Storytelling takes the stage

Local Lab pares down the spectacle to let the raw, experimental core of theater shine through


Theater, at its core, is storytelling. It’s a gathering together to hear another’s life story, to see ourselves in those stories in ways that make our own stories make a little more sense and to experience that catharsis as part of an audience. At Local Lab, the three-day festival of new plays, the experience is stripped back to just the stories. Actors read from scripts still in hand. Playwrights take chances and venture experiments they wouldn’t in the presence of New York City’s daunting theater scene.

“The live experience of telling stories as a culture is something that we have been doing from the beginning of time, and at a fundamental level I think it’s the way stories are most effective, that it’s most impressionable in our minds and on our psyche to tell these stories live together among each other,” says Pesha Rudnick, artistic director of Local Theater Company.

Local Lab preserves that tradition of telling stories together, while also working to demystify the process of what happens to bring those stories to the stage.

“We decided to kind of pull back the curtain of what happens leading up to a full production and took this idea that great storytelling is at the heart of great theater, and that it would be fun to pull the spectacle away from a play and hear it with the audience in a supportive environment,” Rudnick says. “We have a hipper scene in the Lab, but that’s really what the Lab is about, stripping down and telling stories together.”

That festival sprang from the initial production for the theater company, which launched three and a half years ago with John Lithgow’s Stories by Heart. Lithgow’s pared-down play centers on the act of telling stories, and it provoked conversations among Local Theater Company members about how that action of telling and listening to stories is at the heart of all great theater. Local Lab evolved as an extension of those ideas.

Play submissions are taken from any Colorado writer and by solicitation only for out-of-state writers.

“The locavore movement has spread into the arts as well, so a lot of funders want to support entirely locally grown efforts, which I can totally appreciate that, but I also think it’s important for us to be exposed to a Korean-American play,” says Mare Trevathan, associate artistic director for Local Theater Company and director of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo — a Korean-American play. In it, Dr. Hannah Lee reunites with her family in Seoul for the first time in 20 years after her grandmother commits suicide in a way that lands her on the wrong side of the DMZ, leaving her family to struggle with how to retrieve grandma’s body.

Every play submitted to Local gets read all the way through and scored and assessed in one to two pages of responses on what’s working and what isn’t, the theme, the genre. Enough points and it moves on to the next reader — that first round usually pares from more than a hundred to roughly three dozen. Eventually, the four local company members sit down and argue on behalf of their favorites. Three will be given staged readings during the festival.

Rudnick cites a few rubrics she looks to — perhaps a sense of urgency, a visual or spectacle element, elevated language that is also used with economy, characters that are out of the ordinary or have, on this particular day, chosen to do something out of the ordinary. And does the play make a promise within the first 15 pages or so?

“If it doesn’t, the Lab is the perfect place to say, ‘OK, this playwright is breaking the rule, let’s see if it works in this context,’” she says. “It rarely works to get 15 to 20 minutes into a show and not kind of know what the thrust of the play is.”

They’ve discovered one thing about new play development: There always has to be a party. The conversations provoked by those works demand a get-together at their conclusion, so Local Lab includes social events daily throughout the festival. Noticing that their audiences tend to be filled with writers and storytellers, this year, they’re expanding the programming to include an opportunity for attendees to write their own work.

“As much as we’re receiving stories, there’s a part that also wants to tell stories,” Rudnick says.

Post-show discussions at the Local Lab are up-ended — it’s a bevy of questions, but from the playwrights to the audiences. The idea was to have a symbiotic exchange: audiences help with new plays and get to be a part of that development, playwrights learn and Local screens new plays for development in subsequent seasons. Talk-backs discussed the themes of the play, characters, images that stuck. Jill Rafson, director of new play development for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, the largest nonprofit theater company in America, leads those conversations.

