Josh Hartwell, writer, actor and director, is one of the area’s treasures. A modest, diffident soul, he seems to prefer being out of the limelight, but we recently named him one of our 100 Colorado Creatives, and he’ll be getting even more attention this week, when he directs George Brant’s one-woman play Grounded, which won plaudits in both London and New York, for the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s first production of the season — a regional premiere and the company’s second foray into the Denver arena. (The first was a collaboration with Denver Center Attractions on The Santaland Diaries.) And Hartwell’s own play, Dylan Went Electric, is receiving a production this weekend at Miners Alley Playhouse in Golden, under the direction of Jim Hunt.
Hartwell is dealing with the double load of stress by “really focusing,” he says. “Just taking it a day at a time.”
Coincidentally, both plays have socio-political connotations, though they’re very different and Grounded is the more immediately relevant of the two. The play is about a fighter pilot who becomes pregnant and is grounded by the military.
“She’s a very passionate fighter pilot,” Hartwell says. “She belongs in the sky, in the blue, as she says. After she has her baby, they give her a new gig as a drone pilot in Las Vegas. It’s about the disconnect that she has between flying a jet and sitting in a cold trailer in the middle of the Las Vegas desert manning a drone twelve hours away from Afghanistan. There’s guilt and slow breakdown as she realizes what the drones are meant to do. It’s about drones and PTSD, humanity, war.
“When she’s a fighter pilot in the sky she doesn’t see it, doesn’t have to witness it — drops bombs, they’re gone. But they have cameras on the drones and in the trailer in the desert she can see everything. It makes it all human, real. Her instinct is to treat it just like when she’s a fighter pilot, but she slowly realizes that it’s not the same. She can’t just wipe it out of her mind and it eats at her slowly.”
BETC artistic director Stephen Weitz had already picked Laura Norman for the role of the pilot when he contacted Hartwell. Hartwell had directed Norman in BETC’s Ghost Writer last year — for which she won a Best of Denver — and he jumped at the chance: “The number one reason I decided to do the project was that she was attached to it,” Hartwell says. “The reason she’s perfect for this role is that she has a quiet strength. It’s a completely different character from Myra in Ghost Writer, but both characters do have a hidden strength, and that’s what she’s able to tap into. There was a reserve Myra had to have — and it’s a different kind of reserve required for her to play an air force fighter pilot.
“It’s hard,” he continues. “I knew it would be difficult to direct a one-woman show. I have to keep track of her energy level and make sure she doesn’t blow her voice out. She has to hold the audience’s attention alone for an hour and twenty minutes.
“This is a story that’s so timely and needs to be seen, a dark play and a cold play. It’s hard to step back right now. Anything about drones and war is going to be difficult to shake off at the end of a rehearsal or performance. Laura’s pretty wiped out by the end of rehearsal.
“Without being preachy, the play comments on the use of drones. It taught me more than I ever knew before. A lot of people in the audience will walk away with new knowledge. The character mentions fairness several times in the script — not that war is ever fair. But that is not a fair fight when the threat of death is removed for one of the participants.”
Also on Hartwell’s mind is Dylan Went Electric. Followers of the folk movement will remember that when Bob Dylan switched to an electric guitar, a lot of his fans felt betrayed. This play is about the inhabitants of an underground bar in Greenwich Village in 1969 — although Dylan had actually gone electric some years earlier. “It feels like such a turning point, 1968 and ’69,” says Hartwell. “And it has to do with the turning point that Dylan created when he turned his back on his folk fans. I wanted to have a little piece about the Stonewall Riots that took place blocks away, too. The show is meant to give people a feel for that era and place. It has a lot to do with music. One of the main characters is a folk musician, an acoustic musician rehearsing songs in this bar during the day. I wrote the lyrics, leaving the actor who plays the character, to come up with the music.” That actor is Damon Guerrasio, who plays with several local bands.
Being asked what kind of plays he writes “kind of surprises me,” Hartwell says. “I don’t get asked that question very much. It’s a combination of things. Sometimes a phrase, sometimes music. I write from a lot of darkness, but I’m also influenced by music, rock and roll. I had my John Lennon play, Reaching for Comfort, and my Jim Morrison play, Contrived Ending, based on a friend of mine who had been a big Doors fan. The starting point is music and pop culture, and then the other things come later. This is generally speaking. I’ve written all my plays differently. If it wasn’t pretentious and wouldn’t make people laugh, I think it would be cool to have a card that said ‘Rock and Roll Playwright.’ But with that card, I don’t think they’d expect a 41-year-old bald guy with no tattoos.”
Grounded opens Thursday, September 11 and runs through September 28 at Avenue Theater, 417 East 17th Avenue. Tickets are $16 to $27; call 303-321-5925 or go to avenuetheater.com.
Dylan Went Electric opens Friday, September 12 and runs through October 19 at Miners Alley, 1224 Washington Avenue in Golden. Tickets are $12 to $23; call 303-935-3044 or go to minersalley.com.