This weekend's New Play Summit at the Denver Center Theatre Company made it clear that after decades of sometimes sputtering movement, Denver has finally become a serious force in American theater.
A large crowd -- local and national playwrights, press folk, tech people, poor actors and rich benefactors, along with loads of interested members of the public -- thronged the readings of new work, passionately discussing them afterwards in corridors and around coffee urns; packed Buntport's multimedia workshop on Nikola Tesla; and listened attentively to a mind-blowing panel on Playwriting in the Digital Age.
During that panel, four brilliantly creative practitioners assured us that the way we actually see theater is changing radically and yet -- despite the portals, possibilities and immersiveness, despite the entirely new level of text that technology can bring to a production (text that can run counter to or parallel with the script, pointed out Caridad Svich, whose House of the Spirits was seen in Denver last year), the actor remains central. Because, said Yale's Wendall K. Harrington, all theater rises from the ancient desire of humankind "to sit in the dark and hear a story."
Over the course of the weekend we sat in the dark and heard stories as different in tone, content and sensibility as could be imagined. Lloyd Suh's play, Great Wall Story, re-imagines a set of true events. In 1899, a trio of Denver journalists, after a few too many slow news days, concocted a hoax: all their papers would report that the Great Wall of China was being torn down. The deception was aided by the difficulties of communication in those days, and the immense public ignorance about China. But ultimately, the reporters' joke spiraled out of control on both the personal and the political level.
In Cecilia Marie, Octavio Solis takes the plot of his Lydia -- which premiered at the Denver Center in 2008 -- several steps further, exploring the future life of the brain-damaged protagonist's dancer brother in a text that's passionate, poetic and surreal. (After that production, two students brought to Denver by their playwriting professor commented huffily that they felt the play was a failure because of Solis's jagged, forceful language. I asked how they felt about Mamet.)
As you watched Buntport's workshop on Nikola Tesla, you heard the Yuogslavian inventor's voice through ear buds. It felt intimate and insinuating, almost as if your own brain had found a voice, though the device also distanced you a little from the rest of the action.
A completely different kind of bombshell came from Two Things You Don't Talk About at Dinner by Lisa Loomis. Here a conventional Jewish couple sits down for a Passover seder with several friends -- and one of them happens to be Palestinian. at the table, There are also a bulimic teenage girl and a Buddhist boy, an adult alcoholic, and an Evangelical Christian. If Solis's words and images rise from the depths of his soul, Loomer's come from somewhere more cerebral. Two Things represents the theater of ideas. Still, beneath the civilized dinner, the title's prohibition against discussing religion or politics, and the genuine warmth most of the participants feel toward each other, lie jagged rocks of prejudice, misunderstanding and rage.
By Saturday afternoon, my brain had pretty much snapped shut against the incessant waves of stimulus assaulting it -- but that's when the Summit unleashed Samuel D. Hunter's The Whale, a moving, troubling play about a man literally drowning in his own fat, the odd souls who try to help him, his painful love for the angry daughter he left behind when he left her mother and his attempts to connect the composition students he teaches online with the words they need to figure themselves out.
It's a cliche that theater is a collaborative art. Unlike poets and novelists, playwrights can only see their work fully realized through the voices and bodies of actors and the services of directors and technicians (and it must be said that the actors assembled for the weekend, both Denver regulars and those flown in from the Coasts, were first-rate). Watching a staged reading helps you understand how a script comes together. There's a stripped-down quality to the experience, and it's exciting, like figuring out the structure of a piece of music or watching a ballerina doing her exercises at the barre.
But for playwrights, the process is even more crucial, and for them the Denver Center has clearly become a cherished community, a place where they can see how the dialogue sounds, if the rhythms of a scene are right, how an audience reacts to events that hitherto existed only in their minds. For regional talents who haven't yet made it through the bottleneck of New York, this is a chance to find their audience. For at least some writers from the Coasts, the summit provides a more open and experimental milieu than they'd find at home.
Later this month, DCTC artistic director Kent Thompson will announce which plays will receive a full production, no doubt after balancing a dozen criteria in his mind. Will l Denver audiences go for this, let alone sponsors? How experimental can the company afford to be? How hard or easy would these actions be to stage? Whatever he decides, it's going to be an interesting season.