Co. raises coin, focuses on women and minority playwrights

DENVER — When Kent Thompson came aboard as artistic director for the Denver Center Theater Company, he outlined a broad vision that included a new-play program, increased work by minorities and fund-raising to support these activities. Now, three months into his tenure, Thompson has made giant strides in every area he’s targeted.

His commitment to exploring new plays by women has resulted in the creation of a Women’s Voices Fund, the brainchild of DCTC development director Dorothy Denny, which is already well over halfway to its goal of a $500,000 endowment.

“She had the idea of getting a hundred women to join a founding membership,” explains Thompson, who’s opening his first season with “A Flea in Her Ear.” “They’d each pledge to contribute $5,000 over five years — a $1,000-a-year commitment — that we can use to commission a play or two each year.”

In addition to individual pledges totaling $325,000, American Express has selected DCTC’s parent organization for a $175,000 grant over two seasons. That coin will be used to bolster the center’s larger effort to expand audiences by further emphasizing women, Latino, and African-American playwrights.

Part of this ambitious program, titled New Vision New Voices, is the Colorado New Play Summit — set for an inaugural conclave Feb. 9-11. It includes the world premiere of Wayne Lemon’s “Jesus Hates Me”; three new play readings; a panel on the issues facing the playwright today; and a playwright slam where invited scribes will read short excerpts from their newest work.

Thompson hopes that in two to three years the festival will work up to having two or three world preems and readings of four to six plays.

“We didn’t want it to be the Humana Festival, where we produced six or seven scripts in one time period, because I think Humana does that well,” he says. “But we wanted to create an environment where people would come here to see the one or two world premieres and then see the others. Commissioning four to six plays a year gives us the opportunity to reach out to several communities.”

In addition to the Humana Festival, Thompson says, “I really followed the model of South Coast Rep (Pacific Playwrights Festival) and what I did in Alabama (Southern Writers’ Project).”

Behind Thompson’s push for greater cultural and intellectual diversity is an integrated view of the arts’ role in society.

“I feel like we’ve become a country where civic and civil discourse is being abandoned,” he says. “We don’t get together to argue about the great ideas, and agree and disagree in debate, and come to some kind of compromise. I feel like we’re in a world where it’s got to be one way or another.

“I find that very alarming,” he adds. “But I also find that a great opportunity for theater. It means that we have to become a town hall for a lot of the ideas that are out there in our community.

“We’ve got to get our communities back to talking about ideas, and if I program well, we’ll be able to provoke that kind of discussion without turning away audiences.”

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