DENVER -- The wandering, highs-and-lows life of successful playwrights brought Florida natives Lauren Feldman and Matthew Lopez to a peak last weekend — specifically to the Mile High City and the Denver Center Theatre Company’s eighth annual Colorado New Play Summit.
Dreamed up by producing artistic director Kent Thompson when he joined the Tony Award-winning company, the Summit lures playwrights, directors, actors, theater company representatives and arts journalists to Denver for a jam-packed weekend devoted to that holy grail of American theater: the great new play.
Feldman, who grew up in Kendall and graduated from Miami Sunset Senior High, is a Cornell University and Yale Drama School grad who teaches playwriting and is currently studying at the New England Center for Circus Arts in Vermont. Lopez, a Brooklyn resident and Panama City native who focused on acting at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has a sizzling-hot career thanks to the wide regional theater success of his three-character Civil War play The Whipping Man. Along with five other playwrights from around the country, the two traveled to Denver to watch audiences see their new plays.
Feldman’s play, Grace, or the Art of Climbing, centers on a young Miami woman named Emm who literally climbs out of her depressed state by taking up the sport of climbing. As the seven actors perform the physically challenging drama, they ascend, traverse and descend metal beams with hand-holds and foot-holds — beams that get rearranged like Emm’s thoughts about friends, former lovers and her challenging father. So that they could be in top form as actors and climbers, the cast got an extended rehearsal period and training from ex-Miamian Kynan Waggoner, a climbing consultant who trained Feldman while she was working as a South Florida actress, playwright and staff member at City Theatre.
Interested in physical theater (hence her current circus training), Feldman began writing Grace while she was still at Yale. Her first attempt didn’t work to her satisfaction, so she scrapped it and wrote a new script. But she was certain that a play about a young woman climber could work.
“I was passionate about it, and I knew that world very well. I thought it would be exciting to put on stage,” she says, though she notes that the play isn’t autobiographical. “I had been writing a lot of talking-head plays. I was hungry to give every head a body.”
Lopez, the nephew of actress Priscilla Lopez (she originated the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line), is now a staff writer on Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. He is writing plays for several major theaters on commission, even as 15 theaters are doing productions of The Whipping Man this season, making it one of the country’s most-produced dramas. His Summit play, the hilarious and touching The Legend of Georgia McBride, is wildly different from The Whipping Man. And it’s very much a product of the Panhandle town where he lived until he went off to college at 18.
“Everything about my hometown informs the play. The energy of it. The pace of it. You really need to enter that world,” says Lopez, who started performing in Panama City community theater at age 5. “It’s not a great place for a young gay boy to grow up. But I’m proud of it. I own it.”