Art News

A Place of Their Own: Denver Playwrights Find a Home at Theater 29

Lisa Wagner Erickson
Left to right: Nicole Campbell, Gina Wencel and Marcus Turner.
There’s nothing as sad for a playwright as a manuscript consigned for years to a drawer, says Denver author Ellen K. Graham.

"Plays are meant to be performed in three-dimensional space with actors; an unread play doesn’t represent what the art form is intended to be," she adds. "In that respect, a play is more like dance than a poem. Also, you don’t know if it’s even beginning to work until the production process. It’s while rehearsing that you do the most meaningful kinds of edits.”

Because the Denver area lacks many opportunities for production, some theater people have formed collaborative groups, working with each other and sometimes artists in other disciplines to create and present work. And now there’s a brand-new home for them.

Lisa Wagner Erickson, herself a writer and actor, has put her own money into Theater 29, a space where such groups can fund and produce their own show — whether the productions are triumphs or failures.

The theater is at 5138 West 29th Street in the Sloan’s Lake/Edgewater neighborhood. It’s “an extremely functional black box space,” says Graham, “a very small, thirty-seat house, but state-of-the-art and beautiful, with new LED lights, heating and air conditioning — very thoughtfully put together. There’s a full rehearsal space in the basement, and dressing rooms. The stage is a series of black platforms that can be configured how you want. It’s very flexible.” The theater will host four or five plays a year.

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Theater 29
Lisa Wagner Erickson
The first, Feral Assembly Theatre Company and Chase and Be Still’s Burnt Offering, by Dakota C. Hill, opens May 17 and runs through May 26. Hill and Graham are producing the play's world premiere, and Hart DeRose is directing it.

It’s “important to be risky when it comes to theater,” Hill says, “and that’s what we’re doing, using a new space, showing plays people have never seen by playwrights they don’t know about. A place like Theater 29 gives the storyteller somewhere to tell their story, brings that stack of paper that is so very important to us to fruition. I love that this is a very intimate house. I want the audience to feel they’re in the room with these characters. Good theater is a fifty-fifty between what’s happening on the stage and what’s happening in the audience.”

Hill wrote Burnt Offering a couple of years ago, then set it aside. “I recently finally finished it, and it became the exact play I wanted. It’s about a poor family in West Texas, and the son has a skin disorder; a large part of his body is covered in dark birthmarks. The matriarch is titled Mother; she has a form of Alzheimer's, and the family can’t really put a name to it. They just think she’s crazy. The place is run by the older sister. A doctor is coming to visit, and we’re really not sure of the reasons why. After he arrives, it’s very clear that he’s not there to fix the son’s skin; he has more than one intention. He’s going to pay this family a large sum for the son to come live with him, be his friend and companion. The rest of the play is about the son figuring whether it’s best to leave with him or stay. He’s living with a sibling who would basically sell him.”

Hill says the piece explores the theme of “having the courage of your own convictions, being who you are, the good and the bad.”

As for Erickson, “I’m in awe that there’s a person so generous, and that I was so lucky to run into her,” Hill says.

Graham grew up here, and remembers the ebb and flow of opportunities over the years. When she returned to Denver after college, there were “a lot of small, scrappy possibilities — the Changing Scene, Industrial Arts, Hunger Artists, the LIDA Project" — and the scene was smaller and less competitive. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts had a thriving Playwrights Unit, now gone, that worked with such talents as Terry Dodd, Molly Newman and Frank Hogan. Graham has had plays produced at the Edge Theater and the now-defunct Paragon. These days, she finds that “as opposed to sending a script in with a cover letter” and hoping to be chosen, “the greatest opportunities are working with people I’ve known for years and helping them fulfill a particular vision. Dakota had a beautiful finished play, and nobody put any parameters on him while he was writing. Plays like that, it’s hard to know what to do with in Denver now. There’s an incredible wealth of talent here, but having your singular vision realized is hard.

“It is really important that we support the trend toward de-stigmatizing mounting your own work," she continues. "The more we do that, the more people will stop seeing the line between local and national. You’re just sitting in the dark and listening to a story, and it doesn’t matter how the story got there.”

“Theater 29 is a contribution to a movement already in motion with theater companies and collectives established and run by playwrights,” says Erickson. “Denver's landscape includes Dirty Fish Theater (I'm a member), Feral Assembly, Rough Draught Playwrights, Pandemic Collective and the newly formed Chase and Be Still Stage. My contribution is to provide Colorado-based companies and collectives an artistic home.

“It can be hard, scary and frustrating work, but who better to get things done?” she says. “Who better than the playwrights who know what they want to see on stage, who deserve to implement the vision for their work? Who better than us? No one.”

Burnt Offering, presented by Feral Assembly Theatre Company and Chase and Be Still at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 17, through Saturday, May 26 (no show May 20), at Theater 29, 5138 West 29th Avenue, $18.