Making Room for the New Work Director

This summer, I spent a week at the Kennedy Center developing a new play with the MFA Playwrights’ Workshop where I functioned as workshop’s assistant director helmed by Southern Rep’s Aimee Hayes. My participation was all due to the playwright, Andrew Hinderaker, a colleague and collaborator of mine at UT Austin, who made the case that my presence was integral to the development of his piece. We are producing the piece in Austin this Spring and it seemed totally reasonable to us that I should participate in the play’s workshop opportunities. There is no formal application for directors like me in a process like the MFA Playwright’s Workshop. If there had been I would have jumped on the chance to apply. As you can glean from the name, the workshop is space for early career playwright development, and the writers participating are given an incredible opportunity to work with directors from National New Play Network’s (NNPN) network of theatres.

Such structured development opportunities are few and far between for directors, and the experience solidified a question I’ve been asking myself for a couple years: Shouldn’t we develop infrastructure for early career directors in the way we develop it for early career playwrights?

Four actors on stage
Production still from The Cataract, produced by the Women's Theater Project.
Photo by  the Women's Theater Project. 

As I am in my last year of grad school, the best case scenario was for Andrew to make a case for me as his development collaborator. Had Andrew not made that request, the opportunity would have passed me by altogether. As a direct result of his insistence, I had the opportunity to be in the room with his play working with a fantastic director, a great group of dramaturgs and the unstoppable Gregg Henry, the Co-Manager and Artistic Director at The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. The workshop was an incredible place to be: dedicated artists, rooms full of Yes!, and a group of excellent plays. It was a rare chance to talk with a new group of theatre artists about my own work, which is dedicated to the development and life of new plays. Such structured development opportunities are few and far between for directors, and the experience solidified a question I’ve been asking myself for a couple years: Shouldn’t we develop infrastructure for early career directors in the way we develop it for early career playwrights?

As an early career director, and someone who brings an entrepreneurial spirit to everything I do, I often seek advice from folks who’ve made further progress down the new play path than I. Often a large part of what I hear centers on finding a playwright and hoping they’ll stay in love with you when their own career takes off. This advice brings into focus one notable difference between the early career paths of my collaborator Andrew and myself, and it involves his potential access to fellowships, residencies, and just straight up awards with monetary prizes that I do not have. This isn’t to say I begrudge him these resources or believe that the development opportunities available to him are excessive in any way. The emerging infrastructure to support the work of playwrights is hugely necessary and we must continue to do more. It’s simply that there are more structured opportunities for his work than there are for a developing director such as myself. And I believe we need to cultivate greater opportunities for directors that address developing new work alongside playwrights.

A moderate search of the Internet creates a list of four to six director-centric residency or fellowship programs. Of the list I generated, two of those opportunities are specifically geared at new work collaborators, The Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab and The Drama League’s New Directors/New Works program. Conversely, I can search similar criteria for playwrights and end up with almost a full year of month by month deadlines for residencies and fellowships. There are also the internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships that offer the chance to work in the day to day dealings of a theatre company sometimes in exchange for money and often in exchange simply for the experience. While there are certainly benefits to this exposure, even an institution offering an “artistic” internship is often heavy on time at the photocopier and light on the artistic mentorship.

Now before I am accused of whining, I want to say how necessary and important it is that these playwright opportunities exist. Though this article is about shifting our new work paradigm and advocating that we start investing resources in careers like mine, I couldn’t do my work if playwrights weren’t supported. The visionary work that organizations like NNPN, the Lark Play Development Center, The Playwrights’ Center, New Dramatists, Soho Rep, The Mellon Foundation and many more have done to support the creation and continued life of plays is vital. My point is that my craft is also integral to those aims and needs to be considered as a vital part of the development conversation.

As we build a more formal infrastructure for writers, let’s also build one for the people who are committed to those writers and to the life of a play. Let’s build infrastructure for directors who sweat out the dramaturgy of a new work with writers and dramaturgs and designers who collaborate through workshops and readings and revisions and commit to producing the work with five dollars and a lot of enthusiasm. These directors are integral to the life of that new work, they play a massive role in the first flight of a play and often its second too. If we’re going to talk about championing new work, we must talk about the directors who get the play off the page. The organizational heavy hitters of new play support have the opportunity to insure the continued vibrancy of new work by fostering the careers of directors.

We need workshops, retreats, and more grant opportunities geared toward these directors. We need directors in positions of influence to engage in a more formalized system of mentorship with their ADs. We need more dedicated spaces for young career directors to meet their peers, form relationships with communities and, well, direct. Lincoln Center has Directors Lab and a few similar programs in other cities. Why don’t we invest in more models like this, predicated on the sharing of a director’s skills, one generation to another, one aesthetic to another? There are summer residency programs like The Williamstown Theatre Festival, the OSF Killian Fellowship, the Drama League’s Hangar Summer Residency, and a handful of others. But a handful is not enough. Directing is just as many parts craft and strategy as it is chemistry and the ineffable.

We need more dedicated spaces for young career directors to meet their peers, form relationships with communities and, well, direct.

I spend my time with new works of all kinds. This year I directed the third production of Lisa D’Amour’s The Cataract, a beautiful and hilarious play that ought to be produced far more often, and I’m devising a new piece, The Boy from the Circus, which is dedicated to the hidden life of William Inge. I’ll also work on another iteration of Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, which we workshopped at the Kennedy Center, and I’ll perform in a collaborative new work, The Poison Squad, with my favorite Austin collective: The Duplicates.

