The feel-good story of the Denver Center’s just-completed 2023 Colorado New Play Summit was Denver-born playwright Jake Brasch coming home from New York to tell his own brutally honest addiction-recovery story that, in the end, feels pretty darned good.
The Summit is the DCPA Theatre Company’s annual new-play incubation project that invites industry experts and local theater fans to get their first listen to developing scripts that historically have about a 40 percent chance of coming back someday as fully staged productions on the company’s mainstage season.
And because the Summit is so national in scope, it’s incredibly rare for the company to allot one of its four featured slots to a playwright with Denver roots. Brasch, in fact, is only the fifth in 17 years. And last weekend, he fully won his audiences over.
“The Reservoir” is a comedy about an NYU student who has come home to Denver on medical leave but can’t manage to stay sober until he finds unlikely recovery allies in his four grandparents. It’s called “The Reservoir” because “Josh” opens the play waking up from a blackout on the shore of the Cherry Creek Reservoir. Another key character, though it goes unnamed, is the Tattered Cover Book Store.
One key character in the story is the protagonist’s ever-positive but oft-burned mother. And Brasch’s real-life mom not only was in attendance supporting her son at Saturday’s reading, she was all-in, exuding the same kind of ferocious love and warm humor as her stage counterpart. Watching their story play out was an emotional experience for both of them.
“Emotional and also very true – because a lot of those things did happen,” said Kate Brasch. “But I was thrilled that he brought out the silly part, because that’s a huge part of our friendship, even though we're mom and kid. I mean, he’s a silly, crazy boy. And the funnest, funnest, funnest son.”
Broadway actor Heidi Armbruster, who played the mom in the reading, had an inkling Brasch’s real-life mother might have been in the audience, but didn’t know for sure until afterward.
“When we talked in rehearsal, I was thinking, ‘Wow, this woman is doing everything right,’” Armbruster said. “She's making all of the impossible decisions that a parent makes.”
Brasch is a graduate of Denver School of the Arts and got his start as a teenager participating in Curious Theatre’s New Voices youth playwriting program. His play also intersects with several of Brasch’s grandparents in various stages of dementia. Armbruster thinks the story plays out like a Neil Simon comedy – without a trace of meanness.
“Those two illnesses – alcoholism and Alzheimer's – are so ubiquitous,” Armbruster said. “I don't think there's a family in America that isn't touched by those illnesses. And so I think it would be hard for an audience to come and not feel themselves reflected in some way. I just think the poignancy of the writing, the directness and also the humor give so many people a way into this story.
“In the end, this is a play about all the different ways that love works, and what tough love can look like and feel like – and how it then bears fruit.”
Jake Brasch said it felt "both surreal and affirming to bring my writing to a festival that meant so much to me as a young writer.” His play was directed by Shelley Butler.
The other featured Summit playwrights were Vincent Terrell Durham (“Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids,” directed by Jamil Jude); Christina Pumariega (“Joan Dark,” directed by Zoë Golub-Sass); and Sandy Rustin (“The Suffragette’s Murder,” directed by Don Stephenson). Cast photos at the end of this report.
Two plays scheduled for production
DCPA Theatre Company Artistic Director Chris Coleman dropped some unexpected news when he announced that two readings from the 2022 Colorado New Play Summit will be included on the 2023-24 mainstage season: Kirsten Potter’s “Rubicon” and Leonard Madrid’s “Cebollas” will be staged in the winter of 2024.
"’Rubicon,’ an engaging true story about history-making spy Elizabeth (Betty) Thorpe, and ‘Cebollas,’ a hilarious comedy about sisters as they road trip from Albuquerque to Denver, were two audience favorites,” said Coleman, “and I am elated to bring the stories to life as world premieres in Denver."
Summit scaled back
This year’s Summit lost a bit of its luster because the Denver Center has scaled it back from two full weeks of development and public readings back to one. The company expanded the Summit to two weeks back in 2015, giving playwrights the opportunity to take lessons learned from the first weekend of public readings back into the rehearsal room for another week of development. That then became its identifying characteristic.
Props to new props designer
One of the great things about our local theater community is its wide-open door to newcomers. Mark Ragan, director of new Clover & Bee Productions’ debut staging of "The Belle of Amherst," walked into the Colorado Antique Gallery and struck up a conversation with a stranger named Gini Mennenga. He had a list with him of everything he needed to dress the set for his Emily Dickenson bio-play starring Jessica Robblee. Mennenga took a look and said, “I can get you everything on this list.” And viola: This heretofore theater novice is now a bona fide Properties Director and Production Assistant for the play, running through March 11 at Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St. Info at cloverandbeeproductions.com
Poet, activist and musician Joy Harjo, who just completed three terms as the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, was given the Ucross Foundation’s Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts on Saturday in Sheridan, Wyo. That’s an artist residency program that recognizes an individual’s impact on the nation’s arts and letters. Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, has written 10 books of poetry, several plays, children’s books and even two memoirs …
I’m a little gobsmacked to say this, but a few tickets actually still remain to see Nathaniel Rateliff’s new take on Harry Nilsson's classic album "A Little Touch of Schmilsson” this weekend (March 3-4) with the Colorado Symphony. It’s part of the Symphony’s new Artist Imagination Series at Boettcher Music Hall. (Side note: The Symphony’s 2023-24 season will drop on Monday) …
Also 95 percent gone (as of this writing) are tickets to the modern dance company Wonderbound’s new production of Garrett Ammon’s “Reckoning at the Red Herring Tavern,” with only scattered seats remain on March 2-3 and 9-12 at wonderbound.com.