Jake Brasch is talking about how growing up in Denver shaped him as a playwright. The 31-year-old will return to his hometown from New York this week to begin rehearsals for the staged reading of his semi-autobiographical comedy “the reservoir,” about an alcoholic who returns to his native city to find that much of his support will come from his aging grandparents.
Brasch is one of four writers whose work will be featured during the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ upcoming Colorado New Play Summit (Feb. 25-26). Also headed to Denver with plays in development: Vincent Terrell Durham with “Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids,” Christina Pumariega with “Joan Dark,” and Sandy Rustin with “The Suffragette’s Murder.”
“It’s so amazing to sort of crash back into a world that raised me as a professional artist,” Brasch said on a morning video call from the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his husband, Tyler Brasch, a saxophonist who also works in the film industry. Brasch attended the Denver School of the Arts from sixth to 12th grade and participated in the Curious Theatre Company’s young playwright program, Curious New Voices, under the guidance of Dee Covington.
“My experience (at the School of the Arts) was so deeply formative,” Brasch said. “Largely because it was such an accepting place, too, of being like, you can be this strange, queer, clown person and fully step into the power of that. I feel very lucky to have been raised in a world that accepted all of me.”
Among the Rocky Mountain region’s premiere arts gatherings, the Colorado New Play Summit produces staged readings cast with proven performers and helmed by veteran directors and seasoned dramaturgs. Past summit playwrights tend to sing the praises of their resource-laden time at the Denver Center. But the event — which, for budgetary reasons, this year runs one weekend instead of two — also affords local theater lovers a chance to watch nascent work and to eavesdrop on industry creatives from across the country who come looking for new plays to program and burgeoning writers to keep tabs on.
Summit producer Grady Soapes said levity is a welcome and subtle throughline in this year’s plays. Laughter will be had — but not the outright gags of escapism. Instead, much of the humor reflects playwrights wrestling with the sorrow, challenges and pleasures of this moment in history.
“I would say both ‘Polar Bears’ and ‘Joan Dark’ have a lot of levity in them,” Soapes said. “But we’re also really addressing some very important social justice or of-the-moment issues, even in these dramedies.”
Deft and deep fun is also front and center in the Denver Center’s world premiere of Alexis Scheer’s “Laughs in Spanish.” The Denver Center Theatre Company always struts its wares with two new full-length works during the summit. In adition to “Laughs,” they will also be treated to the full production of 2020 summit alum “Hotter Than Egypt,” written by Yussef El Guindi and directed by Chris Coleman.
Durham’s “Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids” takes place during a cocktail party that turns prickly in the upscale Harlem brownstone of a white couple who have a young black son. The hero of Pumariega’s “Joan Dark,” Joan Luiz, is one of the first women to enroll in the Catholic Church’s pilot program for female priests. In “The Suffragette’s Murder,” Rustin — whose adaptation of “Clue” was among the nation’s most produced works in the 2022-2023 season — transports her whodunit know-how to a New York City boarding house in 1857, 10 years after the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls and seven years after Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I A Woman?”
“We are trying our hardest to uplift these works and these artists,” Soapes said. “And I hope that the artists feel that it’s not just a box to check off, but know we’re really invested in finding the next great story.”
The “Joan Dark” reading will be the first time that Pumariega will hear her words spoken in a theater. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve performed onstage. That makes this all explode with meaning for me,” the seasoned actor and television writer wrote in an email. “I understand the level of preparation it takes from the actors, producers, company management, from everyone involved to share your play with an audience.”
The reading of “the reservoir” is likely to strike extra tender notes for Brasch. In the play, protagonist Josh returns to Denver from a New York City college ostensibly to get sober. Still drinking, still waking up in places he doesn’t recall, Josh begins to find a road to recovery in the company of his four grandparents. (Feb. 23 will mark the writer’s ninth year of sobriety.)
