Behind the Four Plays at the 2024 Colorado New Play Summit in Denver | Westword
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Straight to the Sources Behind the Four Plays at the 2024 Colorado New Play Summit

Experience the "gold standard" of new play development in the West this weekend
Attendees are invited to influence the progression of the four plays.
Attendees are invited to influence the progression of the four plays. Courtesy of Jamie Kraus Photography
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"The first big play I ever saw was at the Denver Center," says writer Nina McConigley, who was commissioned along with Matthew Spangler to adapt her short stories, Cowboys and East Indians, into a play that will receive a public reading at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Colorado New Play Summit on Saturday, February 24, and Sunday, February 25.

"I don’t remember the play I saw, but I looked back at the season, and it was a lot of Shakespeare and elevated plays, so that's what I thought theater was," McConigley continues. "I thought you had to be fancy. I didn't think ordinary stories were worth telling, especially not a story like mine. The thing that I really loved about attending the Summit last year was that the Denver Center picked really interesting plays. I used to think theater was out of my reach, so it’s nice to know it’s not all that and it can be used to tell stories like mine." 

This weekend, the Denver Performing Arts Complex will be a melting pot for innovation, with creative minds from around the country coming to witness four groundbreaking plays and two world-premiere productions. The Summit's lineup this year includes Cowboys and East Indians, by McConigley and Spangler; Ghost Variations, by Vauhini Vara; Godspeed, by Terence Anthony; One-Shot, by Andrew Rosendorf; and the world premiere productions of Cebollas and Rubicon, which both run through March 17.

Workshopping the materials in preparation for audiences, creative teams have been very busy this week. As attendees immerse themselves in readings, they are invited to influence the progression of each narrative, contributing to the evolution of theater in real time by providing feedback on the work. The Summit is also a communal experience enriched by shared meals and the eagerly anticipated Summit Wrap Party in the Seawell Ballroom.

In preparation for the upcoming festivities, we went behind the scenes of the four plays that will be performed at the Summit with the writers who penned them:
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Cowboys and East Indians writer Nina McConigley.
Nina McConigley

Cowboys and East Indians, by Nina McConigley and Matthew Spangler

Crafted by co-writers who attended the same high school in Casper, Wyoming, this play adapts McConigley's award-winning stories into a stage narrative that is both intimate and expansive. It follows the Sen family, which moves from India to Wyoming, and explores what life was like for rural immigrants in the American West.

"The short stories came out of my experience of growing up in Wyoming and being pretty different," say McConigley, who was born in Singapore and raised in Wyoming. "We moved there when I was ten months old, so I didn't really know anything else. This was my reality, but not having that reflection of myself in the room I was in really shaped me as a person. I wanted to reflect on my childhood and experiences growing up. I love Wyoming, but I also talk about how race is complicated in Wyoming. Matthew and I reconnected when he came to the University of Wyoming to do a talk. I had never thought about these stories as a play, but Matthew did, because that's what he's good at."

Spangler remembers reading her collection in 2015 and filing away the stories as a strong project to adapt for the stage. Then, three years later, when he was back in Laramie, he and McConigley met up for dinner. "I told her, ‘Hey, I think there’s a play in your short stories if you’re ever game,' and that’s where it started," he says. A treatment of the play was presented at a humanities festival in Casper in February 2020. Following that performance, Spangler received an email from DCPA representatives requesting to read the script.

"I remember replying back that it wasn't actually a play," Spangler recalls. "Well, they were like, ‘If we commissioned you, would you write the play?’ So, that was the impetus for Nina and I to write the play together by commission."
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Ghost Variations writer Vauhini Vara.
Vauhini Vara

Ghost Variations, by Vauhini Vara

In an effort to process her grief over the death of her sister, author and journalist Vara turned to artificial intelligence (AI). Her personal tragedy and technological curiosity led to her writing a compelling depiction in the acclaimed essay Ghosts, published in The Believer in 2021, which she has transformed into a play.

"Partly as a journalist, partly as a novelist and partly just as a writer interested in how these technologies worked, I got access to this thing called GPT 3 and I started playing around with it," recalls Vara. "There were things that were difficult for me, even for me as a writer, to express. For me, the big thing that loomed over me as a big event that had been difficult to talk about all my life was the death of my sister in 2001, when we were young adults. So, I went to this GPT 3 with this one sentence: 'My sister was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when I was in my freshman year of high school and she was in her junior year.' At first, it didn't have anything to do with my experience, but the more I gave, the closer it got to saying something that felt true about grief. I ended up writing this essay, and it went viral right away. I started hearing from people who had also experienced loss and were moved by the piece."

