Local Lab 12 Examines Climate Change, Vietnamese Sign Language and Family-Run Funeral Homes | Westword

Local Lab 12 Examines Climate Change, Vietnamese Sign Language, Family-Run Funeral Homes and More

Four new play readings and theater events take over Boulder next weekend!
Actors Rajeev Jacob, Simone St. John and Sam Gilstrap work on a play for a previous Local Lab, Boulder's new-play festival hosted by Local Theater Company.
Actors Rajeev Jacob, Simone St. John and Sam Gilstrap work on a play for a previous Local Lab, Boulder's new-play festival hosted by Local Theater Company. Courtesy of Graeme Schulz
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Innovation and the arts take center stage in Boulder every year through Local Theater Company, which is presenting its twelfth annual Local Lab 12 event from Thursday, April 27, through Sunday, April 30. There will be four play readings and a myriad of special events sprinkled throughout the weekend.

“All plays start somewhere," says Betty Hart, LTC's artistic director of new plays. "Hamilton started somewhere. We’re here to support the works of tomorrow, today. We had more submissions than ever in the history of Local Lab. I'm thrilled to explore themes of connection and disconnection, love and grief, and potential dystopian futures. The plays are thoughtful and ask interesting questions about who we want to be as a community.”

This year's feature plays include Sarah Léo Powers’s Great Bends, directed by Cecilia J. Pang, which is presented as part of the CU Boulder/LTC collaboration; Don X. Nguyen’s The World Is Not Silent, directed by Marya Mazor; Lia Romeo’s The Agency, directed by Rodney Lizcano; and Adriana Santos’s Cris Leaves Queens, directed by Ilasiea Gray. These four playwrights and their creative teams are coming to Colorado from across the country to workshop their material in a series of live readings at the Dairy Arts Center.

The Festival Kick-Off Party is the first public event, set for Thursday, April 27, from 5 to 7 p.m. before the main stage reading of Great Bends, which begins at 7:30. The play takes place in a dystopian future devastated by the effects of climate change in Great Bend County, Kansas. Great Bends uses its eerie setting to debate issues that matter to contemporary audiences, and argues that our relationships with one another are what will save us.

Powers developed the script in a playwriting class during the first semester of her senior year at CU Boulder. "Naturally, the looming future was on my mind," she says. "I think that play reflects these interpersonal struggles against the backdrop of the climate crisis. It is a looming issue for the characters in the play and a looming issue in all of our lives today."
click to enlarge blonde woman in yellow sweater
Sarah Léo Powers
Courtesy of Local Theater Company

Her writing was also inspired by her experience witnessing the Marshall Fire in 2021 as a resident of Boulder County. "I didn’t want to write directly about the wildfires, so I flipped to the opposite element: water," explains Powers. "What if there were these massive downpours and society didn’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with them?"

Powers submitted the script to CU's New Play Festival and participated in a workshop in April 2022. Following the New Play Festival and her graduation in May 2022, Powers received an email from CU professor Kevin Rich asking if she was interested in submitting the script to Local Lab. Though she had no idea what to expect, Powers agreed, and was taken aback when her work was selected for participation in the festival.

She believes that people of all ages should see the play because it is so timely. "I think that older generations and younger generations have different perspectives on the impending doom of climate change, and so I think that both age demographics will see parts of themselves in those characters," says Powers. "It is a play that young people will see themselves in, but that older generations would benefit from seeing the perspective of."

On Friday, April 28, doors will open at 7 p.m. for Local Lab's second main stage reading, The World Is Not Silent, which begins at 7:30 p.m. It follows Dau, a Vietnamese immigrant living in Nebraska who hopes to set up his son Don with a Vietnamese woman. Over Thanksgiving dinner, the play examines barriers and proves they can be overcome.
click to enlarge asian man in blue shirt
Don X. Nguyen
Courtesy of Local Theater Company

The World Is Not Silent was originally penned in 2018 on commission for East West Players, one of the oldest Asian American theaters in the country. "I had written a sign-language play before [SOUND], and the East West Players asked if I had another," recalls Nguyen. "I lied and improvised a pitch for a new play. I didn’t hear from them for a year, so I thought I was off the hook, but then the theater reached back out and asked me to flesh out the project I had pitched them.

"My dad is losing his hearing," he continues. "So this subject has been on my mind for a while. In my play, Don suggests to his father that they both learn sign language, but to his surprise, his father learned Vietnamese sign language, whereas he prepared for American sign language. They find that there is still this language barrier that exists because American and Vietnamese sign language are not quite the same."

The commission for the East West Players ended up being about thirty pages long, but Nguyen believed the script still needed major work. For starters, he felt that the character of Don — who was largely sidelined in the first draft of the play in favor of developing the father — was not compelling.

