Simon Stephens’ Curious Incidents |

Simon Stephens’ Curious Incidents

Playwright-in-residence discusses Aspen Fringe Fest plans

Nikki Boxer and Mike Monroney in “Heisenberg.” (Courtesy Aspen Fringe Festival)

The Tony-winning playwright Simon Stephens is learning something as the Aspen Fringe Festival’s playwright-in-residence.

The London-based writer, best known for the Broadway version of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” this week in Aspen has been immersed in works that span his career. He is working with local actors and the Fringe team to stage two nights of theater at the Wheeler Opera House this weekend, including a full production of the two-hander “Heisenberg,” excerpts from a half-dozen plays and brand-new work.

“Taking excerpts from different plays, written at different times in my life, when I was at different ages, and had different relationships to my work and putting them together, it’s little moments from my creative life trying to tell me what on Earth it is that I seem to have done with my life,” Stephens, 51, said with a laugh Wednesday in the lobby of the Mountain Chalet. “And hopefully, that will have a cumulative meaning for other people.”

Working with Fringe founder David Ledingham and local performers ranging from teen actor Jessica Vesey (who will perform a monologue from “Curious Incident”) to Aspen theater stalwarts Nikki Boxer and Mike Monroney (who star in “Heisenberg”), Stephens is seeing his work anew through their interpretations.

“They tell me what the play is about,” Stephens said. “The reason that I write for theater — rather than writing prose or poetry or even film — is that by its very nature, it’s not only collaborative, but it’s alive. The meaning of a play for me is never revealed in my mind. It’s never revealed on the page. It’s never even really revealed in the rehearsal room. The meaning is revealed as soon as it’s put in front of an audience, which means it’s constantly shifting and changing.”

Getting to Aspen has been a long time coming for the playwright.

Simons had been scheduled to be in residence during the 2020 festival, which was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. As he was delayed, he contributed new work to Fringe Fest events staged for distanced and masked audiences during the early days of the pandemic. So he’s been collaborating with the Fringe team for two years now, though he just met them all in person for the first time this week.

He said he thinks it’s too early to know how the pandemic may have changed him creatively, but he says he certainly looks at theater with a new lens of gratitude after the long global shutdown of live performances.

“I remember going to the theater for the first time after the pandemic, things I would always take for granted before I realized were just remarkable,” he said. “Things like the front of house stuff, like the ushers, the ticket-takers. Like, ‘Wow, you stand there and take my ticket!’ And how remarkable the possibility of some form of shared space is — that we can sit with strangers and engage in a shared experience at the same time as one another.”

He was also part of the creative team behind the groundbreaking audio-only theatrical experience “Blindness,” which played in socially distanced sound booths in London, New York and elsewhere around the world near the height of pandemic public health restrictions in summer 2020.

“That was amongst the most kind of moving experiences in theater that I’ve had,” he said. “Just you know, believing, ‘We can bring it back, man.'”

Ledingham said audiences who immerse themselves in Stephens for two nights will be rewarded by seeing the many links between his diverse works.

“It’s like going to a music festival to an evening of Beethoven — there are these echoes in all of the plays that are so interesting,” Ledingham said.

Friday night’s production of Stephens’ “Heisenberg” reunites the trio behind the memorable 2014 and 2015 Fringe production of “Venus in Fur,” which starred Boxer and Ledingham with Monroney directing.

Saturday’s excerpts, with a cast of 15, include early Stephens work, including his career-making “Curious Incident,” new unproduced work and experimental collaborations with local and international film and dance artists.

“It’s like a cabaret of Simon Stephens,” the playwright joked.

The night includes Stephens himself reading live a freshly written monologue, timed to a choreographic video featuring Aspen-based dancer Seia Rassenti Watson and directed by local filmmaker Graham Northrup. Filmed in the Roaring Fork Valley at locations including Mushroom Rock and the Fryingpan Valley, Stephens’ accompanying text includes portions of a work — then titled “I Want to Wake Up” — that he wrote for the Fringe Fest’s 2020 “Fall Fest” production. It has since grown into a larger meditation on desire, he said.

“The moment before desire was the very last moment before birth,” Stephens said. “So what I’ve tried to do is to try to write what it would be like to be in the very last seconds before you were born.”

Also on the bill are “Sea Wall,” a film collaboration with the Scottish actor Andrew Scott, and scenes from his plays “Punk Rock,””Maria” (written in German and never before performed in English) and “Morning Sun,” which premiered on Broadway last year with Edie Falco in the lead role.

“Morning Sun” was inspired by an earlier visit to Colorado when Stephens and his wife came to see the touring production of “The Curious Incident” at the Denver Center and road-tripped through the mountains. The play spans the main character’s life and includes a key section about Estes Park.

“Bringing ‘Morning Sun’ back to Colorado feels really beautiful, ” Stephens said.

He begins his stint in Aspen after a remarkably productive stretch of writing during the pandemic, during which he said he settled into a quiet, homebound routine. In the past two years he has written three new plays along with a collaboration with the choreographer Imogen Knight and the drum-and-bass DJ High Contrast. (“Whether any of it is any good has yet to be determined,” he quipped).

Stephens is also working on a theatrical adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” which hasn’t been officially announced yet but news of which has been leaked online. Stephens said that has been one of the draws for him to explore more of Colorado this summer and Estes Park’s purportedly haunted Stanley Hotel, which inspired the original King novel.

The diverse work onstage this weekend in Aspen and in the offing for the future from Stephens, he said, all links back to a simple motivation for him as a writer.

“All I’ve ever really tried to do is write pieces of theater that I wish somebody else had written so I could go and watch them,” he said. “As I get older, and as I change, and the world around me changes, the impulses of the type of theater that I’m going to want to watch will change.”

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