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When you think of a hot theater town, you may not think of Denver, but Kent Thompson is changing that. Three years ago, Mr. Thompson became the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company, and under his direction the Denver Center is putting real resources behind new plays, both developing them and giving them full-fledged productions. That's unique for regional theaters.
NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Kent Thompson has two goals: serve the local community and develop new plays. So, the first thing he did when he got to Denver was to look at what plays they'd done before he got there.
Mr. KENT THOMPSON (Artistic Director, Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver, Colorado): And I discovered several things. I discovered out of 264 productions, only seven and a half had been written by women. And I thought that's really strange because the American theater of the last 25 years has been the renaissance of writing by women. So, I knew we needed to correct that right away. So we started doing three or four plays a year by women.
BLAIR: Recently, Denver did the world premier of Theresa Rebeck's play, "Our House," a caustic portrayal of network TV news.
(Soundbite of play, "Our House")
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character): The news division doesn't think that what happens on reality television is news.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) It's reality. Why shouldn't it be news?
BLAIR: Kent Thompson also noticed that the Denver Center had done very few plays by Latinos, even though Denver's population is about a third Hispanic. So now they're doing one Latino play a year. The latest, "Lydia," by Octavio Solis, is about a dysfunctional Mexican-American family in El Paso, Texas, searching for that elusive American dream but instead…
Mr. THOMPSON: They found the complexity of being both legal and illegal, documented and undocumented, and the family, and stresses of that.
(Soundbite of play, "Lydia")
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) I thought you joined the border patrol.
Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) (Speaking in foreign language)
Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) I thought you should be the first to know, being family and all. I signed up about a month ago, and they fast-tracked me right into service.
Unidentified Woman: (As character) Well, I don't know what to say, Sorino(ph).
Unidentified Man #2: (As character) Are you nuts? (Speaking foreign language).
Unidentified Man #3: (As character) I had to do it, 'cuz. (Speaking foreign language). It was either this or temp work at manpower.
BLAIR: "Lydia" was one of three world premieres at this year's New Play Summit. Thompson started the annual event three years ago to draw all kinds of theater people to Denver to see full productions and readings of new plays. Critics raved about "Lydia." One compared playwright Octavio Solis to Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. Another called "Lydia" a story filled with mystery and magic.
How this play came to be is a really good example of who Kent Thompson is. He commissioned it, gave it professional reading and then a full production.
It's unusual for a regional theater to take it that far, and "Lydia" has found a life beyond Denver. The play's been picked up by the Marin Theater Company in California, Yale Rep, and it's being considered by artistic directors in Seattle and West Virginia.
Mr. ED HERENDEEN (Artistic Director, Contemporary American Theater Festival, Shepherdstown, West Virginia): Kent has my attention, let's put it that way.
BLAIR: Ed Herendeen is the artistic director of the respected Contemporary American Theater Festival that attracts thousands of people to Shepherdstown, West Virginia every summer. He says Kent Thompson understands what it takes to make a new play work.
Mr. HERENDEEN: What I think is so great about new plays is they're never really ever finished, you know, and you really need to get them up on their feet, and what Kent is doing at Denver is extraordinary, because so many plays get workshopped to death. They get read and read and workshopped, but they hardly ever get full productions.
BLAIR: At the last new play summit, Herendeen was very excited about a play that got a reading called "Dusty and the Big Bad World." Written by Cusi Cram, "Dusty" is a fictional, public-television show for kids. The show's funding is threatened when the winner of an essay contest is the child of a gay couple.
(Soundbite of play, "Dusty and the Big Bad World")
Ms. KATE NOWLIN (Actress): (As Jessica) Okay, this is meeting about a show that we produced with our boss. That's all.
Mr. SAM GREGORY (Actor): (As Nathan) Did you read the same e-mail I did? Phrases like gravely concerned and severe consequences for future funding jumped out at me. Tell me I'm paranoid, Jessica.
Ms. NOWLIN: (As Jessica) You never gauge talk from an e-mail, Nathan. I'll call her.
Mr. GREGORY: (As Nathan) I pushed for that particular story.
Ms. NOWLIN: (As Jessica)And it was a great idea, and it fit the mission for the grants.
Mr. GREGORY: (As Nathan) I could still lose my job.
Ms. NOWLIN: (As Jessica) These are strange times, Nathan.
Mr. GREGORY: (As Nathan) You're saying I'm going to lose my job. You're saying it 10 different ways.
Ms. NOWLIN: (As Jessica) I'm saying the rules have changed.
Mr. HERENDEEN: Man, talk about public funding for public television in a play that dealt head-on with some of those issues. I was just blown away by that. You know, there's an example of a play that is so relevant in this present moment that every theater in the country should be getting the rights to do that play.
BLAIR: And that's exactly what Kent Thompson looks for.
Mr. THOMPSON: If there's a quotation about the new-play program here, it would be that I'm asking writers to write about what it means to be an American in the 21st century. It's that general.
BLAIR: Thompson admits that the traditional subscription audience of any regional theater isn't always open to new plays by writers they've never heard of. But so far in Denver, ticket sales are holding steady. The financial risk of new play is high, and the odds that I'll be a hit are low, but Thompson thinks it's worth it.
Mr. THOMPSON: You're hiring these writers - I'm hiring them because I want them to reflect the soul of the times however they see it, which is not always pretty. But there's a lot of potential to create something magical, and you know, only one in 20 productions will be magical, but that's what you're going to work toward.
BLAIR: Kent Thompson recently announced that next season, the Denver Center Theatre Company will do three world premiers, including Cusi Cram's "Dusty and the Big Bad World." He's also commissioned a new play about water rights in the West.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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