He spent more than 15 years in the theater, but a painful diagnosis motivated Jeffrey Neuman to follow his dream of playwriting.
Neuman spent many years working as a dramaturg for other playwrights but didn't pursue his dream of writing his own plays, partly because he didn’t think he had the time or resources. But it was more than that, he says.
“I didn't have the trust in my own voice at that time, which was the biggest issue,” Neuman said.
About the same time he took steps toward writing his own plays, he was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss.
“I'm legally deaf, and I really had kind of a now-or-never moment with myself where I realized, if I don't know where my hearing is going to land, I don't know if it will disappear completely one day,” Neuman said. “So, I felt like the clock was ticking in a way that had never been in my life before, and it really lit the fire under me to take the plunge and trust myself in ways that I never had before.”
Neuman says that helped him prioritize putting the resources in place to follow his heart. ”And playwriting is what felt like my calling,“ said Neuman.
Following his calling has been paying off, and now he will have three very different plays produced this season — by three very different theater companies here in Colorado.
“The Headliners,” the first of those plays, will show at the Cherry Creek Theater. The work was developed at the Denver Center’s inaugural playwrights Group in 2019–2020.
Artistic producer Susie Snodgrass says her company decided to develop Colorado playwrights starting in 2019. After a workshop with the company, Snodgrass recognized Neuman’s play was a good fit for the Cherry Creek Theater.
“I would say the way in which he not only presents these real-life characters, but it's told with such compassion and heart, it's almost like they're alive today.” said Snodgrass. “And some would say, well, they are; there are people out there that are doing exactly what these two stars used to do on the stage and off stage.”
“The Headliners” tells the story of two premier celebrities in vaudeville who defied conventions on stage and off.
“And he really delves into their characters and the relationship that they had together saying, ‘Let's explore what unconventionality really means regarding gender and sexuality,’” Snodgrass said. “And to me, that's just … it starts a conversation. And I'm hoping that as folks leave the theater, they will continue the conversation.They will continue to want to delve deep into what's happening today. They will see the humanity of these two people and maybe come away with a little more compassion towards those that are going through the same thing today.”
In June, The Catamounts will produce their second commission with Neuman, his play “Pride of the Farm.” Artistic director Amanda Berg Wilson sees this as a sign of strength for the entire theater community in Colorado.
“I have for a long time felt like we will really have arrived as a regional theater producing spot of importance when we not only have a whole crop of really wonderful, talented actors and directors and producers, but also playwrights,” Wilson said. “That three very established, though small companies, are willing to do whole productions around a local playwright, I think that's not only a testimony to Jeff, but also to this ecosystem that we've all been working really hard on, on making [theater] better and more fertile. “
Benchmark Theater has made a reputation for making bold choices while providing an artistic outlet for a variety of Colorado artists. They will produce Neuman’s third show of the season, in December.
Executive director Haley Johnson said they are thrilled to be able to bring Neuman’s work, the in-progress “The Road to Lethe.” .
“It was in response to the events from 2020 and after. It's in response to the death of George Floyd, the radical change that the country was seeing over the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “It's sort of an exploration of systemic racism, of white saviorism, through a slightly distorted Greek mythological mirror which gives it a little bit of haunting poetry to it.”
Neuman wrote all three pieces, yes, but when it comes to producing the stage versions, he said he avoids attending rehearsals once the script is in its final stages.
“What I always tell the production team is I am always available to and for you, but rehearsals are such a truncated process. It usually is, ready, set, go,” Neuman said. “They have to leap and land, and I don't wanna do anything that would impact them from sticking the landing.”
Neuman said he is amazed by the opportunities he is being given now.
“I really am living in a space of complete gratitude right now,” Neuman said. “I didn't expect any of this. You hope for it, but you never expect it.”
He also said he is the most proud of the trust the theaters place in him.
“I believe in trust, and I don't think they'll be failures, or I do think that all of them will be successes because I trust all three companies,” he said. “But the reason that I'm in such a place of gratitude is … all three production opportunities I've been given have come from relationship building.”
Neuman said playwrights often just jump through submission hoops and send things out into the great unknown without knowing what will happen.
“And nine times out of 10, we don't hear back even whether or not a script's been received, let alone considered,” Neuman said. “As a playwright, we’re often considered the least important person at the table and sometimes not even invited to the table. So the fact that three companies that I greatly admire have invited me to the table, that means more to me than anything.”
Even with three productions coming this year, Neuman said he lives in a state of complete imposter syndrome. “I'm always waiting to be figured out for the failure I think I am. So, to have three different companies all investing in three very different works in one year is just unbelievable to me,” Neuman said. “I've always been instilled with the idea that you can't get to a yes unless you open yourself up to a no. So I think that really is kind of the drive. Like, first of all, I think I'm a failure anyway, so there's nothing to lose in some ways, if I don't succeed, I've basically improved myself. And if I do succeed, what a wonderful surprise. Until they take it away from me.”
The first of Jeffrey Neuman’s three plays this year, “The Headliners,” plays at the Cherry Creek Theater May 5-21 at Mizel Arts and Culture Center in Denver.
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