Atmosphere

Playtime

A Denver theater director aims to fix a flawed national trend.

September 2009

World pre·miere·i·tis: (noun) 1. The U.S. theater industry's unhealthy obsession with producing new plays for their world premieres—and then never again. 2. The reason cities like Denver rarely get to see Broadway-caliber debuts.

It's a sickness that hinders what could be a vibrant national theater industry—and Denver's Curious Theatre artistic director, Chip Walton, is out to cure it. In addition to his job helming Curious, Walton is also president of the National New Play Network (NNPN), a theater development coalition that has invented a new way to release plays: the rolling world premiere, in which at least three theaters in different regions of the country agree to produce the same new play. The work of a Los Angeles­-based playwright, for example, now has a way to travel beyond the writer's hometown to playhouses in, say, Tucson, Minneapolis, or Denver. This traveling debut has become a standard of sorts for presenting new plays, and has successfully exposed theater audiences across the country to a wider range of performances. For Denver, this means theatergoers will see shows from a highly diversified playwright pool, and their reactions could shape plays seen across the nation. "The very genius of theater," says Denver-born playwright Steven Dietz, "is that there can be hundreds or even thousands of versions of a single play."

Playwrights also benefit from this system. "What you think about your work and yourself as an artist is based on a single play," Dietz says. Now, with each stop in the premiere cycle, playwrights have the chance to rework their pieces. If the audience doesn't understand Act Three, a writer might tweak it for a production that is ultimately better prepared for New York—the final goal for many NNPN playwrights.

In the end, though, it's not entirely about getting to Broadway; it's also about the audience. "We're getting people excited about theater," Walton says. And there's no surer antidote for an ailing industry than re-enthused consumers.—Kazia Jankowski