Is the Play the Thing? Nope: At the Telluride Playwrights’ Festival, It’s the Audience.
by Leslie Vreeland
Jul 12, 2012 | 2658 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
FIRST LOOK -- (From left to right) guest director Yury Urnov, actor Lori Gardner, playwright Charles Leipart, and playwright/actor Daniel Glenn read through "The Gleam" by Carol Mack on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)
FIRST LOOK -- (From left to right) guest director Yury Urnov, actor Lori Gardner, playwright Charles Leipart, and playwright/actor Daniel Glenn read through "The Gleam" by Carol Mack on Tuesday. (Courtesy photo)

Over the past week, a cadre of playwrights, actors and directors from across the U.S. and overseas has been converging on Telluride for the 8th Annual Playwrights’ Festival. The creative professionals who come here from New York, Washington D.C. (via Russia) and other metropolises will be acting, performing, and directing, of course. But most importantly, they’ll be listening. They’ll listen not only to the reactions of their peers regarding their work, but they’ll also pay especially close attention to what the audience has to say. Telluride plays host to dozens of festivals each year, but it is only in this one where the work is raw and unpolished. The setting, deliberately low-key and casual, is as likely to be a café – the festival kicked off earlier this week with “Play Slam” at the Steaming Bean – or an art gallery as a proper “stage.” “Although I’ve seen this it grow, it hasn’t grown out of its skin or tried to please everybody,” says San Miguel County Commissioner Elaine Fischer. “It feels interactive, the way it’s structured.” And that is deliberate, founder Jennie Franks says. “The idea is, the audience has their say” in a “talk back” session with the playwright and director after the show. “The playwrights go home, re-write the play, and send it out into the community.”

The urban community, that is. In recent years, productions that got their start in Telluride have gone on to premiere in New York (Phantom Killer, by Jan Buttram), Chicago (Illegal Use of Hands, by James Still) and Denver (W)Hole, by Tracy Shaffer). Two plays – Dead and Buried, by James McLindon, and last year’s Forgiving John Lennon – debuted at the Detroit Repertory theatre. Each year has been unique, says Franks. “The plays, the players and the audience can change the overall experience. That’s the beauty of theatre – it’s immediate, it’s live, and so it’s malleable and exciting.” For the first time this year, the festival has a theme: politics. Not politics as in Republican vs. Democrat, “which I find rather boring,” Franks says, but “big picture” politics, meaning the way humans tend to navigate the world given our many racial, cultural, economic and other differences. All the plays address the bigger picture, according to Franks.

Also for the first time this year, the festival will have a Russian flavor, inspired by guest director Yury Urnov, who Franks met at a Moscow theatre festival this spring and invited to Telluride. Urnov, a director-in-residence at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., will direct the Russian play Vodka, F***ing, Television, and lead a lunchtime discussion today (Thurs.) on Russian Theatre and Politics at the Sheridan Opera House. Urnov will discuss the works of post-Soviet playwrights “trying to create new language and new meanings” for a new Russia. “Through their writing,” he says, “they’re trying to change the image of the national archetype that lives in our heads.”

What will live on in the heads of the audiences who see any or all of these plays is, quite simply, memorable theatre. For visiting thespians, the experience is memorable, too. Franks had always meant for it to be that way, but at first wasn’t sure how well it would work. Since its inception, she had intended the festival to be a place for playwrights to collaborate. The trouble was, “I thought the actors I brought in would be bored” by such a deliberately bare-bones operation. “But no,” Franks says, “They wanted to do it again. Then we tried inviting a small audience, and they were into it, too. Even without the bells and whistles, the sets and costumes, I realized: a good play is a good play.”

It’s what audiences quickly figure out, too. “These are things I’d never be able to see. I don’t go to New York a lot,” Fischer says. What really gets Fischer, though, is the magic, wherever it happens: on the barest of sets, or around a lunchtime table. “The readings are amazing, because people become these characters. That, for me, is phenomenal,” she says. “Successful plays are the ones that, with their words, create the place.”

