COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.: Playwrights seize inspiration where they can. Toronto-based writer Jade O’Keeffe, for instance, found the seed for her new play Two Nine One Letters in her distinctive last name: The play is about the long romance between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her lover-turned-husband, the artist and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, and it kicked off a slate of Georgia O’Keeffe-inspired plays at the biennial Rough Writers New Play Festival, hosted by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, June 4–14.
“I always felt like we were related,” said Jade O’Keeffe, who added that there is a chance she is related to the painter, who died in 1986, though the connection is distant. “I was interested in her art long before I started writing the play.”
Her work began in 2013, when she started reading the thousands of letters exchanged between the painter and Stieglitz. “The play is about them and their love,” Jade O’Keeffe said. “It came from the letters they sent to each other. It was a three-decade correspondence.”
Held every other year, the Rough Writers Festival takes its cue from the exhibit at the fine arts center’s gallery; in 2013, the first year of the festival, the theme was family. This year, a touring exhibit of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artwork will open at the CSFAC June 27.
“We basically said in the guidelines to either write a play about Georgia O’Keeffe and her life, or to write a play that was a response to any of her artwork,” said Scott R.C. Levy, CSFAC’s executive director of performing arts and producing artistic. The festival and exhibit are part of a large-scale community recognition of the painters works and impact. Since the fine arts center includes a professional theatre company, a fine art gallery and a visual arts school (“a mall of art under one roof,” as Levy puts it), its Year with Georgia O’Keeffe is billed as a “year-long immersion” into the artist’s works and themes.
Of more than 50 plays submitted to the festival, eight were selected by Levy and his team. Four of the writers are Colorado Springs residents. The plays will be presented as staged readings; three are short plays and the remaining five are full lengths of either one or two acts.
Nathan Halvorson, associate director of performing arts, said the plays featured in the festival are diverse in subject matter and tone.
“We really are running the gamut this year,” Halvorson said. “We’ve got a play called The Last Rabbit that is very adult and mature. But it’s also in the same evening with three one-act biographical pieces about Georgia O’Keeffe.”
Each play will be read twice during the two-week festival; playwrights are encouraged to take feedback from the first iteration and make changes to their scripts before the second read-through.
“It’s always good to get feedback,” Levy said. “Hopefully the playwright is willing to continue that development. I think all our playwrights this year are.”
The feedback sessions will be moderated to allow audience members to express their opinions in an organized and clear manner. “Getting to the heart of the piece and being helpful is the goal,” said Halvorson. “I also think it’s super-fun to be an active participant in the creation of new work.”
O’Keeffe, speaking before her first reading, said she wasn’t nervous about audience feedback. “I’m really excited,” she said. “I’m going in open-minded.”
In addition to Jade O’Keeffe’s Two Nine One Letters, the featured plays are The Flower by Alyson Mead of Los Angeles; A Woman on Paper by Susan Shafer of New York City; Early Sunday Morning by Dara O’Brien of New York City; and four short plays by local writers: Georgia on His Mind by Sue Bachman, Mary and Georgia by Grant Swenson, The Real Meaning of Things by Todd Wallinger and The Last Rabbit by Jessica Weaver.