These playwrights are hoping to follow in the footsteps of ‘The Whale’ at the DCPA’s New Play Summit

Listen Now
4min 39sec
Courtesy Denver Center for the Performing Arts/Jamie Kraus
Playwright Sandy Rustin, center, looks on during a reading of her play, “The Suffragette’s Murder” at the DCPA Theater Company’s New Play Summit.

When “The Whale” took home two Oscars this week, viewers might be forgiven for thinking the movie got its start and finish in Hollywood. In reality, the film got its start in Denver, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company's annual New Play Summit.

Four playwrights are hoping their work follows in its footsteps, including one hometown writer.

Now in its 17th year, the Colorado New Play Summit is a working lab for playwrights to develop new work. ”The Whale,” by Samuel D. Hunter was featured at the summit in 2011 and had a world premiere in 2012 before winning two Oscars on Sunday. 

Denver School of the Arts graduate Jake Brasch’s "The Reservoir," is also set in Denver — his hometown.

“It's definitely, probably the most professional reading of a play I've done, if that makes sense,” said Brasch, who is the brother of CPR News reporter Sam Brasch. “And it means so much to me for it to be the company that, you know, I grew up at.”

Brasch also credits another Denver area theater for his development. When he was still in high school, he was part of the Curious Theater Company’s Curious New Voices program

Brasch describes “The Reservoir,” about alcoholism, Alzheimer's and the brain, as a “semi-autobiographical” work.

Courtesy Denver Center for the Performing Arts/Jamie Kraus
Playwright Jake Brasch, left, sits during a reading of his play, "The Reservoir," at the DCPA Theater Company's New Play Summit.

He says presenting this reading was an important step. 

“It's surreal, and it's terrifying,” Brasch said. “Terrifying in that it's a big part of my soul that's being bared to a lot of the people who were there when I was really going through it. It's a recovery play and it borrows a lot from my story and looking at the audience and seeing my whole family there. I was like, ‘This is landing.’ You know? And, I think the play really works, but I also feel like every time I watch it, I kind of relive that a little bit. And so it's always kind of a mixed bag afterwards.”

"Joan Dark," by Christina Pumariega, is about a Latina who wants to become a priest in the Catholic Church. She says being part of the Summit was a valuable experience for her as an artist.

“I got the resources to be able to focus on one play in person with a team in a room. I think especially [since] we're all just counting our blessings through this crazy time where we've been so polarized from the space that we hold together — this ancient art form where we're trying to create something new within it,” Pumariega said.

Pumariega said she feels like she has been crawling through a computer screen to make art over the last few years. “I have not slept very much this week. I've just been rewriting and rewriting and rewriting this play,” she said. “And our team has been incredible because they have just rolled with it in every, every, every sense of the word. “

Vincent Terrell Durham brought his play, ”Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids,” to the summit, and he was moved by the audience reaction.

“I feel full, you know, watching something that you've worked on come to fruition and hearing actors say the words that you've written and hearing the audience respond the way that you hope they respond,” Durham said.  

Courtesy Denver Center for the Performing Arts/Jamie Kraus
Playwright Christina Pumariega, right, looks over her script of "Joan Dark" at the DCPA Theater Company's New Play Summit.

Durham said the process at the summit is what he, as a writer, craves.

Only by being in the room with a director, a dramaturge, and a cast who are reading your play for the first time can the playwrights better explore their work, he said.  

“They really don't know what you wanted to say. So they pepper you with questions and you have to defend your play kind of.”

Playwright Sandy Rustin is no stranger to the “whodunit” genre: Her adaptation of the board game Clue is one of the most-produced plays of the 2022-23 season, and she brought her new play, "The Suffragette's Murder" to the Summit. It is set in a 19th-century boarding house that is secretly an underground women's rights activity hotspot, and itself unfolds like a whodunit.

Rustin said she was drawn to the Summit for its record of being a launching pad for new works and that for her play, it was important to get the cast up and moving when reading it instead of standing around at music stands. 

“I love to write comedy, and I like to write physical comedy,” Rustin said.  “So many of the questions that I have in this play are about how does the physicality couple with the dialogue, how does the style and tone of this sort of heightened comedic world that I want the play to live in, how does that balance with the tender topics that the show touches upon?”

Rustin said she needed the Summit in order to discover if it is possible to write a comedy about the subject matter.
Courtesy Denver Center for the Performing Arts/Jamie Kraus
Playwright Vincent Terrell Durham looks over his script of his play, ”Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids,” during the DCPA Theater Company's New Play Summit.

“I think after seeing the show in front of audiences twice now that the answer is yes,” Rustin said.

Denver native Jake Brasch also wanted to prove the comedy in his play. 

“There's nothing that I love more in the world than laughing at something that is just so painful and so true that there's nothing else to do about it,” Brasch said. “It's something that I'm thinking a lot about right now. How do we swallow the difficult things in life? And for me as a Jew, and as, like, someone who's been through a lot, I think in the recovery world, this is used so often. Humor as a coping mechanism is everything to me. So I'm glad that people are laughing because it's a comedy, right? It's about the folly of what it means to be going through something difficult, and everyone can relate to that.”

Before this year’s event closed, two plays that had previously been presented at the Colorado New Play Summit were selected for full productions. Kirsten Potter's "Rubicon" and Leonard Madrid's "Cebollas" will debut next season. Now these four playwrights hope to follow the same path.

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is a financial supporter of CPR News.