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Zombies Limping in Circles, or An Argument for a Taxonomy of NPD Technique

Are we lobotomizing new plays before they can express a single, coherent thought? Possibly, if we don't learn the lessons of another nascent discipline that once maimed the most vulnerable among us. Picture the silhouette of a man; a murky light source conceals all but the angles of his features. The voice is electronically altered so that we hear obscurely male overtones beneath the metallic buzz, but we can't discern much else. Let's call him Daron Carder. Or Derick Ramzey. This is his story:

“I am a new play development professional and I have a confession. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in development on a play I truly loved. But I ended up stabbing that play right between the eyes. I was working for a big theater in the Southwest back then, and I had already unsuccessfully pitched the play to the artistic director. She thought it needed work, and she was right, to some degree.

"Luckily, an external development workshop materialized shortly thereafter, bringing me and the playwright together, and offering the chance to help make this gem production-ready. I would return to the theater triumphant, bringing back their next main-stage hit. And even better: audiences everywhere could finally come to love this play as much as I did. There wasn't much to be done, really. Yeah, it needed some touches here and there, but little more than clarifying some of the rules of the disintegrating reality of the story. The playwright was early in his career, and just needed a few insightful notes. Or so I thought.

“On day two, after the initial reading for the company and a few intense, apparently fruitful discussions, the playwright locked himself in his room—locking his roommate, another playwright, out—and rewrote the play from top to bottom. He returned on day three with a jumbled, chaotic mess. With my notes on tone and reality as catalyst, the play had metastasized into something unrecognizable. The playwright lacked the craft to keep himself from wandering astray, and I lacked the right techniques to bring him back. A once gorgeous story now lumbered on, zombie-like, having volition but no soul. I gritted my teeth, and kept doing what I knew how to do: asking neutral questions, responding to what was evocative, reflecting on structure and character. I used every tool I had, all to no avail. Despite my best intentions, I had lobotomized this play.”

A man seated at a table tossing pages into the air.
Tossing up the pages. Photo by lightingoctopus.com

The difficulty in determining what went wrong in such situations lies in our collective failure to identify, discuss, and disseminate the wide variety of new play development (NPD) techniques. While increased scrutiny is being brought to bear to on how plays are selected for development and production, that inquiry has stopped at the rehearsal room door.

It is likely that playwrights have always had trusted partners to critique and support their work, but the expert “new play developer” is a relatively new phenomenon. We suggest that new play development (NPD) began to emerge as a distinct discipline when the process of refining a play became increasingly separated from a process leading directly to production. The founding of the O'Neill Playwrights Conference in 1965, the establishment of New Dramatists in 1949, the creation of the Doctor of Fine Arts in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale in 1966 are all indicators that theater culture in the United States was beginning to see new play development as a distinct skill-set from production. In other words, one could argue that NPD, as a regular practice, is only about 45 to 62 years old in the U.S., depending on where one begins to count.

During this same general period, in 1953, the pre-fontal lobotomy was becoming a mainstream procedure. One of its leading practitioners, Dr. William Beecher Scoville, had spent years trying to perfect the techniques of neuropsychology. While a lobotomy—essentially scrambling the pre-frontal lobes with an ice-pick—was successful in rendering violent patients docile and reducing seizures, it often left the patient in a “zombielike stupor.” Dr. Scoville believed that with refinement, he could achieve the beneficial results without the detrimental side effects.

In August of 1953, Dr. Scoville performed his modified procedure on Henry Moalison in order to control his increasingly violent seizures. Despite all the refinements Scoville had introduced to the procedure, Henry suffered a horrifying side effect: he was never again able to form a new memory. “Henry M,” as he was later called in scientific literature, inadvertently became one of the most celebrated and studied cases in neuropsychology history. But there is little doubt the man himself would likely have preferred to go back in time and avoid the surgery, could he actually remember that it had taken place.

