By Ken Lutes
Theater 29, located at 5138 W. 29th Ave., is set to produce its first play May 17. Theater 29 is the brainchild of Lisa Wagner Erickson, local Denver playwright and West Highland resident. The primary purpose of this new theater will be to shine a spotlight on the works of Colorado playwrights.
“People will have a chance to see new works by Colorado playwrights,” Erickson said.” At present, it’s typical for local playwrights to send their work to a contest or a venue in another city, where you might be competing with 500 people and not know much about the venue or what they’ll do with your work. At Theater 29, playwrights can have a seat at the table, if they want to, and see their vision come to light.”
Erickson is excited to have “Burnt Offering,” by Denver playwright Dakota C. Hill, be the theater’s first offering, as it were, presented by theater collectives Feral Assembly/Chase & Be Still Stage. The play will run May 17 through 26 (except May 20).
“Theater 29 won’t be a company, per se,” Erickson said. “It’ll be more of a space where companies or collectives like Pandemic, Rough Draft, Feral Assembly and Dirty Fish can use the space for their productions.” In addition to play productions, the space may be used for stage readings, improv shows, literary events, classes and workshops.
“I wanted a theater that would 99 percent provide a space for Colorado playwrights. Other [Denver area] theaters and companies do produce shows by Colorado playwrights, but there are none I know of that do that exclusively. Theater 29 won’t be able to produce every single play locally, but it will at least promote that vision.”
The theater building, the former site of a martial arts studio, now meets ADA requirements and will seat about 40. The basement contains an open space for set building, costumes and storage, and actors will have dressing rooms and their own restroom in the basement, with access directly to the stage area. Erickson estimates the entire space at 3,500 square feet.
Erickson’s vision for a local theater had its roots early on.
“In elementary school, I was in a show for the World Wildlife Fund. I was always interested in acting, so writing became sort of a sidebar. In fifth grade, I was in a play where I got to write my own part. I didn’t really write much until I got into an MFA program a few years ago at Leslie University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
While at Leslie University, she developed an idea for a 10-minute play about a woman trying to give up her bathroom scale [portrayed by a male actor], because she has a new boyfriend, and she’s been over-relying on the scale for validation and approval. “She’s trying to meet less and less with the scale,” Erickson said. The title of the play is “Step on Me.”
While working on her low-residency MFA program in playwriting, which she finished in 2013, Erickson discovered that “I really liked the camaraderie of hanging out with other playwrights and hearing work aloud.” Returning to Denver, she attended a workshop about self-production at the Denver Center [for Performing Arts] led by Gary Garrison, who at the time was the director of the Dramatists Guild.
“I had the idea in the back of my head that it would be great to have a theater at some point.”
Erickson then became interested in forming a development or production group and fell into a playwrights group that was starting one.
“The group they formed that I got into ended up being Dirty Fish Theater. It’s a local playwrights collective. We did a show three years ago of 10-minute plays and got ‘Best of Westword.’ I had fun with that experience.”
Erickson believes there’s a greater sense of community when attending a live performance, versus other forms of entertainment.
“The experience of live theater is always different. There’s a shared experience you don’t necessarily get from, say, a movie. For theater to work, both actors and audience are needed. It’s exciting, it’s never the exact same performance. Each performance is a collaborative experience between the actors, director, and the lighting, sound and set designers. That happens in movies, too, but then it’s fixed on film and never changes.”
Of her own works, which she says are usually slightly absurd, she’s considering producing “The Mrs. Greenland Pageant” next year. It’s about a bored woman who lives in a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado. Mrs. Greenland and her husband make up and roleplay different sitcoms. The wife is almost 30 years old and becomes convinced by friends and the local PTA that her eggs will soon dry up. She becomes fixated on the 1950s and believes she can become perfect; once she’s perfect, her husband will be, too.
“As time goes on, I’ll have a better idea of what I may want to host personally – possibly something like ‘Theater 29 Presents,’” Erickson said. She is confident about regularly scheduling Theater 29 with theater companies, collectives and playwrights. “A lot of companies are looking for space.”
The space at 29th Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard was still getting some finishing touches, as of this writing.
“It’s been a slow process, but it’s finally ready,” Erickson said.
Get tickets for “Burnt Offering” and more information about Theater 29 at theater29denver.com.