“She’s able to have these really skill ful post-show discussions where I think a lot of talk-backs kind of devolve into ‘How did you learn all those lines?’ which I actually think is a totally fair question, however, it doesn’t really expand an audience’s experience of the work and certainly with a new play, festival audience feedback comes in at a critical and powerful juncture for the playwright,” Trevathan says. “Whether [playwrights] decide to act on people’s reactions to it or not, it’s helpful to know what’s actually being inspired in people. Jill’s able to get at that in a way that’s safe for the playwright, because it’s a very vulnerable position.”

As in, it would be easy to get insulted, like with the answers to questions like this next one.

“The most important question we ask after every Lab is whether there was a point in the reading that the audience tuned out or felt sort of bored for lack of a better word,” Rudnick says.

Then they turn back a couple pages in the script and look for when the story went astray.

“We really try to lay the foundation of helping them understand that it is indeed a Lab, and this is the chance to try the thing that you’re scared of trying in a production,” Rudnick says.

During the 2014 Lab, Kyle Warren decided to rewrite his entire second act between the day of rehearsals and the day of performance to try something he’d been unwilling to attempt during a reading in New York — with all the literati and critics there to see.

“It worked and it went over very well. And he officially changed the second act of his play,” Rudnick says.

“Theater is such a living, breathing organism of an event that you never know how a particular audience in a particular place will respond to a play,” Brian Watkins, writer of Wyoming, said in emailed comments. “I think play development and readings and workshops all serve as different test kitchens for a playwright. They allow you to get to the core ingredients of the play, to see what fits and what doesn’t. The reading is another chance to take a few risks and try some things out that could breathe new life into the play that I’m not aware of or identify problems I’m not keen to.”

Wyoming, which tells the story of a family’s response after an estranged brother is spotted in a town diner after 20 years, will be one of three plays given staged readings during Local Lab. For Watkins, taking his new play out for a test drive here has much to do with the sense of place itself.

“There are artists in Colorado that have a firsthand knowledge of the land and culture this play occupies. It’s the perfect crucible to test the mettle of the thing,” he said via emailed comments. “The play is really about the elusiveness of memory and the stakes that it holds in our relationship to history, specifically family history. I think this is directly affected by the land our family occupies, and I wanted to write something that contrasted the permanence of that land with the temporality of its inhabitants.”

Watkins grew up in Colorado, watching shows at the Denver Center.

“The West is a former home that’s left me moonstruck since I left it. There is something about leaving the place where you grew up that helps you finally gain scope as a writer,” he writes. “The breadth and expanse of the land itself is somehow rife with myth and as a storyteller that’s endlessly compelling, particularly because it’s personal, it’s where I grew up. Every one of my plays has a core that explores how and why the land we live on shapes us.

“I don’t think this is a narrative that we can get away from as Americans, and the West in particular epitomizes this. It’s built on these tones of ambition that are at once territorial and transient, and from that you can find these characters that are all impulse and action, which I find a lot of myself in too. I think that’s part of why I’m compelled to write about it: It’s trying to figure out where I came from, and exploring how the West came to capture the sort of inner wanderlust I know so well myself.”

It is, in other words, a little bit a story about himself. And need for storytelling that reflects who we are now is still a driving force in the push to create new plays.

“Our canon here, it’s mostly dead white men, and when it’s not dead white men it’s dead white women. We are not representative in the theater yet, we’re totally gaining on it, but we’re not yet representative,” Trevathan says. “It’s like saying, I have not had the burden of being a feminist because of the generations before me, and yet we have not had a female president. It’s like, yes there’s a whole lot of activity now that is more diverse, but what’s actually entrenched is a very narrow slice of the American experience.”

Trevathan says it’s always struck her as a funny thing that we ask, why new plays?

“This is one of the sole areas of human creativity that that question is asked repeatedly of, why new, why new? We don’t ask that of film and TV and movies and any other narrative art form that question isn’t asked, so I’m not sure why we ask it of plays,” she says.

It has a reputation for perhaps not being as populist as some of its counterparts, she concedes, but then again, looking at some of the work coming from new companies like Buntport in Denver, there is some very funny, very accessible work out there.

