2020 TRUE WEST AWARD: LISA WAGNER ERICKSON
By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
In May 2018, local playwrights Lisa Wagner Erickson and Ellen K. Graham co-founded a 30-seat boutique venue called Theater 29 at Sheridan Boulevard and 29th Avenue. They envisioned a space where a network of self-producing playwrights would have the freedom to create, collaborate, develop and produce their own plays. To date, Theater 29 has hosted new works by more than 30 local writers. It also has become both an umbrella and a crucial home for many of the community’s avant-garde collectives ranging from Feral Assembly to Pandemic Collective to The Lulubird Project, which Erickson also founded.
The COVID shutdown has barely slowed her down.
Theater 29 has been connecting audiences with Colorado-made theatrical art in a variety of ways throughout 2020, starting with “Gallery 29,” a virtual playground for local playwrights, creative writers and performance artists to envision future experimental and immersive projects without any health risks to anyone. It's essentially an online artist directory not only introducing dozens of eclectic Colorado creatives but allowing visitors to peruse their plays, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, animation, visual art, podcasts and video projects. Featured artists include John Aden (filmmaker), Jared Ewy (comedian) and Judith Sara Gelt (memoirist).
Despite the logistical challenges posed by COVID, Theater 29 also has moved forward with inaugural “CoLab” commissioning program: Local playwrights Alex Burkart, Melissa Leach, Felice Locker, Pamela Nocerino and Matthew Schultz already are writing collaboratively, and eventually they will produce a collection of short plays.
Working with co-writers Sean Michael Cummings and Rebecca Gorman O'Neill, Erickson released a new web series called “Dissertation Defenders,” a comedy set at a fictitious online university struggling to remain relevant. It features PhD candidates desperate to secure full-time teaching positions engaging in a series of odd and absurd online debates.
Theater 29 also brought back “Genius of Love,” Graham’s 2016, three-episode telenovela about an itinerant nurse (Augustus Truhn) who is an expert at hiding his unusual cravings. It also featured Gina Wencel, Dakota C. Hill, Rhea Amos, Bevin Antea and Ryan Goold.
Theater 29 has just launched “Project PlayBox,” which will send to you, via snail and email, the theatrical building blocks to experience short plays from your own home over the next several months. The kit includes cut-out characters affixed to popsicle sticks and an animated video. The first of three adventures, sending you to the soon-to-be-lost continent of Atlantis, is available through January 15 at eventbrite.com.
Coming in January is the world premiere of “Look,” a collection of video plays designed for these uncertain times. It is again written, produced and performed by local playwrights and theater artists including Iliana Lucero Barron, James Brunt, Tami Canaday, Collin Hood, Amber Irish, Melissa Lucero McCarl, Pamela Nocerino and Matthew Schultz. The creation of each separate story began last month with the same common theme: “There’s something I want to show you.” Each play features a character recording the story using a hand-held device. The plays will debut as a collection on the Theater 29 website starting January 15.
Theater 29 is surviving the COVID shutdown, Erickson says, because none of the founding members rely on it as their primary source of income. Much of their focus this year has been providing assistance to members of the local theatre community impacted by the shutdown.
A look at part of the Theater 29 online gallery, called 'Gallery 29'
Lisa Wagner Erickson/At a glance
Lisa Wagner Erickson is an award-winning playwright, theatre artist and part-time faculty member at Community College of Denver. She is the Creative Director and co-founder of Theater 29, founder of the LuLubird Project, and a member of the Dramatists Guild of America. She was a featured playwright at the DCPA Theatre Company's 2016 Colorado New Play Summit Local Playwrights Slam, and was a guest artist at the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Stage and Screen from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.
Video bonus: 'Dissertation Defenders,' Episode 1
The first episode, directed and recorded by Veronica Straight-Lingo.