Scary new things” is how the Actors Theatre of Louisville characterized the audience barrier for attending the company’s prestigious Humana Festival of New Plays. It’s a familiar concern, and one that prevents some theatres from producing new works at all.
But in Louisville, a change in strategy produced significant results as the company changed its focus from “product” to “process,” from “great plays” to “high-quality productions,” and from “passive feedback” to “active feedback, ” according to Director of Marketing & Communications Kory P. Kelly.
The company also worked to create a celebration of the process, provide more access and reduce price risk. The result, Kelly reports, was a 15% increase in single ticket sales over a four-year period, as well as a significant increase in audience engagement, media coverage and community knowledge of the festival itself.
The Actors Theatre of Louisville is not alone. Many theatres across the country have developed similar strategies to successfully involve and engage audiences for new works.
In Washington state’s North Puget Sound, just south of the Canadian border, the Actors Theatre of Orcas Island blends two different approaches to create a successful season—a festival of new 10-minute plays and including a new work in its main stage productions, as well.
“The Ten-Minute Playfest is, by far, our most popular show of the year,” says Actors Theatre president Doug Bechtel, “so popular that we can charge half of what we charge for a regular production—and it’s still our most profitable.”
The Playfest is juried by an anonymous committee of experienced playwrights who read and offer suggestions on the plays submitted. The committee gives Bechtel a list of plays, ranked from best to worst. A second committee, made up of actors, directors and other knowledgeable theatre people, also review the plays and submits rankings. Bechtel then makes the final decision on which will be produced.
“We offer the selected scripts to directors and ask them to choose the one they want to direct,” Bechtel says. “This is also a chance for new directors to show their capabilities, but we try not to have a first-time director direct the work of a first-time playwright.”
A benefit of the process is that friends and family of the playwrights, actors and directors attend the performance, which boosts ticket sales.
“Most important, our audiences love the variety of the 10-minute format,” he says. “We hear over and over, ‘If I don’t like what I’m seeing now, there will be something else in 10 minutes.’”
The Playfest accustoms audiences to the concept of new works, and provides a positive, enjoyable playgoing experience that rubs off on the regular season as well.
“For us, it used to be true that Neil Simon would bring a bigger audience than an unheard-of playwright,” Bechtel says. “But that is not as true as it used to be. People have grown to trust us and our choice of plays. If the audience knows you always present quality work, they will accept unknown playwrights. If your season and quality is all over the place, the audience has no idea whether the play will be well done, and will then seek out known works by known playwrights.”
Each year, the Orcas Island company presents a new full-length play that has seen one or two productions elsewhere.
“We don’t do premieres as a rule, because it takes too much work to get an untested script ready for the stage. Interestingly, playwrights don’t mind—they tell me that it is far harder to get a second production than a first—because the ‘world premiere’ cachet is gone.”
In September, the company presented Torso, an exploration of grief and revenge by Seattle playwright Keri Healey. It was the play’s second production anywhere.
In addition, every two or three years, the company presents fully staged readings of locally written works that are not suitable for the Playfest, due to language, style or length. Every few years, a six-week workshop on writing plays focuses on 10-minute plays, but also lays the foundation for longer plays. A monthly playwright forum lets writers read and share their work.
“Fascinated by the Process”
Some 2000 miles away in western Texas, Midland Community Theatre is entering its 24th year of the McLaren Memorial Comedy Play Writing Competition. Begun as a way of discovering new comedies suitable for production by community theatres, it morphed into the McLaren Festival—designed to involve directors and actors in the evaluation of submissions, as well as productions.
“We solicit new comedic scripts (full-length and one act) from across the country,” explains MCT production manager Tracy Alexander. “Each script is read and evaluated by a committee. Scripts advance to finalist status, and are then presented in readers theatre format for a live audience, which selects the winning show. The McLaren winner is usually selected by our Play Selection Committee for inclusion in an upcoming season.
“The McLaren play is promoted in the season brochure, poster, program and on the website. It’s become a brand—something that audiences have come to look forward to. The folks involved in the process help spread the word. Audiences seem to be fascinated by the process. They also enjoy meeting the playwrights at receptions during the run of the show. And of course, the playwrights use the win as a way to promote their work and spread the word about Midland Community Theatre.”
In Michigan, the Actors’ Theatre of Grand Rapids also support new plays and playwrights though public readings and the inclusion of new works, short and full length, in its programming calendar—once the works have achieved readiness for full production.
“Our Living on the Edge 10-minute play festival begins with a call for submissions each fall and culminates in a public performance of five works,” says Jonathan Clausen, director of development and marketing. “We generate, on average, around 30-50 submissions, and present the top five in a full production.”
Two years ago the Actors’ Theatre began its Pipeline Reading Series of full-length plays and had 200 submissions right off the bat. (“We now ask playwrights to send us just the first 10 pages of their script. If you’ve got it, it should be obvious in the first 10 pages.”)
Five were selected the first year, four the second year, with scheduled public readings in February on consecutive weekends. This provided the playwrights with useful feedback from audiences—the kind of “active feedback” the Actors Theatre of Louisville has also championed.
One of the Pipeline playwrights the company chose to continue working with is David Turkel, whose Nadia—about the convergence of art, love and war—premiered in September.
“Nadia went through the workshop phase and there were changes all along the way,” says Clausen. “We’re still learning about producing new works, but so far, the most popular shows have been ones with some connection to the community and its issues and interests. We’ve also learned to build long-term relationships with certain playwrights so that audiences become familiar with them, even though the work itself is new.”
Echoing Doug Bechtel’s words, Clausen says a key factor in producing new work successfully is establishing the company’s credibility. “If you have a history of doing good work, audiences are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Also, there is credibility in using certain directors that our audience knows—if they are involved, the community knows it will be good. The director would not put their name on it otherwise.”
Keeping the Audience in Mind
Oklahoma City’s Jewel Box Theatre also uses a playwriting competition to find new work and to provide an opportunity to create excitement when the play is premiered.
“We’ve been doing this since 1986," explains production director Chuck Tweed, now in his fourth decade with the company. “We’ve had incredible authors with which to work. That’s important—just because it won the competition does not mean the play is stage-ready. Time is spent with the author, shaping the play for production, which can take weeks, if not months. Our season patrons vote for various production awards, and many times there are winners from our original play. Because of our success with new productions, audiences are excited to see world premieres in the season.”
Tweed acknowledges that building an audience for a new work was a worry at first, “but by taking our audience’s preferences into consideration, each new play became a hit, and they now look forward to new works.”
The Jewel Box’s most recent world premiere is Excavation, by Rob Barron, which closes this month. The story of an archeological dig that links the lives of a woman from the 1800s and a young boy from the present, it was the theatre’s 2012 play competition winner.
These success stories make clear that it’s possible to create a commercially and artistically successful program that includes new works. But it’s also not for everybody.
“It’s OK not to be open to new works,” notes Grand Rapids’ Jonathan Clausen, “Not all theatres are up to that, and many are successful in not doing that. New works may have themes and language that aren’t comfortable for some audiences, and that’s OK to consider, too. There’s a place for all kinds of theatre. But if you play it too safe, you can shoot yourself in the foot.”