Colorado by Josh Hartwell
I’m not sure what’s more important for a playwright to have: a welcoming artistic family, or a physical venue in which to workshop and produce plays. Both are vital, right? And now a handful of our dedicated Colorado writers don’t have to decide between the two because Theater 29 is providing both.
How’d that happen?
Local writer Lisa Wagner Erickson had been discussing artistic possibilities with other Colorado writers (and awesome people) Leslie Lewis, Nina Miller, and Jeffrey Neuman after a Dramatists Guild workshop. This conversation led to the formation of DirtyFish Theater playwrights collective, which soon included Ellen K Graham, Tami Canaday, and William Missouri Downs. Working with this talented group inspired Lisa Wagner Erickson (who, with her family, has knowledge and experience with real estate) to find a physical space in Northwest Denver, and start Theater 29.
“It quickly became clear that Theater 29 would be a venue dedicated to four or five resident companies, all founded and run by Colorado playwrights,” Erickson said. “Playwrights, whose award-winning work has been produced in Colorado and across the country, are at the helm. The playwrights-in-residence write, develop, and produce their own work. A pretty simple idea, but the results are brave, imaginative and thought-provoking new theatrical works that have been playing to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim.”
So now (since 2016), Theater 29 has been a lovely black box home for companies of writers including Pandemic Collective, Feral Assembly, The Lulubird Project, and Denverwrights.
Ellen K. Graham is another well-respected artist here and has been a Colorado playwright for about 20 years. She also writes public policy for a living and was co-producer for Theater 29’s inaugural production of Burnt Offering by Dakota C. Hill.
“Denver is booming right now, which has been a mixed blessing for any kind of Denver artist who needs space,” Graham said. “Whether you’re renting or buying, space in Denver has become punishingly expensive. . . . So to have a theatre space—and not just any theatre space, but a gorgeous, brand-new, pristine theatre space—owned by a Colorado playwright who champions other Colorado playwrights and isn’t just going to rent out her theatre. . . . It’s a tremendous opportunity for playwrights to realize their work on their own terms. With Theater 29, Lisa Wagner Erickson is transforming the landscape for new work in Denver, though she might be too self-effacing to admit that.”
It may indeed be difficult to admit at this stage, but other writers agree that Theater 29 is a big sweet step for Colorado dramatists in general. There is something wonderful about giving writers this kind of respect and freedom.
As Erickson put it: “The playwrights and their respective companies have free rein to choose the plays they want to produce,” with the size of the space being a notable limitation. “Theater 29 is small and would not be a good fit a large-scale production. Additionally, the space and the schedule can only accommodate productions by the companies in residence.”
Erickson, who earned an MFA in playwriting from Lesley University in 2013, would travel to Boston to work with playwrights a few weeks each semester. “I wanted to continue that experience in Denver,” she said. “Working in a collaborative environment with like-minded playwrights has helped me realize a lifelong dream, opening a venue dedicated to putting Colorado playwrights on the map.”
It is very much appreciated, and Denver continues to earn more admiration and respect as a theatre town, and as a city for new works. Ellen K. Graham will produce one of her own plays at Theater 29 in 2019.
“I think one of the hardest things about being a playwright is feeling like no one cares whether you ever write another word again,” Graham said. “The Denver playwright community cares, though, and they’re going to hound you until you finish the draft, push you for revisions, make you send it out to theatres, commiserate with your rejections and celebrate your victories. This community has made me a better writer and probably a more well-adjusted person.”
For more information, visit the Theater 29 website at www.theater29denver.com.