Curtain raiser

17th annual New Play Summit presents readings of original works by emerging playwrights

Credit: Michael Martin

New work has always been the backbone of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA). The company has produced hundreds of world premieres and readings of new plays since its founding in 1972. This enables the nonprofit organization to diversify its play selection each season and cultivate fruitful relationships with playwrights, as evidenced by the annual New Play Summit making its return to downtown Denver Feb. 25 and Feb. 26. 

“The new play development process has been something the DCPA has been committed to since day one,” says Grady Soapes, artistic producer and director of casting. “Now, we are at a place [with the New Play Summit] where we are selling out all the tickets because so many people are coming. It is one of the best-attended new play festivals in the nation and a destination for artists to work because of the quality of plays that come out of the DCPA.” 

The New Play Summit, which launched in 2005, invites audiences to live performances of play readings by emerging authors. After listening to the shows, attendees can provide notes to the playwrights, ask questions about the plot and offer suggestions. 

“We are always thinking about how the play will resonate with our community and our DCPA audience,” Soapes says. “Every play we select for the Summit we are genuinely interested in seeing fully produced, whether it happens here or not.” 

For the 2023 Summit, the DCPA has selected: the reservoir by Jake Brasch; Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids by Vincent Terrell Durham; The Suffragette’s Murder by Sandy Rustin; and Joan Dark by Christina Pumariega. The playwrights are from all over the country and were chosen after a thorough search by the DCPA’s Theatre Company artistic team. 

“Development is pretty much ongoing,” says LeeAn Kim Torske, director of literary programming at the DCPA. “We read hundreds of scripts before settling on the four that will be shown at the Summit. As we are narrowing down the list, we are looking at what a play might need, as well as choosing a variety of styles and voices that the DCPA is interested in highlighting.” 

In the wings

Brasch’s play, the reservoir, is an autobiographical narrative of their experience returning home to get sober while their grandparents deal with cognitive decline. It’s a deeply personal show that mirrors Brasch’s battle with addiction while incorporating their distinctly Jewish sense of humor. 

“I’m a Denver native who grew up around the Summit and was raised on theater at the DCPA,” Brasch says. “I can’t imagine a better home for this play than the New Play Summit. This is a Colorado play about Colorado people, and I’m so happy one of my first pretty big professional opportunities is happening here.” 

Set nearly 2,000 miles east of Brasch’s localized offering, Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids examines political divisions at a dinner party hosted by a wealthy white couple in a newly renovated Harlem brownstone. Durham’s piece is filled with timely and brutally honest conversations about race and class in America. 

Turning the clock back to the 19th century, Rustin’s entry in the Summit is The Suffragette’s Murder, a hilarious whodunnit set in 1857 at a boarding house on New York’s Lower East Side. When a tenant is murdered, the residents have to band together to keep the constable from finding out about the house’s involvement in the suffragette movement. 

Rounding out these disparate offerings is Joan Dark, which follows a young Latina who longs to become a Catholic priest. Pumariega, an actor-turned-playwright, was supposed to act in the Summit before the pandemic but had to decline the role, so she is excited to get to participate in the festival this year. 

“I knew I wanted to be a part of this because Sam Hunter, Matthew Lopez and all these literary heroes I admired had honed their voices here,” she says. “I started writing right before the pandemic, so this will be the first time my work is heard live in a theater other than virtually. I am incredibly grateful to the DCPA for championing the play.” 

In addition to the play readings, the DCPA’s Theatre Company presents two fully produced shows, including the 2020 Colorado New Play Summit audience favorite, Hotter Than Egypt, and the world premiere of Laughs in Spanish. And, after witnessing the pieces, attendees will be able to talk with the creative teams at exclusive special events like the Playwrights’ Slam and Summit Wrap Party.

Playwrights are currently at work with dramaturgs, actors and production teams, putting the finishing touches on their plays before audiences see them at the Summit. 

“The fun thing for audiences is that since the plays are in development, they might be ones that you’ll later see get a world premiere,” Torske says. “And the festival doesn’t end at the end of the weekend; the writers can take the feedback they get from the audience members and go rewrite it again. This is people’s chance to see plays before they become huge, because plays that come out of the New Play Summit are produced all over the nation.” 

ON STAGE: Colorado New Play Summit, featuring plays by Jake Brasch, Vincent Terrell Durham, Sandy Rustin and Christina Pumariega. Feb. 25–26, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver. Prices vary.