Prolific playwright Steven Dietz has many connections with Colorado. The most obvious is that he was born and raised in southwest Denver, attended John F. Kennedy High School and went to college at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
Without the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company, where Dietz directed in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there wouldn’t be What Happens Later. Co-written, directed by and starring Meg Ryan, the romantic comedy is a film adaptation of Dietz’s play Shooting Star.
“[The Denver Center Theater Company] commissioned Shooting Star, and did the very first reading of it as part of their new play program in 2008,” Dietz says.. The play ended up premiering in Austin, where Dietz now lives for half the year, spending the other half in Seattle.
The big-screen adaptation was retitled What Happens Later. It tells the story of Willa (Meg Ryan) and Bill (David Duchovny), two exes who bump into each other when their flights are diverted to an airport because of a blizzard. The pair spend the night catching up, butting heads and revealing whether or not they managed to achieve their dreams.
“[Ryan] really understood how magical and charged it is to be trapped with someone from your past. It’s surreal to reunite with someone who knew you so well. They knew your dreams and they’re still holding you to that. They’re rooting for you,” Dietz says. “She saw that the story is about the gulf between who we were and who we are now.””
‘A Denver boy at heart’
While Dietz’s dreams of becoming a playwright and working on the stage were established in Colorado, it was only after he moved to Minneapolis with a UNC degree in theater arts that he started to make huge strides in the profession. There he worked as a writer and director of new plays at The Playwrights’ Center and at various local theaters around the city.
Dietz was delighted that his works were soon picked up by theater companies across Denver, where he also soon began to work.
“You don’t want to disappoint your hometown. You want to do right by the place that made you,” he says. “I still have big ties to Denver. I’m there a couple of times a year. I have family members across the state. I’m a Denver boy at heart.”
Being from Colorado has had a major impact on Dietz’s voice as a writer, especially when compared to his peers from New York and Los Angeles. “Playwright buddies of mine that grew up on the East Coast have a certain edge and energy. West coast buddies have a laconic cool. I feel like I’m in the middle. I think there’s something open and optimistic about [my writing]. I’ve been both praised and accused of being an optimist.”
That hasn’t stopped Dietz from having a hugely impressive career as a playwright. He has repeatedly been listed by American Theater as one of the 20 most-produced playwrights in America. While the likes of Fiction, Trust, Lonely Planet and God’s Country might not have been produced on Broadway, Dietz’s reputation has instead been built up in regional theaters across the United States, in cities like Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and, of course, Denver.
Dietz is deeply grateful for “the commitment that regional theaters have made to [him] around the country.” He also believes that more emerging and aspiring playwrights should pay attention to those local opportunities.
“My career has been made by regional theaters. I can either be envious about [plays on Broadway], or I can do my work right. I don’t have any place to be envious, because I’ve had such good fortune,” he says. “I think early on, writers are going to try to gauge themselves on, ‘Well nothing’s happening to me on the coast.’ They should just do their work.”
While Dietz is the first to acknowledge that getting arts funding is becoming more and more difficult, especially after the pandemic, he knows more than most about the immense “artistic riches” that are available in smaller cities.
“I would just encourage my playwright comrades to be on the radar of their local theaters. I know there’s great writers there. I would encourage them to make use of the beautiful places where they live,” he says. “Because the people and audiences there are dynamic, highly educated and passionate. What stories haven’t been told there? What stories need to be told? You have to make your work where you are.”
ON SCREEN: What Happens Later is streaming now on Amazon Prime.