I am fortunate that I’ve spent the last two years in grad school, almost exclusively in new play rehearsals and workshops. I will finish my MFA with a strong personal mission to galvanize my experience of new play development to serve not only the writer, but my practice as well. Over this time I’ve cultivated a particular set of skills and an approach to developing new plays through the experience of simply being in the room night after night, through trial and error, through exposure to various styles and ways of working, and by working closely with playwrights and actors. My practice is in no way perfect and I am certainly not alone in it. This is a quick look at how things break down for me in a new work process. In a new work rehearsal room I have two goals: The first is to keep the actors and the team motivated, sharp, and receptive to an adventure. I think at its best a new work process should feel exciting and refreshing. The second is to facilitate our artistic adventure in a way that does not suffocate the impulses of the writer, but rather opens up the potential for the piece. During a first production, we work to put the playwright’s play on stage.

There’s a lot of getting out of the play’s way, a lot of asking: is this decision for me or for the play? I try to put my creative impulses and ideas in service of the work where it stands, at the particular moment of its evolution. It is paramount to me that we allow a play the right to be a living document even in production. This sometimes means that as we tinker with a work in progress. I drink a little more bourbon than is maybe called for, even in Austin, and sometimes means something totally beautiful and unexpected will still arrive two weekends into a run. In a second production, we work to sharpen the play and to identify just what kind of beast was born in that first production. We recommit ourselves to the adventure instead of closing down the possibility of growth. 

My goal as a director is to champion new work, and shepherd its development: a new draft, a new production, a new life of some kind. This is my life, and truly, is my whole life. I sometimes endeavor to be a better cook and run more often, but for the most part, what I do is make plays, read plays, and make plans for more plays. New work is where I make my home, and where I want to make an imprint on our field. The definition of the term “director” may be shifting, but new plays still need an outside eye with experience collaborating on changing material. To build the infrastructure necessary for the continual vitality of new plays, we as a field must do more to support the efforts of young career directors who are committed to its future. I think you need me, I certainly need you!

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When I first saw this post, I thought that The New Work Director was a new title for the Literary Manager/Dramaturg person at a theatre and I really liked it.

sir will--thanks for these sharp words that resist the inertia of new playmaking models and remind us to hold space for all members of the tribe from the get go.

like saltwick, your article inspires some dreamin'--maybe a year of magical communion. one wherein all fellowships, awards, professorships and development opportunities reflect the polyphony of the art form. could we do that? what would we look/feel like one year later?

This is such a fabulous challenge to all playwrights, and all theater-makers, to work toward the creation of more development opportunities for directors!

Great article Will. It sparked a question and a fantasy in me.

Reading:Playwright::??:Director

Of course readings aren't the only way to develop new work but they are valuable and relevantly easy to organize. As a playwright, I can learn so much about my play after a few rehearsals and some kind of public sharing. A good reading gives me glimpses of the play and highlights all work I still have to do.

I had this experience earlier this month. Lara Dossett, my director and another UT grad student, and I organized a reading of my play OUR BEST CHRISTMAS. It's a new play I really wanted to hear with a family audience during the holidays. We gathered a great group of actors, had four rehearsals and then the reading. The audience left happy having enjoyed the play and the performances. The performers and Lara enjoyed the process too -- the fun of making something without too much of a time commitment. I left the process thrilled and with two pages of revision notes, some influenced by the kids in the audience. I saw the next steps for the play in ways that I hadn't before. I felt grateful for the process, almost to the point of guilt.

What's the equivalent for a director? A process that be completed over a weekend with some friends? In a living room? Something self contained and unattached to the needed of a larger production or even script? A process that allows for temporary success or failure? A new work process that encourages directors to investigate selfishly?

I don't know if unlocking this question would help with funding emerging directors. But I think it would help audiences and artists recognize the craft within a director. I believe that if people could really see and feel the work that was Will, they would support the Will making it.

Fantasy:What a gift it would be to have a Directors' Center (like the Playwrights' Center) in a place like Austin, TX. Not only for the directors supported but the whole theatrical ecosystem of the region -- playwrights, actors, designers, and audiences.

I know I need you, Will, and all directors. The audience needs you. The actors need you. Our lives are so similar. Let's make plans for more opportunities for the development of directors of new work!

Thanks so much for this, I agree and identify with your essay very much.

I think it's also worth noting that when you compare some of those 'emerging writer' and 'emerging director' opportunities- in several of the most prestigious ones the young director is expected to either pay a fee to participate, or is not paid but must give a large chunk of time, for instance a month or a summer or an entire fall through spring season, where you are not paid for your work. Unlike college or grad school, financial aid has never been mentioned at any of these, as far as I could tell from the application processes.

I have often found this rather galling - in other words one of the few clear paths of support for young directors is actually set up in such a way to ensure that there will always be much more room at the table for 'emerging directors' who have access to significant funds, do not need to support themselves to survive, and therefore have the time and resources to take advantage of these programs.

Whereas as you mention, playwrights seem to have much greater access to awards and fellowships etc that indeed involve the writer receiving funding- rather than being asked to supply it-

As someone who has been desperately seeking a toehold in directing and constantly failing to find purchase, I wholeheartedly agree. A key difference in the playwriting support/development structure and directing/design is that it is possible for a rank outsider to succeed as a playwright. We cast the net for new work far and wide but are we making that net the right size and shape? Is new work only about the play or about bringing in and developing new perspectives, using the vehicle of new work and workshops and the development cycle to refresh and renew not just the talent pool of playwrights, but of theatre itself. I'm excited about this, I can't wait to see what people think are some practical ways of implementing the broader ideas Mr. Davis presents.