The play was commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project, which challenges artists to engage the issues of science and technology. Brasch abuts Josh’s memory gaps with that of his grandparents. “We’re going to talk about addiction and Alzheimer’s and what it means to have brain damage,” he said. “What does it mean to try to understand oneself when you don’t have the capacity that you’ve been used to having, which is an incredibly dark thing that is scary, but also the place of comedy.”
We posed three questions to Brasch’s fellow playwrights. Their answers, edited here for space, only made us more excited to see their work.
Vincent Terrell Durham
Q. When did you know that “Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie-Fringed Orchids” would be the title of the play?
A. The title didn’t come to me until I neared the very end of the play. There’s a heated moment between the husband and wife, and the husband uses this phrase to emphasize his point. As soon as I heard/wrote the character saying those words, I realized this was the name of the play.
Q. How do you feel about working with Jamil Jude, who directed “Choir Boy,” one of the finest productions at the Denver Center in recent years?
A. Chris Coleman (artistic director) thought he’d be a great fit for the play. My first conversations with Jamil immediately inspired me to go back into the script and add some physicality to the piece. That helped to grow the scenes and dialogue. I’m looking forward to our four days of rehearsal and receiving more inspiration from Jamil.
Q. You’ve mentioned that you come from a family of storytellers. Can you share a story?
A. My mother grew up in Richmond, Va., with her parents and eight siblings. There wasn’t much money in the family for anything extra, and certainly no money for all nine children to buy a cone from the ice cream man. That gave rise to one of my favorite stories: It was another hot summer day in Richmond. All nine children were hanging off the porch, playing hopscotch or roller skating up and down the block. They all stopped when the familiar sound of the ice cream man could be heard coming around the corner. Their fun ended as they watched neighborhood kids line up at the idling ice cream truck, trading a nickel for a cold treat.
Two of the older brothers, Clarence and Ed, ordered their brothers and sisters to follow them. The nine Johnson kids took off, never allowing anyone to fall far behind. Confusion, exhaustion and a bit of anger came as the older brothers ended their run at the local garbage dump. This wasn’t the solution the other kids had in mind, but the older brothers shushed them and ordered everybody to get down low and wait.
Eventually, all nine heard the familiar sound of the ice cream man pulling into the dump. They all watched from their hiding spots as the ice cream man tossed large brown empty ice cream containers out of the back of his truck. The brothers had discovered that the ice cream man never completely emptied those cartons of ice cream and there was plenty left over for them to enjoy. My aunts and uncles all agreed that they continued this ritual for the rest of that summer and laughed as they recalled eating off the local garbage dump.
Q. Could you tell us about the writer’s collective, Más Páginas?
A. Several months into the pandemic, I was working remotely as a television writer in Los Angeles. I saw an opportunity to gather with colleagues and collaborators across the country. My TV writer friends wanted a place free of the pressures of Hollywood; my theater friends wanted to learn more about the practice and business of screenwriting. Everyone, regardless of their situation, was hungry for an environment that would hold them accountable to putting pen to the page. Kindness was key.
All the folks I knew who wanted to participate happened to identify as women. Más Páginas draws more pages from these artists. And not just writers; most are also musicians, composers, directors, producers, comedians, academics and actors of stage, audio and screen. We read 10 pages of myriad genres aloud over Zoom and give feedback. But I’ve realized we do much more: We provide community for makers in these wild times. We talk shop, we talk life, we share our creative challenges and triumphs. We mentor one another, we demystify and dismantle the often-lonely process of creating in a vacuum. We take inventory of what works and what doesn’t all the time.
Now in our third season, this cohort continues to inspire me every month. They dare me to be better on the page, in rehearsal, on set and in the writers’ room.
Q. What does having a Colorado New Play Summit berth mean for a working playwright?
A. It’s pure validation that the work could mean something to theater audiences. I worked in theater for years before starting to write with real intention. Because I’d developed new plays for years as an actress, I had a front-row seat to the long, difficult road of new play development. …Then one day, probably out of compulsion, a play came out: I heard my mother’s voice teaching her students in a college lecture hall, one long monologue. Three weeks later, I had my first play. All those years of actor-listening and shapeshifting had accrued; the dam just burst.
