STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, COLORADO — The 502 Ford Mustangs, both late-model show cars and immaculately restored classics, created a hotel room crunch and congestion downtown.
But the 31st-annual Rocky Mountain Mustang Roundup competition last weekend didn’t hurt the first annual Colorado New Play Festival, held at the 123-seat Chief Theater. “We got walk-up traffic,” festival co-executive producer Jim Steinberg said. “People saw the sign and came in. I was amazed.”
The Mustang mavens know their theater. Playwrights of the five works-in-progrss included Lucas Hnath (pronounced Nayth), who stormed Broadway last year with the acclaimed A Doll’s House, Part 2; Daisy Foote, adapting her father’s 1983 Oscar-winning screenplay, Tender Mercies; and Kate Hamill, following her hit adaptations of the novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair, with her take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
“When you’re home alone, you can only hear the play inside your brain,” said Hamill, who lives in Forest Hills, Queens. “Here, you’re really road testing it.” She spent five days writing, rewriting and rehearsing with actors in a classroom at Colorado Mountain University, a local two-year college. At the Chief Theater, the actors, Hamill included, performed with music stands and scripts.
Summer is Spring Training for new drama, led by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut; the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires and New York Stage & Film at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theatre in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Given its size and remoteness, Steamboat Springs plays an outsized role. Participants of a prior incarnation of the festival, based for 20 years at the local performing arts camp Perry-Mansfield, included playwright Clare Barron, who was workshopping Dance Nation, now a hit for Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway; Itamar Moses (best known for his Tony-Award-winning book to The Band’s Visit; and Matthew Lopez (whose acclaimed The Inheritance opens this fall in the West End).
Steinberg, who also oversaw the Perry-Mansfield festival, is careful about claiming any credit. “Each play that gets workshopped has multiple mothers,” he said. “They change and develop and that’s the whole point.” That’s a quandary for organizations that develop and don’t produce: their influence is hard to measure, they operate behind the scenes, and there can be years of hard work before any opening night.
“My fundraising is difficult because there is nothing sensational or newsworthy about any of this,” said John Clinton Eisner, artistic director of The Lark in New York, which provides funding, space, collaborators, audiences and other services to playwrights, who include Hnath. “You can’t expect the good plays to show up in theaters unless you invest in infrastructure.”
Immediately after the festival, Steinberg led a two-day conference of leaders of non-producing play development outfits, the first of its kind, to compare notes and discuss ways to work together and expand the sector’s financial base.
By all accounts, there are more festivals, awards and commissions devoted to new plays than ever. That’s due in part to the Steinberg family. A nature photographer and publisher by day, Jim Steinberg is a trustee of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, which his father, Harold, a real estate developer, started in 1986. The trust donates about $10 million annually to 165 theatrical and educational organizations, including the new play festival. (The trust is also behind a $200,000 playwriting award handed out every other year, last given to Sarah Ruhl in 2016.)
Now 69, Steinberg grew up in Westchester, New York, and lives in Steamboat Springs when he isn’t on the road shooting or having meetings and seeing plays for the trust. He saw his first play at about age 8: A Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway, starring Jason Robards Jr. “I love the communal and collaborative nature of theater,” he said.
His wife and partner in the festival, Lori Steinberg, said its overall mission is to help American theater survive and thrive. “The biggest challenge is getting young people,” she said about the art form. “We are not a theater culture. We are a sports culture.”
The festival collaborates with artistic directors at producing organizations to select works in their pipeline. For example, off-Broadway’s Primary Stages is presenting Little Women next May, after the premiere at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. The comic drama has had only one reading in New York, said Andrew Leynse, the artistic director of both the festival and Primary Stages. “This [festival] allows it to get it up on its feet in a safe environment and learn from that.”
For a New York theater artist, the inconvenience adds to the perceived safety. It’s a four-hour flight to Denver, followed by at least three hours in the car. “I love that it’s remote,” Michael Wilson said before the reading he directed of Tender Mercies. When playmaking in the vicinity of Manhattan, “you can get brought into the rumor mill or, God forbid, those chat rooms. You need to keep your focus on the work. This is like a womb.”
Plays are “not eligible for review,” according to the festival program. In Tender Mercies, a charismatic Michael Hayden (NBC’s Chicago Fire) played a washed-up country music star, the Robert Duvall role in the movie. Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver contributed songs. The piece is closer to a play with music than musical, which is expected to change as it’s developed under the aegis of Houston’s Alley Theatre.
Hnath’s The Thin Place consisted of four five-minute monologues, at turns spooky and poetic. Planned for next year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, it was directed by Les Waters.
“This isn’t the first piece we’ve had that is 20 minutes,” Steinberg said. “This is about process, as most festivals are. If we became prescriptive, then how would we be helping playwrights?” He said Hnath completed a full-length play but wasn’t comfortable doing it in the theater, as it was better suited to an immersive setting. Hnath and Waters declined to comment.
Tickets to readings were just $15. Rehearsals were open to the public and free, to demystify theater and make it more accessible. “The more the merrier,” Philadelphia-based playwright Bruce Graham said regarding visitors to rehearsals of Sanctions, about the underbelly of big-time college football. “They sharpen the actors up.”
Neither Jim nor Lori Steinberg draw a salary for the festival. Expenses for last year’s edition, at Perry-Mansfield, were just $98,000. “Is that cost effective or what?” Jim Steinberg said. By comparison, it costs an average of $50,000 to restore one classic Mustang, according to Linda Chesnutt, of Palmdale, California, who, with her husband, Randy, competed in the Mustang competition.
While the festival saves on staffing — there aren’t paid full-timers — it aims to spoil the visiting writers, directors and actors. “We feed them well and provide copious adult beverages, when they’re not working and creating,” Steinberg said. To that end, his 21-year-old stepson, Matthew Laws, drove 2,000 miles roundtrip to pick up brisket at Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, for the pre-opening night party at the Steinberg’s home. (Laws also acted in Tender Mercies.)
“It’s a crazy, wacky thing,” Lori Steinberg said about her son’s brisket run. “And why not? It’s the best brisket in the world. People love it.”