The playwrights seem to agree – and find Telluride exhilarating. Jan Buttram, artistic director of the Abingdon Theatre in New York, is making her third trip to the festival this year. Buttram wrote April is Dead in Paris, which will be given a reading this Sunday morning at 10 a.m., and which she describes as a “fresh, fresh play.” “This is a great opportunity for a playwright,” she says. “It galvanizes you to get the work done. And I feel safe with the audiences in Telluride,” many of whom have attended the festival and been critiquing plays for years. Charles Leipart wrote Chez Rikers, to be given a staged reading (directed by Urnov) on Friday night. He has never been to Telluride before this week, but has looked forward to the experience. “Getting a play on paper is only the first step. It’s not theatre,” he says. “There’s a whole developmental process that has to take place.” In Leipart’s estimation, it takes just “five or six clear-thinking people” with no experience in theatre whatsoever to affect the success of a script. In fact, just one person can do it. Years ago, Leipart was employed as an assistant on a Broadway production of Man of La Mancha, directed by Albert Marre. A key scene wasn’t coming together, so director and cast took a break. At that moment, an elevator operator appeared. Marre turned to him. “Joe, did you watch that last scene? Why wasn’t it working?” Joe gave his opinion, Marre took the elevator operator’s advice, and everything clicked. “That was an eye-opener,” Leipart said. “If something isn’t working, you don’t have to have go to Yale Drama School to figure out what’s wrong. Plays are rooted in the human condition,” and sometimes all it takes is a fresh set of eyes. “Your play is a child that goes out into the world,” Leipart adds. “You have to find joy in that. You start with the words on the page and make it a living, breathing experience.” The great director and critic Harold Clurman saw the creation of theatre as a collaborative hierarchy, Leipart points out, with the audience at the top of the heap. The director knows more about the play than the playwright, Clurman once observed, and actors understand more about the play than a director does. But the audience knows more about the play than everybody.  

Here’s what to expect this weekend:

A discussion on “Russian Theatre & Politics Today” with director Yury Urnov, at 12 p.m. today in the Gallery Room at the Sheridan Opera House.

Chez Rikers, by Charles Leipart, directed by Yury Urnov, in which a well-to-do, Upper East Side New York couple, detained in a prison cell on Rikers Island, receives “ a decidedly unsentimental education in class distinctions and urban politics.” The play will be given a staged reading at the Sheridan Opera House Friday evening at 8 p.m.

Vodka, F***, Television, by Maksym Kuorchkin, directed by Yury Urnov. A reading of this Russian play takes place Saturday morning at 10 a.m. (coffee and pastry will be served) at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Arts, 130 E. Colorado. (As should be obvious from its title, this play contains adult language.)

The Gleam, by Carol K. Mack, directed by Jan Buttram, is a farce about a “voracious, hi-tech, multinational corporation” called G.E.T.G.O. and a painter who arrives to protest its activities, only to be trapped in the labyrinth. It gets a staged reading at the Sheridan Opera House Saturday night at 8 p.m.

April is Dead in Paris, by Jan Buttram (who will also direct) is a biographical play about the relationship between June Havoc and her daughter, April Hyde Kent, who has recently passed away abroad; the reading takes place Sunday morning at 10 a.m. in the Sheridan Opera House’s Gallery Room, where coffee and pastry will also be served.

Swingset/Moon, by Daniel Glenn, directed by Sasha Cucciniello of Telluride Theatre, is

about parents’ eye-opening travels to “reclaim, recapture or simply recognize” their child, a victim of terminal cancer. The play will be given a staged reading at 8 p.m. Sunday evening at the Sheridan. (The play contains adult content.)

This year the Festival, which is supported by the Town of Telluride Commission for Community Assistance, Arts and Special Events and Colorado Creative Industries, is offering passes for $40. By contrast, tickets to Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man on Broadway this Saturday night cost $295. “We hope people will buy a pass and attend as many shows as they can, because these are plays that will next be seen in New York or London,” Franks says. “We get them here first, and have our say after the reading to help the playwright’s journey.”

To learn more about the festival, and to purchase a festival pass, visit

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