Creating a New Play Microcosm
Starting a theater company is much like getting ready to write a book report in the sixth grade. Before you get to the nitty-gritty, you first have to figure out the “Five Ws and One H.” Who? What? Where? Why? When? And, How? Much like my book reports in grade school, I’ve had to remember these questions when writing an analytic paper on a play in my literature classes or when I was writing a news story for my Broadcast Journalism classes. People who read stories, and want to be satisfied, want all the information to answer the “Five Ws and One H.”
The need to answer these questions also applies to teaching artists in your company and educating the audience in your community. I’ve made sure to answer these questions within the mission of the theater company I founded in St. Louis, Missouri and I try to answer these questions when we delve into new play development.
I started a series at the theater company called “The Curtain Openers,” where a ten-minute play is produced each night before one of our season’s full-length productions. The theater commissions these plays, produces them, and then publishes them at the end of the season in June. Our goal was to create a small microcosm of the entire life of a script, and to show younger actors, directors, and writers this process, and to allow them to meddle in any stage of that process.
People who read stories, and want to be satisfied, want all the information to answer the “Five Ws and One H.”
Here are the ‘Five Ws and One H” for our theater company’s “Curtain Opener” series:
WHO: Who did we want to serve with this project?
When we decided to start this series at the theater company it was at the end of my second summer at Hollins University’s Playwriting MFA program, a low-residency graduate program in Roanoke, Virginia where students attend classes for six weeks every summer. So, I have a group of young actors (mainly, fresh out of their bachelor programs) in St. Louis and a slew of emerging writers I’m surrounded by every summer in Roanoke. The theater company ensemble wanted more roles and the writers wanted productions. Good or bad, it was going to be win-win.
WHAT, WHY, & HOW: What were we doing? And why were we doing it? How are we doing it?
The “Curtain Opener” series is structured like this:
- I personally ask a playwright that I have history with to write a ten-minute play. I do this to emphasize to the ensemble that a heavy amount of new play development relies on the relationships that a theater’s Artistic Director has with writers from around the country.
- We instruct the playwright on the limitations: No set, one male character, one female character, and be inspired by the production it’s opening. Due to small studio space, we don’t have the luxury of having much of a set for a ten-minute play right before our full production. We don’t have much of a green room or backstage area either, so we can’t have too many additional cast members running around. And, the theater company wants a companion piece to our main production, making sure the mood is set rather than questioned.
- I give the script to the ensemble and ask, “Who wants it?” I want to make sure that anyone in our ensemble gets the opportunity to direct or that they know they have the safety of voicing that they would like to try other things than acting. (And, like any good Artistic Director, I might lean heavily on a specific actor or actress to play something out of their comfort zone. Something that might help them grow, because, it’s only a ten-minute play, right?)
- I mess with the director (my favorite part). Sometimes I let them wade out in too deep water and see what they do, sometimes I stick them with a cast they didn’t pick, sometimes I’m so close to the process they can feel my breath on the back of their necks. I want to see what their communication skills are like when they get stressed and how they treat the actors after I put them in a bad mood. This is basically a litmus test to determining if they can/want to direct a full-length production.
- We put it up in front of the audience. We’ve had some positive audience feedback, but I would be remiss to not divulge a long running joke around the company (promise not to tell anyone in St. Louis?). St. Louis audiences are known for being late. Maybe that goes for many other areas of the country, but we seat a lot of latecomers. So, with the ten-minute play, we get to start the night on time and also make sure late arrivals don’t miss the start of the main production. To list this as a “why” would be to belittle the ten-minute play, but we like to look on the bright side of things around here.
- Debrief (this releases the stress from step 4). We talk to the director and actors of the piece and talk about the process, personal expectations, audience reaction, and notes on the script itself. This is especially exciting if neither the director nor actors have worked with a new play before. We talk about any communication the director had with the playwright (which we encourage, but sometimes doesn’t happen). Then we pass off relevant notes to the playwright, who makes any changes before publication.
- Publish the plays. This is a mixed bag of rewards and self-teaching. The administrative side of the theater takes over and experiments with layouts, publishing software, writing blurbs for the back cover, etc., leading to a giant leap in our knowledge of design work and advertising creativity. Publishing the plays consists of about 80 volunteer man hours (hopefully that number goes down as we get better at it), but it’s worth it to solidify the end of the play’s journey through our little project. The actors get their name on the cast list page, the playwrights get to experience the process of publication, and the theater gets something cool and shiny to put on the box office table.
WHERE & WHEN: Where is this going to be beneficial? When would be the best time for this?
Em Piro, founder of St Lou Fringe, once said to me, “St. Louis theater is nomadic.” I see a lot of shuffling around, be it individual artists or whole theater companies, and a great deal of artist sharing. And there are some great theater companies engaging in new work right now, like First Run Theatre (world premieres of St. Louis playwrights), R-S Theatrics (a lot of St. Louis premieres), and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (who will do anything they see missing from St. Louis), just to name a few. It’s my goal to train members of our ensemble thoroughly in new play development and what it entails so they are equipped to work at larger companies with high expectations.
So, that’s the “Five Ws and One H” of our “Curtain Opener” series. And it’s been successful. The ten-minute pieces sometimes get reviewed more favorably than the full-length production (as was the case with Laura King’s For Annie’s Sake, which was performed in front of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone). One actor made a really strong bond with one of the playwrights through the process and has since directed another piece by the writer outside of our company, becoming a champion of that writer. And that’s probably the best, unforeseen, outcome of this project, the strong director-playwright relationships. Good or bad, it ‘s been win-win.