“But I think bad theater is so painful and claustrophobic,” she says. “You feel like you’re not sure how you have to behave … and that’s our industry’s fault of not letting the audience members know just what their role is or bending our role for the audience so it is more comfortable and accessible.”

That’s been part of the motivation in drawing back the curtain a bit. They’ve even recently led salons exploring Aristotle’s six filters for drama — plot, character, thought, diction, music and spectacle.

“It is useful to have some sort of filter by which to look at something more abstract or cerebral. For the comfort zone of an audience, to feel like they can articulate what they didn’t like about it,” Trevathan says. “I think it’s like visual art that there are going to be pieces you respond to and you don’t and it can be handy to be able to say what specifically you like and you don’t, but that’s really just about our comfort level as human beings, feeling as if we’re smart and capable, it’s also totally fine for things to just be like, ‘Nah, but there was this one thing it made me think of….’ Not everything is for everybody, but we are trying to give people ways to look at it.”

Of course, part of the challenge with a new play is that, sure it may not be for everybody, but the somebodys it is for may not know that, this being a new, unfamiliar work. Ticket sales are far from guaranteed.

“I totally understand why so many companies gravitate to works that are proven already, because it’s expensive, obviously, to put on a play of any kind if you’re paying folks to do it and stories that have been proven, or at least workshopped over and over again, kind of work. They’re much less of a risk,” Rudnick says. “There are plenty of times where I’ve thought, ‘Gosh, why can’t we just do Death of a Salesman?’ But you know, Death of a Salesman was a new play and so was Streetcar [Named Desire] and I think in terms of the investment, which is a funny word to use in the context of art, I feel like it’s exciting and it’s risktaking to invest in this generation of writers because I do feel like there are a few stories that are told over and over again, but I think I’m interested in the voices of right now and the writers of right now.

“I think it’s hard to get companies to commit to valuing those voices and knowing that it takes years to cultivate a voice. It’s different from Moby Dick, from a writer sitting in his room and writing for 10 years. For playwrights, they really need an audience every six to eight months to hear what they’re working on, and so I feel like it’s our way of participating in the process of new American plays and creating a canon that’s from our generation, or of our generation.”

Watkins and his fellow playwrights at this year’s Lab will be added to the list of playwrights with whom Local maintains a relationship.

“All the playwrights who have now spent a long weekend with us in Boulder have become sort of part of our world, and we share new plays with each other, we introduce each other to other playwrights,” Rudnick says. “They have place, all nine of them at this point, that if they have a play that they’re in the scary phase, the vulnerable phase of ‘I just need an audience at this point because I have no idea what I’m doing,’ Local is here to provide that environment and pull actors together for them.”

Local has also decided to do a full production of James McLindon’s play Faith, which was in the 2014 Lab.

Local is not alone in its support of new play development. The Catamounts and Boulder Ensemble Theater Company are both in or about to start runs of regional premieres, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney for Catamounts and Stupid F##king Bird for BETC.

“It’s an exciting theater scene in Boulder because there are so many people doing new work,” says Emily Harrison, producing artistic director of Square Product Theatre, which focuses on regional and world premieres. They recently opened with the world premiere of Ham McBeth, a loose, “off-the-rails” adaptation of Macbeth.

The Boulder Fringe Festival takes a little credit for building up an audience in town willing to come and see new and untested work. That festival is back this year under promising new leadership.

“I think there is a pioneering spirit here, and it’s a little corny to say but we see it in business, we see it with entrepreneurship, there’s a risk-taking part of our culture here that really supports new work,” Rudnick says. “One of the things I wish they knew and I hope, I think we’re able to illustrate it during the Lab, is they are very much a part of any play’s growth and success on any given night.

“We talk a lot about this sort of idea that we’re Local Theater Company and the ‘local’ part of our company actually refers to our audience, all theater is local, on a performance level, we create a community based on whoever shows up that day, and this idea that theater is not theater unless there’s an audience there, that’s what makes it unique from all the other forms.”

In other words, come in, sit down, and listen to a few stories.