Colorado dramatists adopt DIY approach to producing plays

Listen Now
5min 22sec

Photo: DIY playwrightsDespite there being about 120 theater organizations in Colorado, playwrights here say it’s still hard to find a company to put on their work.

To get their plays on a Colorado stage, these writers are taking matters into their own hands.

Mark Sbani is a Denver theater producer helping Colorado dramatists achieve their goal of seeing their plays come to life.

Sbani spearheaded the first-ever “Blame the Playmakers” event at Crossroads Theater, a staged reading series that features six one-act plays by Denver writers.

Led by Sbani, playwrights take a do-it-yourself approach -- they find directors and cast members and promote the event without the assistance of a theater company.

Sbani says self-production is often the only choice these dramatists have.

“You’re gonna be waiting forever if you wait for a theater to contact you to put on your play,” Sbani says. “They all pay lip service to it, but they don’t do anything.”

Sbani put up $400 to rent the space for “Blame the Playmakers."

Carrie Printz is presenting her one-act “The Reading” as part of the event.

Last December, Printz's play “Gifted” received a professional staging after it won a new play competition at Lakewood’s Edge Theater. The production was well-received and eight of the 12 nights sold out. Yet, nine months later, the playwright is developing her latest project independently.

Like her peers, Printz is learning that being a playwright can mean going well beyond putting words to a page.

“That adds a whole other layer of work that many of us are not trained in,” Printz says. “But we are learning how to do it in order to get our work out there.”

Playwrights producing their own work is not a new concept. But it seems to be a growing trend, according to Emily Morse, the artistic director at New Dramatists, a New York-based organization serving playwrights nationwide.

“More and more people are looking to that for the opportunities to continue making their art,” Morse says. “It’s just sort of more nimble and more direct.”

It’s hard to know exactly how many new plays are developed both within Colorado and nationwide because few organizations track that data.

The classics sell tickets

In Colorado, as elsewhere, classics and musicals dominate theater programming. For example, there have been seven productions of the hit Monty Python musical “Spamalot” in Colorado since last year.

Warren Sherrill, who co-founded Denver’s Paragon Theater Company, says this is due to a priority on filling seats.

“It’s really easy to fall into the whole idea of, 'well let’s do a play because the audience will love it; let’s do a play because we know the audience knows the play,'” Sherrill says.

When Sherrill started Paragon in 2000, he wanted to give Colorado talent a shot. The company started producing one homegrown play every other season.

“We were meeting a lot of local playwrights and we thought: ‘How can we do something to kind of help that community?’” Sherrill adds.

But Paragon couldn’t stay afloat and closed two years ago.

New and local a rare feat

At the other end of the scale, bigger companies like the Denver Center Theatre Company and Curious Theatre Company regularly produce new plays.

The Denver Center’s annual “New Play Summit” is getting more national attention, as is Curious Theatre’s program for teen playwrights called “Curious New Voices.”

But both companies admit that few of the plays they fully produce are by Colorado talent.

“Well it hasn’t happened since I’ve been here,” the Denver Center’s literary manager Doug Langworthy says. “I know that we’ve done plays about Colorado. But I can’t think of a local playwright whose play we’ve produced.”

The company hasn’t produced a drama by a Colorado writer for 14 years.

However, the organization intends to expand its “New Play Summit” in 2015 and Langworthy says the staff is considering how to further involve local playwrights.

The regional theater company also accepts unsolicited scripts from writers in the Rocky Mountain region year round.

Over the past five years, the Denver Center has commission three works by Colorado playwrights, including a reading of Steven Cole Hughes’ "Intrusives" in 2009, "An Extraordinary Demonstration of Nikola Tesla’s Most Recent Example" by Buntport Theater Company in 2011 and Idris Goodwin's "Victory Jones and the Incredible One-Woman Band" at the institution's 2014 New Plays Summit.

Curious Theatre has also produced some work by Colorado writers.

In January 2010, the Denver-based company mounted “Home By Dark” by Denver playwright Terry Dodd. And, this season, Curious Theatre is mounting two productions written by Colorado native Martin Moran -- though Moran made his career as an actor on Broadway and is still based in New York City.

Curious Theatre artistic director Chip Walton considers a writer’s homebase to have little bearing on his programming decisions.

“We’re really looking for the best plays we can find no matter where the writers are from,” Walton says.

More opportunities on smaller stages

However, at the grassroots level, there are signs that the landscape for Colorado playwrights might be shifting.

Smaller companies, such as Denver’s Rough Draught Playwrights, are giving local playwrights more stage time. R0ugh Draught invites writers and actors to gather monthly to read scenes and workshop their plays in front of an audience.

Angela Astle is also part of the effort to shine a spotlight on Colorado playwriting talent.

Astle is the founder of the Athena Project, an annual festival focused on developing works by female artists. She also directs new play development at both the Edge and Aurora Fox theaters with the aim of incorporating more Colorado productions.

“In order to attract new audiences to theater, we have to be telling stories that are current and relevant to what’s going on in our world,” Astle says.

The Edge is about to mount the world premiere of a commissioned piece called “The Familiars” by Denver’s Ellen K. Graham.

Graham, who is receiving professional productions of her work, is also embracing the do-it-yourself model.

The dramatist is currently producing her play called “The Night Season” in Denver.

“There is still kind of a stigma on self-producing,” Graham says. “I think it’s more about me personally as an artist and just wanting to say something.”

Graham expects to break even on her $1,100 budget. But she says the biggest reward is seeing her play, which she drafted back in 1999, finally come to fruition.

Upcoming productions by Colorado dramatists include:

“Dylan Goes Electric”
Miner’s Alley Playhouse in Golden
Sept. 12 to Oct. 19

“All the Rage”
Curious Theater Company
Written & performed by Martin Moran
Sept. 6 to Oct. 5

“The Tricky Part”
Curious Theater Company
Written & performed by Martin Moran
Sept. 10, 20, 27, Oct. 2 & 5

“Naughty Bits”
Buntport Theater
Sept. 12 to Oct. 4

"The LA Diner"
The Wit Theater Company at Denver Crossroads Theater
Sept. 19, 20, 26 & 27

A staged reading
Sept. 25 at Irving Street Women’s Residence
Sept. 26 at St. Barnabas Church in Denver

“Happiness is a Warm Gun”
The Lida Project
Oct. 10 to Dec. 15

”The Familiars” by Ellen K. Graham
The Edge Theater Company
Dec. 5 to 31