Playwright Frank Oteri on jaded Santas, local theater

There aren't enough opportunities for local playwrights to please Frank Oteri. It's a shortage that drove Oteri to create A Very Dark Holiday Playwright Festivus at the Vintage Theatre, a showcase that spotlights work from six local writers. The show includes an original comedy from Oteri titled "Intimate Information," a vignette that features three jaded mall Santas swapping barbs about the holiday season. The show, which will wrap up on Dec. 30, also features works by Oteri, Jeffrey Neuman, Linda Berry, Laura Coe, Mark Sbani and Kurt Brighton, as well as live performances by local musicians. Westword caught up with the playwright and producer to talk about the holiday show, as well as the larger limitations of the Denver theater scene. [jump]

Westword (A.H. Goldstein): Your piece in the Vintage's collection of holiday-themed plays, "Intimate Information," features three cynical mall Santas who gather at a bar after Christmas. Can you tell me briefly where the idea came from? Frank Oteri: Actually, I was working on "Angels in America" when this came up, and I was on the board of directors at the Vintage for awhile. We had just come up with the idea of putting this whole thing together. At that point, I was like, 'Oh god, I really need to write a play.' I actually spent two days drunk and just wrote it. I picked it up about two weeks later, took a look at it and it was actually pretty funny. I tweaked a couple of things, and at that point hoped that it was good enough to get in the competition. It was all submission, and I wasn't allowed to be on the panel. The first time I heard it out loud, I was like, 'Oh wow, it really did work.'

That was pretty much the inspiration. I just wanted to see what happens when you stick three mall Santas in a room and on top of that, add a little twist.

WW: Can you give some details about how the six finalists for the competition were chosen? FO: From what I understand, the selection committee at Vintage got together and they voted; I think we had thirteen submissions. They went and ranked every single submission that had come through. I had them list it from favorite to least favorite; then we cross referenced between the play selection committee's choices and came up with the six best.

WW: Have you written before? FO: Yes, I had a play (produced) three and a half years ago at Brook Center Arts...This is the first comedy; everything I've written before has a little bit of funny in it, but it was always more on the dark dramatic side, just awkward laughing. This one was actually trying to go for the jokes.

I've been constantly writing, and I do occassional stage readings at Vintage. I'm kind of a lazy writer, so I don't submit. When I get the opportunity to just do something locally is when I really jump on it. I've been in Colorado for 14 years now, between Pueblo and Denver.

WW: Since you've had more than a decade to ensconce yourself in the local theater scene, how would you characterize the opportunities that exist here for local playwrights? FO: Honestly? [Laughs]. It's interesting, I'm kind of disappointed in it. I really don't think that they do much for local playwrights. There's not much going on, especially in terms of productions. [At] a lot of these places, in order to submit to further levels, they really want reviewed shows. So a show has to be reviewed to make it that next level. A lot of places won't even accept scripts unless the show's been seen. It's disappointing in the fact that we do a lot for other new playwrights from different places who are already kind of known -- their work's been done before, it's been reviewed before, it's been seen before. It seems to me that we ignore the actual Colorado playwrights who are here.

I hope that in the future that changes. The talent is here, it does exist.

WW: Do you think a forum like this is a step in the right direction? Do you think it's a way to try to effect that change? FO: I hope so. I really, really do hope so. I hope that in the future, Vintage sees that this does work and it's a way to put on shows that are absolutely original and you don't know what to expect from. Hopefully, they'll see that in other theaters, that it does succeed. Maybe it will make other theaters do the same thing. Especially with Christmas plays, you can only take so much of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street.

With seasonal types of plays, it's a way to just get our foot in the door.

WW: Having served on the Vintage board, what would you say is unique about the theater compared to other local venues? FO: The Vintage is growing. It's a theater company that's not staying stagnant. They're moving forward and trying different things. They're becoming something, hopefully, that's way different from anything else that's offered in town. Curious has their niche, you've got the Germinal that has their niche ... Then there's a lump of theaters that do similar things. I think Vintage is finally breaking away from them. I think it's transitioning from an older theater crowd who really likes to see the cute shows and likes to see in general entertainment theater as opposed to challenging works. Just this past year with Angels in America and The Goodbye People -- they're tougher shows for audiences to really attach to; lots of drama, lots of real things that happen as opposed to just cutsie little things.

It's starting to become challenging theater also. They're finding the balance -- it's actually a really interesting thing.

WW: Can you detail your role in the Festivus show? FO: This thing that we're doing now is pretty much my baby. I produced the show from the beginning, I've been there for all of the rehearsals and came up with the idea. I made sure the submission process was still going to be in a way that it wouldn't be biased, that the actual writing was the important key.

I've thought about this for awhile. It's always been in the back of my mind, even with the staged readings and stuff like that. I always try to put on a show, and I was at a point where I was thinking of doing between six and eight of them in a year. It was too hard for my own writing. I thought that this would be a good way to figure out who were the other playwrights in Colorado, and be able to get in contact with them.

It finally got assembled sometime in late September. This is an absolute last-minute project. We through it together as quickly as possible and it actually worked. We're still in shock.

WW: Do you think this will be a diving board for similar showcases in the future? FO: I hope so. I still want to do staged readings, now that we have other writers like Kurt Brighton and Jeffrey Neuman. Their works are equally amazing as anyone else's that I've seen. "Silent Night" makes me want to cry every single time I see it; "Family Business" creeps me out every time. They're so interesting and layered and wonderful. I really hope that it works out, that they'll get more chances to put something together and actually see it onstage.

I don't know if anything like this has been done in Denver. I think that it's something, especially when you have a holiday. You can do it for Halloween, you can do it for Christmas -- hell, you can do it for Valentine's Day...It gives writers a chance to hone their skills, because it's about a specific topic. I think that it's a good step forward, and hopefully, it continues moving forward.

Oteri's baby, A Very Dark Holiday Playwright Festivus, will run at the Vintage Theatre, 2119 E. 17th Ave., until Dec. 30. For more information, call 303-839-1361 or visit the Vintage's website.

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A.H. Goldstein