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New York Theatre: Plays Well With Others

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The trouble with inspiration is that it is so ... inspiring. It's what I set out in search of when I set the wheels in motion for an autumn trip to Manhattan. I coordinated my outfits, my schedule, and sussed out what was happening in Midtown in mid-September for a week of work and play. What I found was an undeniable theme running through the New York/ new play scene: a place called Denver.

As the storm of Occupy Wall Street gathered, I occupied myself with the links in the New York/Denver connection; Playwrights Week at The Lark, Motherhood Out Loud at Primary Stages, and a reading of my own play, (w)hole, at The Abingdon Theatre, which came about through the Telluride Playwrights Festival where I'd met Abingdon Artistic Director, Jan Buttram.

Channeling my inner Columbo, I donned my trench coat and headed uptown to the Algonquin for tea and a sit-down with playwright Lloyd Suh.

TS: Your play, Great Wall Story, was read in the 2011 Colorado New Play Summit and premieres in March at the Denver Center Theatre. How'd that happen?

LS: I met Doug Langworthy when he was at the McCarter. We'd been talking about another play of mine before he became Literary Manager at the Denver Center. I happened to have this play that was set in Denver, so I passed it along to him.

TS: Do you think living in NY is important for a playwright?

LS: I know a lot of writers who live in NY, and a lot who don't, and there are challenges and advantages to both. There is a greater pool of resources for playwrights and a great community here that doesn't exist in the same way in other cities, especially of Asian American theater artists, which is valuable to me. The trade-off is that the cost of living is also much higher. Ultimately, it is important to surround yourself with people that you trust and love and want to work with. For me, being in New York is important because it's where my community is, but for any writer, it's a matter of figuring out where that is -- New York, Denver or somewhere else.

TS: Tell me about The Lark and Playwright's Week.

LS: The Lark is a resource center for playwrights at any stage in their career, at any point in their process, through programs for the development of new plays. I've been working there since January as the Director of Onsite Programs, which means I facilitate and manage a variety of these programs, including Playwrights' Week. Great Wall Story was initially developed in a Lark program, the Winter Writers Retreat, which is designed to support writers through a really novel approach. They bring a diverse range of writers, all at different career stages, into a room and offer them the resources to write and create a conversation about the work in an environment where nobody tells them what to do.

Playwrights' Week is one of the largest programs at The Lark, and known for being a true open access point. New plays can be submitted by anyone, from anywhere, without an agent. It's an annual event where 7-10 new plays are selected, given 10 hours of rehearsal and a public staged reading. What I love is that the goal or "product" of the week isn't about showcasing or presenting the work as any kind of "finished" product to be judged. Because The Lark isn't a producing organization, writers don't feel the pressure to address everything about the play or to create a "finished" draft, but are encouraged to use the opportunity to focus on very specific goals. Even the public presentations are not described as a showcase, but more of an open rehearsal where a writer can learn how the play lands with an audience.

TS: How do places like The Lark and the Denver Center make life easier?

LS: What they offer is a chance to work, which isn't always easy, and there's a spirit of healthy obligation and responsibility connected to that work. I've been blessed to be able to work with some extraordinary companies, including the Lark and the DCTC. What makes these places so vital is that they empower artists to really be proactive and take responsibility for their work. There are serious expectations tied to that and it's important to be able to embrace them. So ... while it doesn't necessarily make life easier, it certainly makes it more fulfilling.

As for my Great Wall experience at the New Play Summit, I was blown away. I couldn't believe such a large, generous, engaged and knowledgeable audience would come to a reading of a new play by a writer they'd never heard of on a Friday afternoon in February. And because the play is set in a specific period of Denver history, it was incredibly valuable to hear the differences in local reaction -- certain jokes suddenly became funny in new ways, and certain themes landed more substantially. I was impressed by how much public art there is in LoDo. I'm a huge fan of that bear peering into the window, kind of obsessed with it. I may write a play about that crazy thing. There is a great commitment to the arts in Denver; that such incredible facilities exist at the Denver Center and such incredible work is being done there. It's quite a testament.

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Next, I made a beeline for The Lark and a reading of Ken Weitzman's Get Thorpe. Weitzman's glorious baseball saga, The Catch, premiered in Denver in February to rave reviews and roaring crowds. Get Thorpe brings Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner, and Dwight Eisenhower together for a 1912 faceoff between the U.S Army and the American Indians, this time on the football field. After the reading I tackled Mr. W for further investigation of this CO/NY connection.

TS: You write form the geographical middle. How important is it for you to be in NY?

KW: Obviously the writing itself I can do anywhere, but professionally and artistically it's important to be in New York, simply because a huge part of the theatre world is here. It's been inspiring to be around six other playwrights, all working on new plays for Playwrights Week, and many of them were in from outside NYC. I've been able to catch up with some folks I've worked with over the years and a few of them were able to be at the reading, so that was valuable as well.

TS: How often do you get here and under what circumstances?

KW: Not often enough; two to three times a year. I'm from NY so I feel pulled in many different directions, professionally and personally. Usually I'm here for a reading of a script of mine, or for auditions. What I need to do more of, is to come just to see plays. Playwrights Week has been great in that I've heard readings of six new plays, but I'm hoping for a separate trip to see productions.

TS: What differences/ similarities do you see between The Lark and the Colorado New Play Summit?

KW: They're similar in that they're wholly concerned with helping you work on your play in whatever way is most helpful, supporting that in any way they can. Denver provides more rehearsal time and gives two readings instead of just one. For The Catch it was very informative hearing two different audiences, I got to see what landed and what didn't and compare the two. Having two points of reference allowed me to connect the two and draw a straight line for myself, instead of just wondering if what I was gauging was only the peculiarity of one particular performance or audience.

The Lark is very concerned with creating a community among the playwrights; we spent the week in conversation with one another, offering feedback on the work. Michele (Lowe), Caridad (Svich) and I certainly had interaction and conversations during the Summit but were all busy rehearsing and revising our plays. Denver is committed to producing several of the Summit readings the following year, so I think we were most concerned with doing everything we could to get our plays in the best shape possible.

TS: How important has The Denver Center become to new plays?

KW: Having had a reading at the Summit and a production the following year, I've become a big fan of The Denver Center. My experience there was the best I've had as a playwright. They gave me and the play all the tools, all the support I/it needed to successfully translate my vision to the stage. I do think it's an important place, because they do readings and development specifically with the intention or the hope of producing the plays. That's a different kind of commitment and investment than most development festivals.

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I rushed up to the Upper East, just in time for curtain of Motherhood Out Loud, a series of vignettes riffing on the joys and sorrows of the real oldest profession. Written by ... more writers with an umbilical cord attached to Denver: Michele Lowe (Inana, Map of Heaven), Theresa Rebek (Our House) and Lisa Loomer, whose highly anticipated new play, Two Things You Don't Talk About At Dinner, opens at the DCTC in February.

Flush with all this inspiration I returned to my thriving burg, proud to be one of its denizens. I sidelined this piece and stuck my nose in the computer for a script revision, and finished just in time for The Lark deadline. Ah creativity ... what a glorious, time-suck of a mistress you are.