Collaboration and critics: Scenes from the New Play Summit

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The American Theatre Critics' Association had chosen the New Play Summit at the Denver Center Theatre Company as the site of its winter meeting, and a group of critics compared notes one morning. We had all seen the same plays; on some we agreed; now and then someone pointed out something that others had missed. And periodically our opinions diverged sharply: "You loved that play? I didn't think it worked at all."

It was an important reminder of the subjectivity of criticism. We talked about how much critics can learn from reading each other, and just how urgent it is -- at a time when newspapers are shrinking their arts coverage -- to retain more than one critical voice in any given town. A poet or novelist can work in solitude, but a playwright requires collaboration. She needs to hear how her words sound in an actor's mouth, and to learn from a director and tech people just how the work fares on a stage.

Here are notes on some of the scenes -- both on-stage and off- -- at the seventh annual New Play Summit, which ran through yesterday at the Denver Center, with packed houses for every reading:

Lauren Feldman's Grace, or the Art of Climbing, one of five plays to receive a staged reading, is about a young woman suffering from depression brought on by a break-up and her father's stroke; it was her father who first taught her to climb. She goes to a gym with a climbing wall, finds the coach who teaches local children, and begins working with them. The important thing, she is told again and again, is to learn to fall. There's lots of technical talk about rock climbing, some philosophical speculation. Characters come and go, sometimes in her mind, and sometimes in reality. She thinks about her stroke-ridden father in the present -- head twisted to the side, face slack, drooling -- and then as the vital man he once was. At one point, as her thoughts go back and forth, her father -- played by company favorite John Hutton -- alternates like a crazed mechanical toy: head to the side, head straight, head to the side, head straight.

Artistic director Kent Thompson will choose two or three of these scripts for production, and as we walked out of the reading, playwright and director Terry Dodd was trying to figure out how Grace could possibly be staged if it's chosen. How will they find an actress who can climb a rope and do all the pull-ups required of the protagonist? How will they work the actual climbing scenes?

During lunch in the theater lobby, the conversation at my table turned to Lisa Loomer's Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner -- a play set at a seder where one of the guests is Palestinian and a fierce argument about Israel erupts in the second act. It was part of last year's New Play Summit as a reading, and the full production was part of that evening's schedule. One of the women at the table was trying to decide whether to see it. She's a dedicated Zionist, she explained, and wondered if the play will be fair. (I've heard through the grapevine that there have been complaints about a scene where the Palestinian shows a photograph of a child killed by Israeli forces -- unfairly skewing the argument, according to those complaining.) Another diner responded carefully. She had already seen the play, and said both sides are represented, although the woman hosting the seder is a more forceful personality than the Palestinian.

I was thinking it's good that a play can still make people wonder, ask questions, even get a little uncomfortable. (Read my review of Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner here.)

The next reading, The Hand of God, was about a group of idea people trying to come up with a concept for a reality show. The characters in Grace appeared to be in their twenties, and these folks aren't much older. Early thirties, maybe. Thompson is probably looking for shows that appeal to audiences younger than the typical theater goer.

Ed, Downloaded -- read on the second day -- is by a new, young playwright named Michael Mitnick. The Ed of the title is engaged to Selene who -- like so many fictional Englishwomen -- is repressed and judgmental and corrects other people's grammar. She works at a place called the Forevertary that downloads dying people's favorite memories. When Ed dies (he's been sick and coughing throughout), she downloads his, and discovers that she's not in them. Every one features a free-spirited soul called Ruby.

The company started rehearsing Ed earlier than the other plays, because the technical demands are heavy, and it was directed by Britisher Sam Buntrock, who received all kinds of accolades for his Sunday in the Park with George in London and on Broadway. (Perhaps he helped actress Meghan Wolf achieve her very pleasing English accent.) You got to see Ed's memories changing, morphing, hiccupping, faltering, on giant screens, a tantalizing preview of what mixed media can do for theater.

Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale (which, like Loomer's Two Things, got a reading last year), was shown on one of the New Play Summit evenings. There had been at least some kibbitzing about all the offerings so far, but the response to The Whale was overwhelmingly positive. (Read my review here.) Hunter, whose star has been steadily rising over the past couple of years, was enthusiastic about his experience with the New Play Summit which, he told us, is growing in national stature annually.

Like all playwrights, he had his share of readings and "workshops that led nowhere," he said, and he finds the Denver Center's commitment to full production refreshing. "'We have this gigantic theater complex, and we're willing to invest in something you've written," he told us, adding, "The audiences here are incredibly intelligent. In the first act, some people are really resisting the play -- and they still stay for the second. They're that open to the experience. They don't leave at intermission." He laughs.

Loomer is a mature playwright, with a long resume, and she had another play read this year. Homefree is based on extensive interviews with homeless kids. Like Two Things, it explores many contemporary issues. Watching it, I learned some new vocabulary -- "spanging," "crusted up" -- as well as what Juggalos are.

Israeli actor and director Ami Dayan (a cousin of Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan) was standing in the lobby before the final show of the weekend, a musical production of Sense and Sensibility. I asked, but he hadn't seen Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner.

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