I wrote another play, then another, another. I developed my plays with friends, in-person and then over Zoom until Ammunition Theatre Company (in Los Angeles) asked me to join its inaugural writers lab in 2020.
Q. Religion has a significant role in your play. How much does that reflect your spiritual journey?
A. “Joan Dark” is an unabashed exploration of my spiritual journey. An uncomfortably close one, an angry one, a joyful one. I grew up Roman Catholic. My father is Cuban, my mother is Italian-American, so part of that was inherently cultural. We never missed mass, even if we were out of town. I made all my sacraments. I was active in the church.
The play also reflects my personal navigation of growing up in the Catholic Church. There was a priest at St. Mary’s in League City, Texas, when I was little called Father John. I was a buzzy kid, I couldn’t sit still. I’d get into fights all the time and wind up in the principal’s office. A lot. Listening to Father John, I found I was able to listen to myself. He introduced me to the quiet place within where we commune with things beyond our comprehension. I wanted nothing more than to get closer to that peace, to learn from it.
But at the time there were no such things as altar girls, only altar boys. I wrote the bishop, pretty confident in my 7-year-old persuasive skills. His office explained to me how this was impossible. This was the beginning of my criticism of Catholicism as a religion.
My first play I wrote for my mother. My second’s about my grandmother. But director Zoë Golub-Sass dared me to write “Joan Dark” for me.
Q. This was a commission to mark the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. What part of hewing to history was necessary and where did you feel you could go larky?
A. “The Suffragette’s Murder” was commissioned by Florida Studio Theatre. I gravitate toward comedy in my writing, so I asked if I was free to write a comedic piece and, of course, they were happy to oblige. I began by digging deep into the history of the period — the play takes place in 1857 — and learning about the cusp of the women’s movement in America. I was interested in both how women began to engage with the movement and how it intersected with the civil rights movement. This play is a work of historical fiction exploring both of those themes, with a nod to the farcical comedic style and tone of the time.
Q. When did you learn that your work “Clue” was among the most produced plays of 2022-2023?
A. I learned of that at the same time everyone else did! American Theatre Magazine came out with its annual list in September, and I was delighted to discover that “Clue” was the third most-produced play. What a thrill!
Q. How has being an actor influenced your playwriting?
A. I come at ideas from the perspective of an actor first. I start with characters — understanding who they are, how they talk, how they move, what they want … . I would appear totally bonkers to anyone watching me make my way through first drafts of scripts. I go through the text from top-to-bottom (out loud!) as if I am playing each individual character. I ask my playwright-self questions that actors would ask and rewrite and rewrite until I’ve satisfied my actor brain.
IF YOU GO
The Colorado New Play Summit. Four new plays in two days read with depth and aplomb. The playwrights: Jake Brasch, Vincent Terrell Durham, Christina Pumariega and Sandy Rustin. The directors: Shelley Butler, Jamil Jude, Zoë Golub-Sass and Don Stephenson. The actors: Caroline Aaron, Heidi Armbruster, Landon Tate Boyle, Larry Hecht, Jacob Horowitz, Rodney Lizcano, Carolyn Mignini, Peter Van Wagner, Noelia Antweiler, Kyle Cameron, Erin Cherry, Michael Charles, Michaela Murray, Christopher M. Smith, Logan Turner, Keona Welch, Diane Davis, Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer, Alex Mandell, Kevin Pariseau, Mark Price, Gareth Saxe, Jamie Ann Romero, Curtis Wiley, Iliana Lucero Barron, Mia Katigbak, Andy Lucien, Stephanie Machado, Kate MacCluggage and Rocco Sisto. At the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th & Curtis. Feb. 25-26. denvercenter.org and 303-893-4100.
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