Ellen K. Graham's The Never Summer Shows an Absurd New World

Calista Masters as Lee (left), and Gina Wencel as Office Worker in The Never Summer.
Calista Masters as Lee (left), and Gina Wencel as Office Worker in The Never Summer. Photo by Brian Miller
For an award-winning, critically praised local playwright whose work has been shown in New York City and beyond, Ellen K. Graham has struggled to have work produced in Denver. Yet she has seen some recognition. How We May Know Him received Best Original Play in the Best of Denver 2008; Graham wrote The Familiars five years ago on commission for the now-defunct Edge Theater, and last year she collaborated with Buntport on the funny, smart, group-written Coyote. Badger. Rattlesnake.

Also last year, Graham — who'd earlier founded what she describes as a “not company” called Feral Assembly — joined with four other writers to set up Theater 29 in a building funded by fellow writer Lisa Wagner Erickson at 5138 West 29th Avenue. Here, freed of constraint, the writers mount their own work. Graham’s latest offering, The Never Summer, opens there this week.

The program notes are intriguing, but cryptic. The play, set in 2040, begins on an underground train platform. A young woman who’s saving for her own apartment meets another woman, “who wants to lure her away into the unmapped wilderness.” Westword reached out to Graham to learn more.

Westword: Can you tell me more about The Never Summer? Do we have noisy undergrounds in 2040? And I think you say also that darkness and silence no longer exist.

The world of the play is a natural consequence of the pretty much untrammeled growth that the Front Range has seen over the past ten years or so. More cars, more voices, more days with heavy smoke from forest fires, more artificial light that overpowers the night sky, more bodies crowded into public spaces; less privacy, less silence. I think darkness and silence are becoming increasingly precious commodities at this moment, so if we continue on this path, what will the world be like in twenty years?

Can you tell me more about the unmapped wilderness?

In the play, it's kind of like a mythical land — a place untouched by humans and indifferent to them, a truly wild and deadly place.

I remember How We May Know Him as wonderfully surprising and sort of absurdist, while The Familiars was more conventional, though it had some fantastical elements. Where do you think of The Never Summer fitting?

Well, The Familiars was a commission. I can say with confidence that I never would have written a Christmas play if the Edge hadn't commissioned me to do so! Commissions are tricky, because you want to meet the needs of the client while still imbuing the play with your unique voice as a playwright. I wrote The Never Summer without any limitations, so consequently, it is much closer to How We May Know Him on the absurdist spectrum. In fact, it might be the most absurd thing I've ever written.

Can you tell us a little about your routine as a writer — where your ideas come from, what surprised or pleased you or made you crazy during the writing of The Never Summer?

I have no consistent routine. My only routine is not to stop. Even if I hate a project, I never give up. Ideas usually come to me from something I've read. Often I'll get an idea for a title, and everything else will flow from there. The Night Season, Genius of Love, The Wave That Set the Fire, Loki's Monstrous Children: All those titles came from articles or books or song lyrics.

The challenge of The Never Summer — similar to How We May Know Him — was a guarded and taciturn character who I couldn't get to reveal anything about herself. She just would not speak no matter what situation I threw her into. She kind of made me crazy.

Any particular playwright — or writer in general — you think of as an influence?

Caryl Churchill is the person I refer to the most often when I am feeling stuck or cowardly. I also love George Saunders, Bulgakov, Young Jean Lee. Absurdists all!

Is there another project in the works?

I've written a kind of terrible, sprawling first draft of a play based on Norse mythology. It needs a major overhaul. I am looking forward to wrangling it into something presentable.

I know opportunities are scarce in Denver. How is Theater 29 working for the five playwrights who run it? What are the triumphs so far? What are the disappointments? What do you see in the future?

Theater 29 is an incredible gift. The great, gleaming triumph of Theater 29 is that it has featured a consistent slate of 100 percent original work written by locals since the space opened in May 2018. The challenge is building our audiences. All theaters, big and small, face this. But we are definitely making progress with each successive show. Even if we end up living in a polluted dystopian surveillance state, I think the future for Theater 29 is bright.

The Never Summer opens Thursday, August 22, and runs through Saturday, August 31, at Theater 29, 5138 West 29th Avenue. For tickets and more information, go to the play's Eventbrite page.
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman