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Think Outside the Bard

Jonathan Shipley • Literary Rights, Licensing & Mgmt. • April 4, 2008

Endless readings of new plays doesn’t have to be the norm.

A culture war being waged in American theatre is this: play development versus production.

“New plays are at risk,” says Polly Carl, producing artistic director of Minneapolis’s The Playwrights’ Center, “and getting theatres to dive into the risk, to experiment with audiences and to develop the tastes of audiences, is the greatest challenge of the American theatre.”

A play is written. It’s a good play. It needs some tweaking, though. A theatre says to the playwright, “Let’s have a reading!” A reading is done and so, in essence, is the play.

“I have endless stories of great plays not getting produced — endless,” says Carl.

There are, however, organizations across the country that are trying to eliminate this “development hell,” helping writers get their work fully produced. Here are two that tackle the problem from different perspectives.

Lucky for Playwrights
The spark for 13P came in a conversation between Playwrights Madeleine George and Rob Handel at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. Handel floated the idea to George about starting a company based solely around the philosophy of putting playwrights in charge of a guaranteed production of their own new work. When they returned to New York the two recruited others, and they ended up with 13 playwrights — the 13P — instigating a new producing culture, one in which there is no substitute for a fully-realized production of a new play. Their 2008-09 season includes a play by Whiting Award-winner Sheila Callaghan and another by Lucy Thurber.

Not only does 13P allow playwrights to showcase their new works as fully-produced plays, but they, the writers, act as artistic directors of their own plays.

“It’s a little bit like the company gets remade every time there’s a new show because the entire group is totally different, and each playwright wants to run it differently,” says George. In order to give the playwrights the maximum chance to succeed, they developed a few procedural guidelines.

First off, while the playwrights would act as artistic directors, and have such decision-making powers as how to apportion their budget, they would not be in charge of producing the play.

“Writers are just abominable at that stuff,” says George, only half joking. “It was very important that we notice early on with appropriate humility that we were going to screw it up if we did it ourselves, that we needed to bring in young, enthusiastic, nascent producers to produce us.”

It’s also important to be sure that the producer is in-line with the philosophy of a playwright-driven production, and won’t try to impose their aesthetic upon the process — while the playwright understands that the budget and the practical limits of what can happen (as pointed out by the producer) will obviously dictate some aspects about the production.

“We’ve been tremendously lucky in our association with our Executive Producer Maria Goyanes, who we got involved with when she was sort of fresh out of undergraduate and just starting to be a producer,” says George. “But it’s because when she joined up with us we were at our fiercest in terms of articulating our mission. So, although she has a lot of opinions and a lot of experience that she wants the playwrights to benefit from when they come in, she has never, ever tried to impose anything aesthetic on anyone.”

The second key decision George attributes to 13P’s success?

“Don’t run it like a collective.”

George believes that a “chore-wheel”-type mentality where each person is responsible for different tasks on a recurring basis will quickly lead to the dissolution of the group. 13P does not demand their members or staff participate in anything, they only ask that each member participate in whatever fashion they can at any given moment.   

“If everybody is forced to contribute something, regardless of their will and their desire, you lose people,” says George. “It is sort of counterintuitive. The typical ‘Hey, let’s put on a show’ thing is more about egalitarianism, it’s more like everybody pitch in — I’ll make the costumes you do the lights — but I think that the success of 13P is largely due to the fact that we didn’t take that route.”

Don’t misinterpret — the playwrights are still involved in the process, whether it’s getting together for mailings, making curtain speeches or helping at the box office.

“People help with other kinds of stuff — but it’s very much on an as-needed basis and there is no official designation.”
When it comes to getting people involved it also helps that 13P is a social — and finite — experience. Once the 13 plays have been produced, they’ll no longer exist.

“It’s such a social experience being in 13P, it involves so much fun — going to parties, and doing mailings and different stuff like that, but then when it’s your turn, it’s your ups,” says George. “It’s all about figuring out where your priorities are.”

And the deliberate expiration date?

“There’s sort of the point of 13P as a life responsive organization that’s being made and remade according to the needs to individuals, and it really runs counter to what happens to a lot of theaters when they institutionalize,” says George. “It’s invigorating to us to feel like this is the thing that’s happening in the present moment, and it’s happening for a reason, and it serves each one of us as we need it to serve us, and then, you know, poof, it’s gone.”

Do Your Networking
Getting a new play produced is not the only obstacle, though.

“Many theatres are doing premieres,” says Dramaturge Liz Engelman, now serving as board chair for the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas association. “The hard part is actually getting these plays to be done a second and third time.”

Enter the National New Play Network and its Continued Life of New Plays Fund.

The National New Play Network is a means to facilitate communication between theatres that are the “new play hubs” in their region, spread across America. These are generally larger theatres, with budgets between $500,000–$4 million a year, according to General Manager David Golston’s estimates.

It works like this: The literary departments of the member theatres read scripts that are submitted to them. If they like a script, they “pitch” it at one of the monthly online meetings, or at the face-to-face meetings that happen twice a year. If other theatres are interested in the play, they pass the script between them and start a conversation between themselves as to whether or not they’d like to produce the script. If three or more artistic directors find a play worthy to produce, NNPN invests in that particular play. This investment comes in the form of a $5,000 donation to each of the theatres producing the play.

“That money can go to pretty much anything the theatre needs it to,” says Golston. “Although we do put an emphasis on the collaboration aspect of the development of the play.”

These theatres all agree to individually produce the same script — these aren’t co-productions, where the same production of a play travels to different theatres, and those theatres spread the costs between them. Recently, David Rambo’s The Ice Breaker found success in San Francisco, Indianapolis and Boston. Zina Camblin’s And Her Hair Went With Her showed in Indianapolis, Long Branch, New Jersey and Los Angeles. Eric Coble’s For Better opened in Denver, Miami and New Orleans.

Coble has been delighted at the successes he’s had as part of the NNPN program. “It’s been great. I loved getting to know theatres I’ve never worked with before,” he says, “to meet their audiences and see what they think about the issues of the play. We now have a relationship to build from.” He enjoyed the production process the whole way through, having three sets of director’s eyes watching over rewrites. “I knew they already loved the piece and were committed to it.”

While the NNPN facilitates communication between theatres and funds new play production, it doesn’t promote any individual scripts itself.

“We encourage the playwrights to have a relationship with the member theatres,” says Golston. “We want to get away from the ‘New York down’ model, and our alternative is not the ‘NNPN down’ model either. What we’re really talking about is sort of a grassroots effort coming from the regional theatres up, sending a play up that might not have otherwise gotten attention if it was never produced in New York.”

Wherever they’re produced, it’s good to know that theatres like 13P and those involved with NNPN are there supporting writers.

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