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Our View: PlayFest puts Durango on map for play development

At a Durango PlayFest panel discussion on Wednesday, playwright Kathleen Cahill took a long, wide look at the crowd and said, “People seem to love living here.”

Keen observation by Cahill, who brought her play “Mrs. Einstein” to the fest, now in its sixth season. Of course, the first, obvious reason for being enthralled with the Southwest is the outdoor lifestyle in a place of storybook beauty.

But PlayFest at the Durango Arts Center brings something else to love. It puts Durango on the map as a destination for play development, nudging playwrights closer toward their goals and dreams of full production.

Not a bad addition to an area known mostly for mountain biking, skiing, rafting and riding a train.

Four playwrights were invited to bring new plays for a week of intense workshops and staged readings. Inside a dark theater, stage curtains are pulled back for a realistic look at playwrights’ creative processes, their flubs, their steps toward the finish line with readings in front of an audience whose members then critique the work.

More than watching performances, those in the crowd analyze.

PlayFest does a couple of things well. It boosts careers of actors and playwrights, including alum Sky Lakota-Lynch, a young Broadway actor of Native American and Ethiopian descent who earned a Tony nomination for his role in “The Outsiders.” Another is veteran actor Dan Lauria, who wrote “Just Another Day,” which is having a successful run off-Broadway.

In a speaker series for Fort Lewis College and high school students in La Plata and surrounding counties, PlayFest brings an exploration of theater-industry opportunities to our rural area. (Lakota-Lynch was one of the first speakers in 2023.)

And more than staging plays to entertain, PlayFest sets up playwrights to expect and brace themselves for feedback to better refine their work. This workshopping style pushes writers toward realization and those coveted words, “End of play.”

Being part of the process inside the walls of the black box theater, the chance is there to weigh in on tough subjects, such as impossible decisions, connections made and lost, isolation and the faces we contort to show others.

A lot of laughs are shared, too, along with the inquiry, what makes humor universal?

Serving up impressions of plays to their creators is at first a little daunting. (When asked, this writer looked in each direction and thought, who me?) You want my feedback on your play? It’s satisfying to think words from a stranger in the crowd can be instructive.

It didn’t, though, take long to get in the swing to consider what makes us care about characters. What propels us along the ride that is a story’s arc? When does dialogue drag? And how can a play be layered and mysterious but not confusing?

PlayFest definitely has some edge and swagger – the kind that’s appreciated.

After the playwrights’ panel discussion, PlayFest opened with James Anthony Tyler’s “Hop Tha A,” about co-workers who forge a connection during a Harlem subway ride. We walked out of the theater into soft evening rain, considering the role of art and whether it can save us.

Other playwrights include Richard Dresser (“All That Remains”) and Deb Hiett (“Circle Forward”).

PlayFest runs through Sunday and gives us one more reason to love living here. https://www.durangoplayfest.org/.

Disclosure: Richard and Mary Lyn Ballantine, and the Ballantine Family Fund have been financial supporters since PlayFest’s inception.