At the time when Scoville tried to fix Henry M, the lobotomy was an eighteen-year-old technique and at its zenith. Although archeologists have discovered evidence of trepanation (holes drilled in the skull) dating back to the Neolithic period, the prevalence of modern lobotomy lasted about twenty-five years; by 1962, when Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published, the technique was widely under assault. By the mid sixties, psychotropic medication had replaced brain surgery as the modus operandi to assuage the maniacally violent and reduce seizures. Neuropsychology had begun to learn from its mistakes through systematic study, the publishing of results, and the development of a taxonomy of psychological ailments called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or “DSM.” Created in 1952, the DSM has often been controversial, especially for having labeled homosexuality as a mental disorder for a time. Still, it remains the bible—the public record—of advancement in understanding mental illness.

So: a lobotomy? Really? Are we really comparing new plays to mental illnesses and NPD professionals to pick-wielding ghouls in bloody scrubs? Based on their experiences, some playwrights might feel the analogy to be apt, if not with a metaphorical lobotomy, then having been narcotized or “workshopped to death.” And many NPD professionals will privately admit to having stumbled—goring a play or a process. But even so, whether the aimless zombie is created in one fell stroke or over a thousand readings, stories of NPD zombies dropping pages of flesh along their staggering paths are anecdotal, and the descriptive language we use to describe them is often composed of hyperbole (obviously).

One would assume that for each of the new plays perceived to be among the walking dead due to NPD, there is also a diametrically opposed success story—the making of a godlike superhero—where NPD has genuinely helped a playwright with structure or voice. And one can postulate that the vast majority of new plays coming through a process of NPD arrive somewhere on the scale between exfoliating zombie and hammer wielding Thor. Unfortunately, in either case or any case, we honestly don't know. We can postulate all we want and assume anything, but all we really know about are the loudest zombies and the biggest superheroes because only those stories are retold, usually on the grapevine, and once in a great while, in American Theatre magazine.

As a discipline, we don't factually know what is going on inside new play development at any given moment. The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) does what it can to keep us informed, but its mission statement is devoted to dramaturgy and literary management, two terms that suggest the idea of developing new plays, but of which NPD is only a subset of their field of inquiry and information. Outrageous Fortune by Todd London and Ben Pesner has gone a long way toward chronicling how a play gets from the page to the rehearsal room door, and where the money is going, but it does not delve deeply into the practices and techniques at the core of the workshop, laboratory, MFA program, or reading series. We have no major journals dedicated to publishing and disseminating our NPD experiments and research, or even our most common techniques.* And we have no DSM.

New plays are not mental illnesses, in most cases. The comparison is not accurate other than as a cheeky parallel. And a DSM of new play types would be an endless, and likely fruitless, exercise—more vast and daunting than describing the variety of different playwrights individually. However, a DSM—a taxonomy that simply describes the common techniques and resources available at a sizable cross-section of large and small NPD environments around the country—could be a very valuable resource. And yes, just like the DSM, a first attempt at an NPD taxonomy will likely contain errors and incidental encoding of unexamined theatrical prejudices in much the same way the DSM encoded cultural prejudices. But through a process of ongoing re-examination, we intend to keep moving our understanding forward. The successes will outweigh the errors, and the likelihood of making mistakes is not an argument against undertaking such an enterprise.

When we have bounced around this type of study or project with colleagues in the past, it has often been challenged on the basis that every new play development process is as unique as the playwright and therefore might be impossible to systematize. We readily agree that each play, and each playwright, requires an individually tailored process. Nor is it our goal to move toward a singular method, or directly comment on the “best practices” of new play development. Instead, we seek to simply identify the techniques already in practice, creating a broad catalog of approaches—a list and description of the tools in use—for the development process.

...Through a process of ongoing re-examination, we intend to keep moving our understanding forward. The successes will outweigh the errors, and the likelihood of making mistakes is not an argument against undertaking such an enterprise.

