Denver goes to the theater, and that's a fact. From touring shows and homegrown, big-time productions at the Denver Performing Arts Center to independent projects funded by grants and realized through the sheer grit of small companies, the metro area supports quality presentations on many stages. Hand in hand with that general interest comes a special interest in seeing and supporting new works.
"It's all part of a trend I've noticed in Denver," says Pamela Jamruszka Mencher, who chairs the theater and dance department at Red Rocks Community College. Mencher is the visionary who took time out from her academic duties to devise and shape the inaugural Playwrights Showcase of the Western Region, an intensive three-day festival taking over the Arvada Center this weekend. Encouraged by her experiences as a playwright at Edward Albee's New Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska and further brainstorming with her writing group back home in Denver, Mencher was certain Colorado was ready for a conference of its own. "While I was in Alaska, I started asking questions about how they did things," she says. "I'm not patterning this exactly on their festival, but I did get some really good ideas from them; they've had twelve years to learn how to do it." She came back and followed through on her research, approaching the Arvada Center to be a partner, enlisting jurors and putting out a call for entries.
Support for new theatrical works is what this showcase is all about. Twenty-eight plays by playwrights who live west of the Mississippi make up the meat of the fest; they're unknown and barely tried grassroots works, from short pieces and one-acts to children's theater and full-length dramas. Starting on Friday and set to run day and night, the event will pair three daily play-reading sessions with discussions led by what Mencher calls the festival's "luminaries" -- a changing panel of high-profile playwrights and directors, some local, some not, including Lee Blessing, Steven Dietz, Terry Dodd, Nagle Jackson, Jane Page, Steven Fend Rich, Aoise Stratford and Edith Weiss. Additional daily workshops with these special guests will explore theatrical issues such as "The Stage Play: What Is It Now?"
"We want to encourage people to come even if they're not playwrights, directors or actors. It's not only great entertainment, but there's also the component of critiques for folks who like to be challenged and are interested in learning more about dramatic structure or the state of the art," Mencher says. And the presence of theater people, particularly those from our region, doesn't stop there. "One thing Alaska did: They invited the local theater community to participate. Like them, we've assigned scripts to different local companies, who are then responsible for all the directing and acting. The response from the community to participate has been awesome. I'm grateful for their interest and expertise."
In spite of such scholarly leanings, the showcase is still ultimately meant to absorb, stimulate and entertain the general public. "We have a huge variety of plays, from your standard Agatha Christie-style 1930s mystery, such as Marlene Remington's In Memoriam, to abstractions with edgy topics, like Ken Crost's Mother, Father, Daughter, Sin. We also have wonderful children's plays, like Lia Romeo's Hey Diddle Diddle, and short works like Carleen Yakkin', a monologue by Melissa McCarl," Mencher says. The result can only be spectacular for any avid theater-goer.