Florida playwrights soar at a Denver festival

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.”

The relatively young Colorado New Play Summit, where Feldman saw a full production of her play and Lopez got a staged reading of his, is just one of the country’s significant new-play initiatives. The high-profile, much-admired Humana Festival of New American Plays will launch its 37th edition Feb. 27 at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the Sundance Institute Theatre Program and the National New Play Network, among others, are all nurturing and drawing attention to new scripts. But Denver’s Summit has become an increasingly important gathering.

The Colorado Summit has its own distinct format. From Friday through Sunday each year in February, new-play enthusiasts see two fully produced plays and attend five staged readings. Audiences — some theater professionals from around the country, others Denver-area theater lovers — provide written feedback after each play’s two readings, answering questions aimed at clarifying moments and helping the playwrights as they continue working on their scripts.

From those readings, which get greater-than-average rehearsal time for their casts of regional theater veterans and Broadway-tested actors, Thompson and his colleagues choose two or three scripts to produce the following season.

That’s how Feldman’s unusual, physically intense Grace moved from a staged reading at the 2012 Summit to a world premiere play with a monthlong run this season. The experience, she says, has been glorious.

“This is like Disney World, [but] their mission is about new plays,” Feldman says. “Every step of the way, everyone from the artistic director to every other member of the staff asks, ‘What do you need?’ They seem to be excited to be in service of new plays.”

Lopez, whose Legend of Georgia McBride was a clear crowd favorite with an obvious future, agrees.

“This place is astounding,” Lopez says of the Denver Center Theatre Company, which has an annual budget of $12 million, nearly $2 million of that devoted to new plays. “You can make beautiful theater on a shoestring — I’ve done it before and will very likely do it again — but this company is devoting major resources to new work.”

Artistic director Thompson, whose goal is for the Summit plays to have a continuing life at other theaters, explains that the company looks for an eclectic group of plays for the Summit, seeking more scripts by women, Latino writers, black playwrights and “adventurous scripts by emerging and established writers.” New ways of telling a theatrical story are particularly appealing to him, and both Feldman’s Grace and Michael Mitnick’s Ed, Downloaded, did just that.

Mitnick’s Ed, the other fully produced play of this year’s Summit, combines live action and intricate, shifting filmed sequences in the story of a dying man, his older lover and the vibrant young woman who unexpectedly enriches his final days. The futuristic tale imagines the possibility of the departed “living” on through key downloaded memories. Though the play gets swamped by technology once Ed crosses over, its innovative approach is clear.

The Summit’s strong group of staged readings, all works in progress with clear potential, took audiences into richly diverse worlds.

Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride follows the unexpected career shift of an Elvis impersonator who starts doing drag in a dead-end Panhandle bar after his wife tells him a baby is on the way. Catherine Trieschmann’s stinging, observant comedy The Most Deserving tracks the shenanigans of a small-town Kansas arts council. Laura Eason’s The Vast In-Between looks at a traveling, tempted career woman and the strains in her marriage as her husband’s unemployment drags on.

Marcus Gardley’s ambitious black odyssey, which had Tony Award nominee André De Shields and Broadway veteran Brenda Pressley in its cast, merges Homer’s play, a soldier’s story and key events in black history. Karen Zacarías’ Just Like Us, based on the bestseller by journalist Helen Thorpe, follows a quartet of Denver Latinas — two legal immigrants, two not — from high school through college and beyond.

“The Summit has grown in industry awareness and attendance, which contributes to the ability to continue the life of the plays,” says Thompson. “We’ve also developed a very strong regional and local audience for new play productions and the Summit. A lot of people come every year to the readings, then they come back to see the full productions.”

Thompson and the Denver Center Theatre’s new play specialists decide about a week after the end of the Summit which plays they want to fully produce the following season. It wouldn’t be surprising if Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride is one of them.

Pulled toward television and, quite likely, to writing movies, Lopez swears he’ll always be involved in theater — hard as it can be. At the Summit, for instance, he kept rewriting and rewriting, giving his play a new second act. But he loved the process.

“Theater is magic,” he says. “I am addicted to it. I am never more alive, never more fulfilled and happy than when I’m in rehearsal with a play.”

And that Mile High magic, a group of fresh new worlds shared each February by playwrights, actors, directors and audiences, is what the Colorado New Play Summit so engagingly celebrates.

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