And the concept of “uniqueness” is a deceptive one in this case. Mathematically speaking, an NPD professional with only three individual techniques in her pocket could create six distinct processes by rearranging the order of those three techniques. Having six techniques at one's disposal could yield 720 unrepeated sequences. Ten techniques yield 3,628,800 unique combinations. Based on the math, it would seem likely that a taxonomy offering a wide variety of methodologies to choose from would enhance the customization of the specific NPD process rather than constrain it.

We believe that the act of crafting a taxonomy will advance our common language of development and improve communication between artists and institutions. When an artist approaches a theater with her play development needs, it will be possible to have a discussion that delves deeper than the number of hours; the number of actors; what directors, actors and new play developers should be hired; and if it should be called a “reading” or a “workshop.”

Creating a taxonomic catalog of techniques could enable theaters and artists to build a development plan based on practices from a variety of sources. And, if first choice collaborators aren't available when devising a given NPD process, a shared understanding of techniques and language will make finding another team member with an appropriate skill set much easier. A more fine-grained understanding of new play development techniques will also encourage greater collaboration across the field. Playwrights, developers, and institutionally aligned artists who might not know they are working in similar ways have an improved chance of discovering each other and working together.

Ultimately, the concept is simple: we need to know where we are in order to know where we are going, or where we want to go. Even with a concise taxonomy, it is likely that zombies will still arise, though one would assume that the playwright and NPD professional would be better prepared by having a reference source such as described here. It wasn't until the literature and research about the practice of lobotomy reached a critical mass that its use in neuropsychology was phased out. And, there may not be a specific, parallel NPD practice that produces new play “zombification” as readily and obviously as did lobotomy in the 1940s and 50s. Still, the parallel, though hyperbolic, is not one we can afford to ignore. Neutral questions and reflection on structure and character don't cause zombies in and of themselves, regardless of the confession by the disguised NPD professional with which we open our argument here. But zombies are more likely to roam the horizon if we don't better define where we stand now.

A literary trope that storytellers of all stripes have used for centuries has recently been proven as fact by scientists: Human beings have a special knack for walking in circles when no points of reference are available. In the literal, physical world, if there is fog obscuring the reference points where you stand, psychologists have proven that you are highly likely to travel a loop back to where you started. (See: “A Mystery: Why Can't We Walk Straight," published by National Public Radio; 3 min, 34 sec.) Our hope is to lift the fog and reduce the zombies limping in circles so that new play development need not be cast as a horror flick quite so readily. We invite the theater community to collaborate with us in this endeavor.

*Perhaps, in the future, as HowlRound continues to take shape, it will become the place for the sharing of techniques and publishing of experiments in new play development.


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I think the key to this analysis is the perceptive observation that NPD arose at the divorce of playmaking from production. This leads me to think that access to the means of production (for playwrights and those we work with) is key. Practices are embedded in, and largely shaped by, material culture.

My best experiences working with directors or dramaturges on my plays have come in a team mutually committed to eventual production. It's created a different kind of bottom line than an abstract and anxious "improvement" of the play--in fact, a more serious one: Will this work on stage?

We need to acknowledge that money and power determine artistic output in both gross and subtle ways. It is a fond fantasy to assume that "development" separated from production offers a space of freedom for writers--it's more like an anxious, endless, audition for an unspecified job. There's a muscularity that only develops through production, and a different chemistry of courage and fear that's ignited when you know the damn thing has to go up in three weeks.

So I think a taxonomy of NPD should follow, rather than precede, a serious re-structuring of the place of the writer in the theatre and her access to the means of production.

