The Benefits of Not Being a Guest

How being a Playwright In Residence affected the World Premiere of My Latest Play (I think.)

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb is the Playwright-in-Residence at Z Space through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here

In April 2016, we closed the world premiere production of my play A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry at Z Space in San Francisco. It was a sold out, extended, well received, delightfully wonderful, filthy, and successful production directed by Jason Eagan, starring (and explicitly written for) the brilliant Danny Scheie and gorgeously produced by Lisa Steindler and the entire Z Space team. (I’m not bragging or biased, just stating facts.)

The production was a culmination, of sorts, of my first three years as Z Space’s Playwright in Residence, a program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which has put me on salaried staff at the theatre. I have a desk. My primary work is to write plays, and I also go to the staff meetings, host a writers group, and get involved in assorted ways in the life and work of the theatre. I also engage in office banter.

a desk
My desk. Lisa is just behind that wall. Photo by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. 

Z Space is an artistic and physical home for me, not to mention a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. I believe this intimate relationship impacted all aspects of the process of bringing House Tour from inkling to production, in both artistic and practical ways. Here are a few personal thoughts on how it did:

1) I took more risks, the theatre embraced the risks, and that had a lot to do with mutual touching.

The project began with a mutual commitment: I would write a play for Z Space, a 13,000 square foot former can factory, and Z Space would produce it, without any knowledge of what said play would be (no pressure!). I remember our first discussions about it were not so much about what the subject of the play would be, but about the project being something that would stretch me, perhaps even a style or type of play I’ve never done. “Take a risk” was, in fact, the primary trigger for the project. Z Space, as a habit, produces adventurous, risky work. Inspired by what I’d seen and was seeing there made me want to step out of my own comfort zone. With this case, the mission statements of the theatre and the playwright were aligned from the start.

The primary “risk” for me was structural: to write a play that would not have a seated audience and that would somehow move around the cavernous Z Space, exploiting the size while maintaining intimacy. I wanted to see if I could write a physically immersive experience for an audience alongside a literary one. It took a lot of “pre-writing” and sketching that was helped by my physical proximity and accessibility to Lisa Steindler, the artistic director. I could stroll over to Lisa’s desk and share new epiphanies as they happened, such as, “Hey, I think it’s a play about the pleasure of doing shameful things. Hey, I think it’s a one-person play and I keep hearing Danny Scheie so can I write for him? Hey, I think it’s a house tour through a mansion! Hey, that means you’ll probably only be able to have fifty people see the show each performance instead of 250, OK?”

All the way, Lisa encouraged me to keep going and exploring (smoothly masking any fears she may have had that I might be developing an unmitigated disaster). The writing process was slow and clunky with pitfalls and stalls and gaps and some wrong turns and mistakes. As per usual. I didn’t really have a solid ending until December. Last August, I was convinced the entire audience would walk through an anus at the end. Literally (but also, you know, a metaphor). Lisa had to sit with that idea for months, months, until I found a much more emotional, and slightly less sphinctrous conclusion. And she continued to support me and the project. That is trust! That is faith! That was definitely a result of my being just on the other side of a partition, in the building every week, on staff. I also think it helped me stay on track because I wanted to justify that trust, and make sure this particular thing I was making was worthy of it, and worthy of all the resources being put into the manifestation of this play.

2) I was able to design and fund my own Workshop Hell

Because of my residency, I was tasked with, and empowered to, structure the early development of the piece and create a schedule and strategy that would best help my writing of the play. And I had a budget to allocate towards it. In the case of the Mellon residencies, there is a discretionary fund available to me to use for research, travel, and compensating collaborators. I used those funds to support five workshops over two years, each with different goals and structures.

The first workshop was a simple one-day event with Danny, Lisa, and myself where I brought in about twenty-five pages of fragments of character text and lists of possible things that could happen, not written with any dramatic structure at all. It was raw and rough but was exactly what I needed to confirm the concept. Later workshops varied between intense text work to exploring the physical world of the piece. I had room to meander and experiment in the process. I always made sure I had writing time within a workshop, so I could quickly act on the discoveries made in the room. For each workshop at Z Space, I was able to pay Danny, and later the director and set designer for their time in the room. Not only could I demand what I needed, I could pay for it.

