Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Catch-22 of Producing New Plays and Playwrights

If you want to make a reputation for yourself as a company , produce quality plays, but if you develop a play into something of quality , chances are
you can't produce it because you don't have the reputation necessary to produce a work of quality.

Someone please help me.

After years of working to develop new plays and playwrights and slowly climbing the ladder of credibility and recognition, landing our own space in the biggest marketplace of all, New York City, we're faced with a terrible problem.

Playwrights don't want us to produce their plays.

This illness is rampant and I'm not aware whether other artistic directors share my angst or no, but it seems as soon as we find a play that's worth producing or sinking our teeth into with real investment, you bet that playwright has an agent in her or his ear telling him/her to hold out for more .

This is true even of playwrights with whom we have a long standing creative relationship. It's the brick wall of development and creates literally a log jam of quality in the American Theatre.

Now, of course, there are playwrights with plays who would love for us to produce them, but customarily the hungrier the playwright for the production opportunity the less likely he/or she is to have a play that is really ready to be produced at the time . Give a playwright a reading at a big name theatre and forget it .

I will speak of the journey I had with one such playwright :.

Artistic Director: "Hi we've read your play and think it's wonderful and a perfect fit for our company."

Playwright: "Thirlled ot have your interest but it's having a reading at (major regional theatre company). Let's talk after the reading, we have to see how that goes.!"

five months pass

Artistic Director: "Hi, we're still interested in producing your play. We think it's fantastic!
What did (major regional theatre company) say?"

Playwright: "They passed on producing it, but now its getting a reading in town with (high profile off-off bradway theatre company). I have to wait and see what they say."

four months pass

Artistic Director: "Hi, we're still interested in your play. We think it's fantastic! We would love to produce it. What did (high profile off-off broadway theatre company) say?

Playwright: "They are not going to produce it. But we're going to wait."

Artistic Director: "For what?"

Playwright: "For an important theatre company to decide to produce it who has enough money and prestige to promote my career to a new level of success."

Artistic Director: "But we're importnt, doing meaningful work, getting recognized for the effort by major New York publications."

Playwright: "Of course you're important but you're not important enough and I only have a few plays and I have to hold out for the best offer."

And so it goes. Capitalism killing countless opportuinites in the theatre. This same conversation takes on differeing permutations until the only way a theatre can be guaranteed the opportunity to produce a play is to commission the work themselves which is costly and frequently ends up with a play, for whatever reason, that is unproducable.

How many plays travel across the Atlantic developed in small theatres in England where playwrights are less territorial about their works. And to be fair, the territorialism mentioned above is primarily fostered by the almost disappearing entity, the literary agent.

Literary agents have to advise their clients to protct thier most potential works because those are the hopes they have of actually negotiating a circumstance worth the effort
of negotiations.

So plays, written in the moment, in response to a particular time or problem in our society are socked away, and other plays with less to offer the moment of now are perpetrated on the public making the voice of the theatre weaker and less powerful.

Who is respnsible for perpetrating this glut? I contend the very rganizations which are also charged with developing new work here in our city, The Public Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop. These fine institutions develop new writers in the same way as smaller organizations do now. They are basically reaching out in development to off set the competition from Off-Off Broadway theatres by having Off-Off Broadway styled development wings that confer more prestige on to playwrights.

Secondly, we have an American Theatre that has become obsessed with virginity, and the above mentioned agents, the matchmakers of the American Theatre. To offer the 'world premiere' of a new work is now a bargaining commodity that necessitates higher nd higher bids. If the world premiere is taken a host of theatre companies walk away from the table. The system functions in much the same way as old tribal customs bidding for a young woman's virginity to the highest bidder and walking away from the table if not enough was proposed. One can only imagine the number of beautiful women who grw into sexless spinsters during such times just as the number of beautiful and worthy plays sitting waiting to be offered to a wider audience all for the protection of the blessed 'premiere'. Our company attempted indifference to this prcatice in our younger days but four years ago we buckled with a a "if you can't beat 'em , join 'em" attitude of insisting that new work be done on our stage without conferring to us some notice of a premiere status of one kind or another . And so we joined the problem and not its solution in an effort to cultivate for our own company the respect that seemed necessary to pitch for
the quality works we were after in development.

But, of course, we've learned that demanding that respect and getting it are not enough to confer confidence upon that lgion of agents we rail aganst above.

Someone help. If you know of a really worthy play, ready for production and seeking an earnest and experienced producer, working on a shoestring budget of course, but nonetheless working, send them to

We would be happy to make their acquaintance.

Conversely, if you know of any theatre company make over artists who can convert a small, industrious well meaning theatre company into the kind of theatre company writers of quality salivate for the chance to be produced at, send them our way and we would be happy to take their advice.


Blogger Sherry M said...

As a playwright who gave up writing for a few years because I was so sick of living in what I call 'workshop hell' (several readings/workshops, zero productions), I was pleased to read this piece articulating the flip side to the same problem. Now, can we all somehow work together to advance the cause and realize good theatre for the benefit of everyone? Thank you for enlightening me. And on a side note, thank you for producing a fellow Canadian playwright (V.T.).

12:15 PM  

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