I pretty much concur with Christine's perspective and suggestion. There is indeed a "muscularity" that develops. Personally as a writer [with background in acting and directing] I write with a focus and intent of the piece being produced. Plays are ment to be a living phenomenon pulsating their life via action on stage. My first/second draft is something I want to see onstage, either as a reading [preferably staged reading], or as a fully mounted, staged, memorized workshop [my definitiion of workshop] with some technical elements included [sound/lights] to see if and how the piece works. Luckily I am a member of a theatre [community] that has monthly workshops which allow for such an occurance. I can receive audience feedback and then can sit down and work on revisions, reshaping, etc. I recognize that many writers don't have this seeming luxury unless they shell out the bucks to mount something for a festival. So seeing something on its feet in front of an audience is of extreme value.

My development formula:Write plays.Let other writers beat you and your play up in a workshop.Read books on playwriting. Anything, everything. Don't trust anyone who tells you that your play is good.See plays, all kinds of plays, as many as you can.Read plays, only good plays. As many as you can. Bad plays don't teach you anything. See plays as a writer. Eventually you'll see what other writers are trying to do.Write more plays. Join a theater group, watch rehearsals, learn about lighting, costumes, blocking, directing, anything and everything you can. Act. Learn lines. Perform. Don't trust your own evaluation of new work: If you think it's wonderful, it probably isn't. If you think it stinks, it probably doesn't. Playwriting is an art supported by a hugh amount of craft. Learn the craft.Write a play. Put it out there as a reading. Watch the audience. Let them comment, pay attention to the 10% who seem to know what they're talking about.It's not a formula, it's a life.Live it.

Re: Bad plays don't teach you anything. I differ on this. I've read plays or seen plays that inform me what does not work. Not that I go out of my way to read or see them. I'm a director/actor and have sometimes asked other directors I know if I can watch a rehearsal because I repsect their work, and as an acotr have the learning experience from that particular director's way of engaging with the script and character development. But I don't know of any director who would let a writer sit in on a rehearsal process because they are simply wanting that educational experience to support their craft [unless it's their play in rehearsal]. Re: Don't trust your own evaluation of the work. Well, I think if you took that to extreme there would be no plays written. On some level you have to evaluate your work, but judiciously, carefully, with an openess to hearing what someone else may have to contribute that could refine, clarify, enhance, strengthen what you are creating.

Yes, playwrights need to learn and practice the craft, and so much of what you suggest seems to me to only enhance the skill level of any playwright. Like with acting there is craft. Even the best actors do not have a complete and total awareness of what is coming across to the audience. I learned this when I started directing. The same with playwriting. Sometimes it takes another's experience, perspective, knowledge to illuminate someting not seen, and hopefully the playwright will be available to integrate or at least experiment with any perspectives to see where they may lead IF they seem to serve the play. And discerning if they serve the play can indeed sometimes be a sensitive, thought provoking inquiry. As Todd adroitly commented "I didn't see either party address what the play wanted."

I'm a fledgling playwright. I'm bit by bit learning and studying the craft. If a NPD process, playwriting support group, book on the craft of playwriting, individual director, or audience feedback can stimulate for me a deeper relationship and discovery of "what the play wants" then I'm all for it. If it doesn't then let me have the intelligence and courage to drop it.

Each writer's process is different I suppose, having techniques and guidelines to assist that process seems to me a potentially good thing. Tools for building. As some folks have mentioned here, sometimes something can be over processed. I believe I heard a famous playwright say in an interview that they work on a play for however long they work on it, but the finished product is usually the first draft. Another playwright mentioned how they did over 30 drafts of a particular play. Go figure. When the cake is done it's done. Recognizing when it's done is the trick.

This article seems to start from an assumption that playwrights need help. My formula for New Play Development is pretty simple: Listen to the playwright. Trust the playwright. If a playwright knows what she's doing, then just get out of her way. If she doesn't, she can ask for help. Either way, she steers the ship.

Monica, I believe that you hit the nail on the head. I have seen a multitude of good plays, made into bad plays, because the Playwright is bombarded with ways to make it better under the assumption that she does not have the insights to strengthen her work on her own. We need to get back to the practice of allowing the Playwright to be the guide. Most know when they need feedback and insights and will seek that out. We can not base our assumptions on the idea that every play needs to be 'fixed'. It is the Playwright's Play.