"I had no interest in putting myself in the play," says Nguyen. "But the more I worked on it, the more Don's character resembled me. I initially tried to fight that urge; however, once I gave in and leaned into the fact that I knew who I was and who my father was, the play just kind of clicked."

This is The World Is Not Silent's final stop before its world premiere on March 22, 2024, at the Alley Theatre in Houston. "I would also like to let potential audience members not be afraid of these plays with multiple languages," Nguyen says. "It has a simple but emotionally rewarding story underneath the layers of language."
click to enlarge redhaired woman's profile in pink shirt
Lia Romeo
Courtesy of Local Theater Company
Saturday's festivities kick off with a bonus reading of I Want to Be Alive, based on a conversation Kevin Roose, technology columnist for the New York Times, had with Sydney, the A.I. chatbot created by Microsoft's Bing. Roose's dialogue with Sydney is performed by Hart and co-artistic director Nick Chase and directed by LCT's founding artistic director Pesha Rudnick. Doors for this relevant reading open at 2:30 p.m. and begin at 3 p.m.

Later that evening, Local Lab continues with its third main stage reading, The Agency, at 7 p.m. The dystopian comedy follows Ani, a struggling actor who has scored a high-paying acting gig as an emotional surrogate to help others work through their unresolved issues. Romeo was inspired to write the play after reading an article about Family Romance, a Japanese company that allows you to rent people to stand in as a partner, friend or other social roles, in The Atlantic and the New Yorker.

"People would role-play as a way to get back in touch or as a replacement, which felt like something out of science fiction," says Romeo. "A friend of mine runs the theater department at Fairleigh Dickinson University and commissioned me to write something for the students to do in 2019, so I wrote this right before the pandemic, and it was performed there in early 2020. After COVID, I've looked at some of my past plays, and they don’t all feel relevant anymore; however, this one felt even more relevant."

This is The Agency's third time being worked on in Colorado, following a reading directed by Hart for the Athena Project in June 2022 and a workshop directed by Rudnick at the Durango PlayFest in August 2022. Following their experience in Durango, Rudnick connected Romeo with a contact she had at La Jolla Playhouse to bring the play to the DNA New Work Series for a workshop in December 2022 directed by Rudnick.

"The main changes have been to deepen the emotional level that The Agency works on," says Romeo. "One discovery I have made over the past six months is that all the characters are dealing with grief and using this as an escape, which I feel came out of my own experiences during the pandemic."

Although she has another workshop at the Juilliard School lined up for June 2023, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and is in the early stages of developing a television pilot with her manager, she is really excited for Local Lab, because she grew up around here.

"It is a really special experience to get to do theater in Colorado, and I am especially excited because my parents get to see it," says Romeo. "I have not worked extensively in the area, but my understanding is they are very smart and ask hard questions, so I am curious to see where their sympathy lies."

And after sitting down all day watching theater, LTC invites guests to DV8 Distillery for a Late Night Lab Party starting at 8 p.m.

Closing the festival on Sunday, April 30, is its final main stage reading, Cris Leaves Queens, with doors opening at 11:30 a.m. and the show starting at noon.
brunette girl
Adriana Santos
Courtesy of Local Theater Company
When an incoming snowstorm threatens the stability of a family-run funeral home in Queens, it forces the family to confront what's been haunting them. The idea for the play came to Santos after she attended a funeral for a family member in Queens.

"Sitting there, watching the procession, was a surreal experience," says Santos. "I was thinking about how theatrical the funeral was. It was so vulnerable, and what people were saying about the person who had passed brought to light so many ideas about the challenges facing different generations of immigrants."

When Santos organically completed a draft around the time for submissions to IAMA Theatre Company's 2022 New Works Festival, she decided to apply to participate.

"I definitely learned a lot from that process, but it felt like it was just the beginning," says Santos. "After that festival, I knew I wanted to continue working on Cris Leaves Queens." Following the work's development with IAMA in September 2022, Kate Sullivan, an L.A.-based director who directed i know i know i know by C.A. Johnson as a part of Local Lab 11, recommended that Santos apply for Local Lab 12.

"It is a luxury to have time to devote to your art for a fixed period of time," says Santos. "Everyone has their own way of making a living, and it takes self-discipline to carve out the time to work. It will be great to savor my time with this play and see what it says to me during that time."

The weekend concludes with a playwrights' panel featuring all four Local Lab playwrights at 3 p.m. This will be the attendees' final chance to ask the authors questions about their plays and say goodbye before the Local Lab 2023 comes to a close.

Whether you are a theater producer hoping to find a hot play for an upcoming season or an audience member who wants to see the next great American play, this year's Local Lab offers a little something for everyone in an exciting continuation of the area's premier incubator for new work.

Local Lab starts at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 27, at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, with events at various times through April 30; find more information at localtheaterco.org.
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