About 10,000 playwrights live and work in the country, but in the past 10 years, there have been an average of two new plays produced on Broadway each year, according to Jason Loewith, executive director of the National New Play Network. The task of finding new playwrights who are chronicling our time falls to smaller, mid-size theaters, and one of the leading lights in Colorado’s theater scene, a theater that has built its reputation on premiering new works, is Denver’s Curious Theatre Company.
“In our current economy, institutions are fleeing from the risk of new plays,” Loewith says. “That’s why the small to mid-size theaters that specialize in new plays are so essential to the health of the sector because they’re the only ones who are really doing it, who are investing in playwrights that are not already household names.”
The National New Play Network organizes rolling premieres, a series of three productions of a new play that puts it in front of three audiences and reviewers, in three communities, done by three groups of artists, helping to vet the play so that it might be picked up by a company as a solid work, rather than a risky endeavor.
In 28 rolling premieres coordinated by the NNPN, Curious, Colorado’s only NNPN member theater, has participated in eight, Loewith says.
“Part of the reason we started the company was we felt like there was an opportunity in the cultural community for doing both new work and work that has a fairly high degree of social relevance,” says Chip Walton, Curious Theatre Company’s artistic director and one of the company’s co-founders.
“We really try not to produce anything in Colorado that’s ever been produced before [here],” Walton says. “It’s just really exciting to me that we’re bringing all of these playwrights, the next generation of great American playwrights are being introduced to Denver audiences through the work that we’re doing.”
Their lineup for this, their 14th season, includes a Tony Award-winning play and a Pulitzer Prizewinning play.
In other words, they bring work you might otherwise have to go to New York City to see.
“Our mission is to engage our community in contemporary issues through modern theater,” says Christy Montour-Larson, who has been with the company for 11 years and directed nine productions. “We like to create a path for our audiences and our community to think deeper about the world we live in.”
Those world premieres, regional premieres and newer plays are “plays that ask questions about what does it mean to be a human being on this planet,” Montour-Larson says.
Their current production, American playwright Bill Cain’s 9 Circles, tells the story of Daniel Reeves, a soldier who served in the Iraq War and was put on trial for war crimes, accused of multiple killings and rape. For all the questions a play embattled with current events like that might raise, Curious hosts talkbacks after every show, giving audience members a chance to ask questions and converse with the artists.
“Theater is an art form that is all about the live community experience, which means that playwrights are in a unique position to enter into cultural conversation with communities in a way that other artists often are not,” Loewith says. “Great plays and playwrights are real chroniclers of our time, and they are vital to the cultural health of our communities and our nation.”
Curious Theatre is also one of the NNPN’s only members to host a playwright in residence three of the five years since that program’s launch.
Steve Moulds, this season’s playwright in residence, compares the time the residency provides to an island in the constant swim that is keeping a playwrighting career afloat, thereby keeping American theater relevant and fresh.
“I think we’re, right now in the United States, in a time period where a lot of things are getting kind of repurposed,” Moulds says. “All of our movies seem to be preexisting properties based on a book or based on an old board game or just musicals that are based on movies that are then made back into movies again. … I think it’s important to fund the playwrights and support the playwrights, because otherwise the content won’t get made.”
Curious has also fostered young playwrights through Curious New Voices, a teen writing program, and local voices through Denver Stories. And their $1.1 million budget was supplemented this year with the national “Think It” and “Do It” grants, which funded having two producers in residence, Montour- Larson and Karen Slack, to essentially be paid to be artists and represent the artists’ perspective in some of the other decisions driving the organization.
They’re re-imaging the model for artists in theaters, Walton says.
“These companies are ... giving a new generation of theatergoers an appreciation for risk and experimentation, and that’s what’s most exciting about a place like Curious,” Loewith says. “Chip hasn’t built an institution based on what’s the hottest play on Broadway and what star can I bring in to do it and what classic will interest the most people. He’s built an audience that is hungry for work that they’ve never heard of by playwrights they’ve not yet become familiar with, in many cases, and that’s exciting.”
ON THE BILL: 9 Circles plays at the Curious Theatre Company through Feb. 18. Tickets start at $18. 1080 Acoma St., Denver. For more information call 303- 623-0524 or visit www.curioustheatre.org.