

THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.

TWO WORD TITLES:

Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.

POLITICAL PLAYS

I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.

The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)

The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.

Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)

TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.

There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.

WHERE ARE THE LADIES?

Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)

Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.

PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE

I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.

CHANGE IN THE AIR

The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.

PS

In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.

When My Mom Had Tea With Mary Chase

AnnawynShamas

Annawyn Shamas

By Laura Shamas

My mother, Annawyn Shamas, has just finished directing Mary Chase’s Harvey again at her church in Colorado. Harvey is a very successful play. Chase won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it in 1945, as only the fourth woman to win one; even in 2015, only 14 women have won or shared the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. [1] When Harvey opened on Broadway in 1944, it was directed by Antoinette Perry, for whom The Tony Awards are named.[2]

Harvey became a very popular 1950 film starring the beloved Jimmy Stewart as a middle-aged drinker, Elwood P. Dowd, who insists that he has a six-foot one invisible rabbit friend named Harvey (but it’s really “a pooka” from Celtic mythology). Remakes of Harvey are still discussed in Hollywood, including a 2009 round that was helmed by Steven Spielberg but fizzled out. The play was successfully revived in 2012 on Broadway starring Jim Parsons; in his The New York Times review, however, critic Charles Isherwood bemoans that Harvey won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama over Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Maybe there are others who feel that Williams’ two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (for A Streetcar Named Desire and A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) are not enough recognition for Williams, but one wonders if a review of Harvey is the appropriate platform for such retrospective advocacy.

My mother and members of her church have a very personal connection to Harvey, because in 1981, one of them called the playwright after finding her number listed in the Denver phone book and asked if they could meet her. And Mary Chase kindly invited them over for tea. [3]

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Mary Chase

So on a Sunday in October, my mother and two other members of the cast went over to the Chase home in an older and exclusive part of Denver, not far from the Botanical Gardens. Ron Hamilton, who played Elwood P. Dowd, and Pete Jenks, who was the cabbie, were the other lucky invitees. When they arrived, Chase’s husband Robert (a longtime editor of The Rocky Mountain News) and a producer from Canada greeted them, along with Chase herself. Chase was working with the producer at the time on a musical version of the play, slated to star Donald O’Connor.

My mother recalls Chase’s warmth, graciousness, and loveliness as they were served tea and cookies. She really liked Mary Chase. She remembers asking Chase what inspired Harvey, which is set in Denver, but was too star-struck to remember Chase’s exact answer. Later she learned that Chase wanted to cheer those who were grieving the loss of loved ones in World War II. Among other theater topics they discussed were: an appreciation for the brilliant, sweet and loyal character of Elwood P. Dowd; whether “Love and Marriage” was from Plain and Fancy or the musical TV version of Our Town, starring Frank Sinatra; and specific details of their own upcoming production. Although it was a church production and not a professional one, Chase made them all feel so special and supported their efforts. My mother believes that Harvey is a true American comedic classic that withstands the test of time. Her entire cast later did go to Fairfax between 18th and 19th streets in Denver to see if they, too, might actually see a tall rabbit leaning against a lamppost.

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The 2015 Cast, with Ron Hamilton as Elwood (center) with Norma Austermann as Veta Louise (seated)

A few days after their visit, they were extremely shocked to learn of Mary Chase’s death. She died of a heart attack at her home at the age of 75. Deeply saddened, the group dedicated their production to her.

There is one specific sentiment that my mom recalls from her tea with Mary Chase. Upon learning that my mother had a daughter who wrote plays, Chase said: “Please tell her to keep trying, to keep at it. Tell her never to give up!”

And so, I pass this story to you: Keep at it and Happy Holidays!
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[1] Zona Gale, Susan Glaspell, Zoe Akins won it before Chase. In 1956, Frances Goodrich shared a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Albert Hackett for The Diary of Anne Frank. Since then, Ketti Fring, Marsha Norman, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, Margaret Edson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Quiara Alegria Hudes, and Annie Baker have won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.
[2] Both Mary Chase and Antoinette Perry were from Denver, Colorado.
[3] This event launched a drama group called The Encore Players at their church that’s been active for 34 years.

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