Monica, Is the article starting with that assumption, or is the assumption that many theaters delve into NPD thinking that playwrights need help and do exactly what Dee Jae says in the first reply to your comment (making good plays into bad plays)? Or, is it simply that when the playwright does ask for help (by seeking out NPD), there is no commonality in the taxonomy from theater to theater or program to program? I agree that we need to listen and trust the playwright -- but I took this to be a commentary on how so many theaters who work in NPD (or want to) don't know how to communicate with the writer (or vice versa), thus leading to accidental lobotomizing of plays that might have otherwise thrived. So how can we, as a community of theatre artists, create the translations needed to ensure that a play develops to its best potential, staying true to the playwright's intent? Overall, I'm interested to see where this goes.

This is a smart assessment. I do think putting something truly on its feet and letting it live or die is the only way to know whether a play works. (To yet again overextend the metaphor, Dr. Frankenstein didn't make the monster sit in a chair and read out loud....)

Many plays are ruined by dramaturgs who have an agenda such as feminism or strict rules for writing a play. All plays aren't the same. It used to be that the director or producer-director acted as dramaturg, such as Elia Kazan with Tennessee Williams. By the way, the singular for phenomenon is NOT phenomena. Your logos are blocking this box so I can't see what I've written completely!

Currently reading The Art of Active Dramaturgy by Lenora Inez Brown. Coming to a play with an ideological agenda (or a fixed idea about structure) is not only bad dramaturgy, but intellectually lazy, and sadly unavoidable when humanities departments become too dominated by ideologies masquerading as theories.

Probably the approach must be as individual as each play and each playwright. Too many variables for a unified doctrine. This is not a cop out, or a dismissal of the NPD, but you don't go after every zombie with a high powered sniper rifle...some times a cudgel is better, or a pistol with silencer, or a deep pit they can't climb back out of and their noise will attract the other zombies in the area who will also fall into the pit. Just be careful not to attract too many with this method or they will climb out using each other as ladders....

Nothing is as dangerous as an overextended metaphor.

Still, I do think that playwrights need to be ready to get developmental feedback or it can do great harm. That means the writers must first able to articulate (at least to themselves) some specific things they hope to get out of the development which serve the play. Second, it takes being able to view their work objectively and separate what they wanted to write from what they have written. The latter might be better than the former, and they should be open to that possibility. I've seen lots of good plays ruined by writers who didn't want to own what they'd included accidentally and then cut the good stuff because people liked it better than what they'd labored over.

Also, the "horror story" described above seems to an outside eye to be due in part to the stakes being high enough for the playwright to focus on something other than helping the play say what it was trying to say more effectively--or it wouldn't have been rewritten top to bottom. The playwright wanted a production, the NPD wanted to return to the big theatre with a new hit. I didn't see either party asking what the play wanted.

A lot of times "workshopped to death" means a playwright revising through cosmetic surgery a pretty nice play in hopes that it will be more attractive to someone shopping for a good looking play...but each time it is revised to be more attractive to this group or that theatre, the original play loses more of what made it interesting in the first place and we get a cosmetic surgery disaster instead of a good story with a few quirky flaws.

Again, I say, nothing is more dangerous than an overextended metaphor.

Anyway, I ramble now, or shamble...and I don't want to attract the attention of the nice young men in the pretty white coats. Haha hoho heehee.

One last thought, though. All of this revision and development stuff in the digital age makes it incredibly important that a copy of EACH AND EVERY draft is kept by the writer with the date and sequence of revision clearly indicated on the file name so that earlier work can be referenced. One of the most tragic things is when new writers save over a single draft and lose forever that earliest exploratory work which was only thrice removed from God and King...not twenty or thirty times removed.

Great article, interesting topic, important conversation.