Jason Grote, writer for Smash, got the gig through a New Play Summit contact

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Katherine McPhee stars in Smash.
There's huge buzz around Smash, a television show premiering at 9 p.m. tonight on NBC. A procedural drama depicting the creation of a musical about Marilyn Monroe, Smash features such big-name acting talent as Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, as well as American Idol Katherine McPhee; Uma Thurman appears in a future storyline. Steven Spielberg is among the producers, and the songs are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, composers for Hairspray.

The names of a couple of the writers for Smash will be familiar to Denver audiences: Theresa Rebeck and Jason Grote met through readings at the New Play Summit at the Denver Center Theater Company; her Our House and his 1001 both received full productions in 2008. "I remember looking at Theresa in the audience during 1001, and hoping she'd laugh at the jokes," says Grote. "She did."

A couple of years later, Grote's financial situation was dire. His son, Reid, was born in the summer of 2010 -- soon after Grote lost his teaching job at Rutgers. The family lived on his unemployment and his wife's freelance work; they fought the State of New York for healthcare for Reid, and ended up paying for care and vaccinations out of pocket. The bureaucracy was stifling, says Grote, and "it was terrible to see what some people had to go through."

Grote reached out to Rebeck, who was then working on a prior incarnation of Smash with Showtime -- she is the lead writer -- and with her help and advice he was brought into the project last May.

Grote's stage plays are still on the map, too. His Civilization (All You Can Eat) got a mixed reception when it was read at the New Play Summit in 2011. Now, rewritten, it's opening at Woolly Mammoth in Washington. D.C., where a small controversy arose over the theater's decision to allow audience members to tweet their responses during the rehearsal process.

This didn't sit well with Grote. "My issue -- there is a way that theater and social media can interact, but I think it needs to be much more radical," he says. "There's a play called Sleep No More -- based on Macbeth -- which is set up like a haunted house and is much more interactive. And it's not narrative. That kind of production would be great to tweet, but not a regular play to which you actually have to pay attention. And the tweets at Woolly Mammoth are going to be moderated anyway, so what's the point?"

A brief piece about this dispute appeared in the Washington Post, but Grote eventually decided the tweets weren't a huge issue, and the play opens next week.

Reid is now nineteen months old, and thanks to Smash, his father has a steady paycheck and health insurance. "I come to an office every day," says Grote. "It's creative, fulfilling. I feel extremely lucky, thrilled that this is such an intelligent, fun, compassionate show, and that there's a uniform creative voice."

This year's New Play Summit will introduce more new and exciting creative voices. It runs February 10-12 at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, call 303-893-6030 or go to the website.

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