After a collaboration to produce the story into a play fell through, Vara continued writing the play with the intention of submitting it to the New Play Summit, and was excited when it was accepted.

"The essay is called Ghosts, and the play I submitted was called Ghosts, but several months ago, I saw the Ibsen play Ghosts and then thought it might be too similar to that play," Vara says. "Ultimately, me and Leean Kim Torske [DCPA's Director of Literary Programs] decided it didn't work as a play title. I couldn't come up with anything else, so Leanne sent me a whole bunch of ideas, and I really liked Ghost Variations. ... The AI becomes a character in the play in a way that it wasn’t in the essay. We're still figuring out how to visualize the AI, but the question of how that voice is rendered is one of the big things that the director, dramaturg and I have been talking about and are excited to share."
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Godspeed writer Terence Anthony.
Terence Anthony

Godspeed, by Terence Anthony

Set in 1865, the year slavery was finally abolished by force in Texas, Godspeed follows a woman who fled to Mexico to avoid slavery and now returns to the Lone Star State on a quest for vengeance. Anthony began researching the time period six years ago and started working on the first draft five years ago. 

"When I'm doing research, I don’t actually know what form it's going to take — whether it's going to be a play, screenplay, graphic novel or something — but I knew I wanted the story to be an epic, odyssey-type story," he says. "I started by asking what it was like immediately after slavery was abolished on the ground for people. We get the stories of Black folks dressed up, having their first Juneteenth party, and that was it. I wanted to know what really happened, specifically in Texas, because they abolished slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and I realized there was something there that needed to be explored in a play."

He describes the play's protagonist, Godspeed, as a "rebel" who never accepted being a slave. Even though Godspeed had escaped Texas ten years before the play begins, we meet her upon her return to the state following the abolition of slaves. 

"She comes back with a pistol with one bullet and vengeance on her mind," Anthony says. "The play is really about her journey across Texas and how she realizes that this thing that she's dreamed of, vengeance, and what she expected to find upon returning as a free person is very different than what she imagined. I’ve known about the New Play Summit for a while; it's kind of the gold standard for new play festivals, and playwrights are always trying to get into it. My agent sent in Godspeed, so I was shocked, surprised and grateful when I found out they were interested in developing it.
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One-Shot writer Andrew Rosendorf
Andrew Rosendorf

One-Shot, by Andrew Rosendorf

Created as a love letter to cinema and a poignant examination of the writer's intersectional identities, One-Shot takes place in a video store just before the new millennium. As two film buff besties wait to hear about a film scholarship to NYU, dangers outside the store threaten their safety and force David and Martin to grapple with how fragile their world is.

"This piece is incredibly personal to me, both because of my queerness, my Jewishness and those intersectionalities, as well as growing up as a kid in the ’90s," Rosendorf says. "Film was my escape when I wasn't comfortable enough to say that I was gay. I would go to movie rental stores and try to look for representations of people who were like me so I felt less alone. The play dives into the history of queer representation in film and what before and after Hays Code was like. The play has three characters; one represents the identities that I have, and then two other characters don't."

When he was informed that One-Shot was selected for the festival, Rosendorf says it was a "pinch-me moment." Not only was he eager to further workshop the play, but he was incredibly grateful for the national platform the festival provides.

"It’s unbelievable and amazing that the DCPA believes in my voice and in the play enough to provide this opportunity to work on the play," he says. "Although it’s set in the ’90s, it will resonate in the present, especially because of the presidential cycle in full swing and the play's exploration of immigration. Given how Texas is sending buses of migrants to Denver, I’m super interested to hear how the city reacts to how the play deals with that issue. We're in such a divisive moment in our country, and nobody listens to anybody, but I know when your heart is open through theater, it allows for the mind to be challenged and to open the possibility for maybe a change in perspective while fostering greater empathy."

Stage Set for Readings

As the Summit unfolds, the complex also house the world premieres of Cebollas and Rubicon, showcasing the fruition of the 2022 iteration. This cycle of creation and presentation underscores the Summit's commitment to developing works that resonate with audiences and the broader theater community.

Through rehearsals, discussions and performances, the Summit comes alive with the energy of potential. All of the playwrights expressed a desire for their plays to have a continued life through fully produced stagings after the whirlwind week of workshopping and audience reactions.

"As a writer, it’s incredible to have other people discussing the relationship between the words that you wrote down," Vara says. "It’s fascinating to learn what those people are saying; you just get to sit there, take notes on it and learn from it. Something I feel like I should be paying for the experience, because I get to workshop the play and get the experience to hear the response of an audience to the material."

Colorado New Play Summit, Saturday, February 24, and Sunday, February 25, at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1101 13th Street. Get tickets at denvercenter.org.
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