All the world’s a stage, and two Colorado playwrights are taking it over for the debut of two new plays.
When big shows hit the stage, tickets can sell out within minutes (we’re looking at you, Hamilton). But when was the last time you went to a smaller production? Local plays have special charms all their own, and you may even witness a hit in the making.
This month, the Theater Company of Lafayette presents “Tables to Woods,” a night of two plays: Wood Smoke, written and directed by Paul Wells, and Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, written and directed by Brad Rutledge. We asked the two of them about their work.
What are the plays about?
Brad: This is a play I wrote six years ago, and produced five years ago back in Michigan. I came up with the idea of having three scenes, each one centered on a meal—breakfast would be with a couple in their 80s, lunch would be a middle-aged couple who are recent empty-nesters looking for a way to reconnect, and dinner is a second date between two twenty-somethings. I juxtaposed the time of the day against the timeline of life. Two actors play all six parts, and they do so with a couple different costume pieces, but without any makeup or attempt to age themselves. There’s no direct relationship between the scenes, but there’s a sense that the play is looking at connection in various forms, and exploring how we get it, keep it, and how we can lose it if we’re not careful. The scenes end up tying together thematically. It has funny stuff, touching stuff, and fairly shocking stuff.
Paul: As is often the case with my plays, I started with a hook idea that wasn’t directly related to what the play was about, but more about the locale or some sort of anchoring element to it. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I attended a summer camp and I got it in my head that I wanted to do a play revisiting that camp as an adult. It gradually turned into a story about memory, the past, how the past informs the present, and our relationship with grief. Also, how those things are sometimes hindered by memory or past trauma. It’s about a couple in their late middle age, both college professors, and the husband is struggling with some sort of cognitive loss—whether it’s Alzheimer’s or dementia—but that’s never specifically discussed in the play. They visit the camp on their way to Thanksgiving dinner, and he becomes almost obsessed with revisiting this place that he went to many decades earlier. Essentially, he drags his wife to this summer camp in the off-season in the middle of Wisconsin, and they begin processing their relationship, especially when one partner is having issues with cognitive decline. While they’re there, they encounter someone who has a history of his own with the summer camp, and has been living there homeless without anyone else’s knowledge. It has horror story elements, but that’s only hinted at. It really is more about the three characters connecting and working through trauma and grief of a different variety, in the context of being out in the middle of the woods. It asks the fundamental question: what are we without memory?
Are the plays autobiographical?
Paul: I didn’t intend to write from an autobiographical perspective, other than using the summer camp I went to as a child as a setting. As Brad can speak to, when you write a play, especially one that explores universal issues, you tend to bring elements of your own past into it. I found there were characteristics in all the characters that were similar to people in my life. I didn’t have dementia in my family, but I was always surrounded by academics my whole life, so there were parts of my parents’ personality that I incorporated into the middle- aged couple. I wouldn’t say the triggering things in my play are autobiographical, but a lot of the surrounding elements are.
Brad: I gave a presentation at a job fair where I came as a playwright, even though I’ve spent most of my career as a lawyer and made negative money as a playwright. One of the things I mentioned to the young people was that when you’re writing something, your life isn’t the piece of art itself, it’s the palette from which you can choose to tell a story. Not all of your experiences tell a compelling story, but they can add a lot of depth and color. In the opening scene of my play, with the eighty-something-year-olds, there’s a monologue by the husband when he’s giving breakfast to his wife, who is suffering from advanced dementia. He goes through a bunch of different stories, and a lot of them are things that happened to me, something my dad did, or something we did together. You can draw from a lot of your life experiences, and the key is to remember that you aren’t constrained by what really happened—you can use it as a starting point.
Do the themes of each play connect in any way?
Brad: There might be some loose connection, based on people trying to find ways to connect with each other, as well as drawing on memory and past experience, so there’s coincidental similarity. That’s because there’s similarity in the human experience.
Paul: That wasn’t a key aspect of why we put the evening together, but it worked out that way. We just wanted to showcase two new plays that happened to work together really well.
What are you hoping audiences will get out of these plays?
Paul: Like any theater experience, we want them to have that intimacy that comes with realistic plays. We want to make people reflect on their own experience and connect what they’re seeing on stage to their own lives, and have those “aha!” moments: the moments where you know what the characters are going through. If we accomplish what we set out to do, audiences are going to be moved, touched, and maybe affected on a fairly profound level. The purpose of theater is to remind people of the importance of human connection.
Brad: I agree with what Paul said. I act a lot, and one of the things I measure success by is whether or not you can feel the connection with the audience. If I can feel, for instance, when we’re in the middle of a tense moment and everyone’s shifting in their seats, you know you’re connecting to them because you feel this visceral energy back and forth. Similarly, when people are laughing at the things that are funny, you feel that connection as well. I want the audience to walk out saying “that’s something you can’t get watching Netflix.”
Is it challenging to gain wider recognition as a playwright here in Colorado? We’re not in New York City, after all.
Paul: I’ve done work in New York City, and I’d say it’s hard to be a playwright period. Most playwrights don’t make a significant amount of income from writing, even ones of great stature. Often, people describe poetry and playwriting as two of the most difficult types of writing, but also the least remunerative. I think exposure as a playwright is one way to success. A lot of playwrights go down an academic direction. There aren’t a ton of successful playwrights in the United States—we don’t prioritize it like other parts of the world do. However, with the recent growth of regional theater over the last 20 or 30 years, I don’t think it’s that much more difficult to gain success.
Brad: One of the problems for playwrights in a lot of places is that we can sometimes write more things than we have the ability to get in front of people. Finding opportunities to do things (even readings and workshops) and find venues, you still have to find an audience and a place. It can be challenging from that standpoint. In 2015, I rented a theater in downtown Denver, did what publicizing I could, and spent a lot of money to have a run. I lost a bunch of money, but I was really happy with the work we did, and the people who came were really happy with what they saw. However, it was challenging to do everything in that situation. Paul and I feel very fortunate to work with Theater Company of Lafayette, making our plays a full offering of their current season. That really helps us tie into an audience that’s already there, and I think we’ll make this production very successful because of that. That was a real gift for both of us as blooming playwrights.
Where can we find more of your work?
[They both laugh.]
Paul: For the most part, my work hasn’t been published, so none of it’s available for reading without directly going to me.
Brad: I haven’t put the script up anywhere where anyone can go and get it, but we’d be happy to share.
[Exit, pursued by a bear.]