I got to design a development process that really worked well for me. It kept my momentum, stimulated and inspired me, and kept me accountable—I love a deadline. Being on staff played a big part in allowing this planning. Having money at my discretion to apply to it gave me the muscle to execute that plan. Even if I am not on staff at a theatre developing a play of mine, this experience will make me feel more empowered to articulate what I really need from a development process.

Two men smiling at the camera
Playwright and Actor. Photo by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb.

3) I willingly did a bunch more shit than just write the play.

Because I was on staff, I felt eager to take on a larger role than simply “playwright” for this project. I felt a greater amount of responsibility and accountability. I felt like a producer.

I was more involved and included in the design process than I’ve ever been. This was particularly crucial for the type of show being created, with design and script intimately connected, requiring a far more intensive and ongoing collaboration and conversation. I attended almost all of the production meetings and was on all the email chains…unless there was a secret one I don’t know about discussing how to convince me to not have the audience walk through an anus at the end. I also found myself just as interested in the logistics of the design process as the creative aspects. There were many “Immersive Play” problems to be solved, mostly around how to move around an audience and I always wanted to be part of those discussions. Again, my presence at the theatre every week made it extremely easy to find me to talk about something on an ad hoc basis.

a sketch
Early sketching during a workshop of the set possibilities. It wouldn’t look anything like this. Photo by 
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

Being a resident also allowed me to be involved in numerous non-performance aspects of the production. I had frequent, casual conversations and brainstorms with the marketing team, the development team, the artistic director, the production manager, etc. At Z Space, when I’m saying “marketing team,” or “development team” I’m referring to one or two people. We’re all in one big space and that personal relationship and contact allowed for ongoing fluid conversation. I got to do things like write my own marketing blurb, help with group sales and bringing in new audiences, and help engage with theatre supporters in new, robust ways. I also did some nitty gritty producorial stuff like secure artist housing in SF and NY, write the pre-show advance email telling people to wear good shoes, organize my own talkback (eek), and provide dinner for the crew on the two-show-Saturdays.

The type of involvement that I had on this play was not simply an appeasement of a cute desire for the playwright to be hands-on. It was an expectation and requirement of the theatre. It was part of my responsibility to the play, the production, and the company. This particular piece and its immersive nature, where the “show” began well before the audience arrived, required extra coordination amongst front and back of house, marketing, design, and fundraising, with a consistency of voice from the first press announcement to the post-show exit message. It was important for me to help maintain that consistency and I believe I played an important role in achieving that. Being a regular presence at the theatre and on staff was very helpful towards performing that role.

A playwright could provide unique, valuable insight to marketing, fundraising, and many other production aspects...It could be a worthwhile investment and compensation could be a great way to ensure a deeper involvement of the playwright’s in work that’s beyond the writing of the play.

4) Shared Ownership.

I think all of Z Space took pride and ownership in the production, and I believe that was key to its ultimate success. The piece manifested and grew within its walls and was inspired by its architecture and spirit. Communication was free and open and everyone was doing their best work. A personal risk and and an institutional risk aligned, and everyone was a part of its glory. If it had been a failure, I supposed everyone would have been part of that too, and this would be a very different report. Maybe next play.

A Few Take Away ideas for Theatres/Playwrights producing new work:

  1. What about putting the playwright in charge of designing the development process?  Give 'em a budget they can allocate towards fulfilling their commisiony duties? Every writer has their ideal process. Reconcile their needs and the needs of theatre so all may do their best work. 

  2. Develop means to keep open casual channels of engagement between your writer and the rest of the creative and production team. Coffee dates? A Facebook group? Group Text? Snapchat? A residency? 

  3. What about paying a playwright to participate in the production aspects of the piece? A playwright could provide unique, valuable insight to marketing, fundraising, and many other production aspects. My salary at Z Space paid for all of my time contributing to the producing efforts. It could be a worthwhile investment and compensation could be a great way to ensure a deeper involvement of the playwright’s in work that’s beyond the writing of the play.

PS. I still want to write a play where everyone has to walk through an anus. 

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