New Plays and the Destructive Cult of Virginity
There is a cult of virginity that surrounds the new play. Specifically, to qualify as a new play, the piece must be unpublished, with no previous productions. Occasionally allowances may be made for non-professional productions, or a play produced outside New York, but these are the exception.
The play that has been produced is tainted. It is no longer new. It can no longer be discovered or introduced. Someone got to it first. And the fact that it has not gone to the altar of Broadway as a result of that first production is taken as a testament to the inferior quality of the work. There is no point in anyone else taking it seriously. It is now a “fallen” or “ruined” play. And if the playwright was foolish enough to give away her playwriting virginity to a local producer who lacked the resources or connections to launch the play into commercial success, then who is to blame for this fallen status except the playwright who has foolishly sold her most precious dramaturgical flower to a low bidder?
The same is true for publishing. If the playwright takes advantage of this incredible age of online, do-it-yourself, print-on-demand publishing in order to make her work more available, or even just to produce a cheap, professionally bound presentation of her work, well, again the virginity of the work has been compromised. It has become used goods. No one will want to publish it after this. Ever.
What is the effect of this new play virginity cult? Loss. Tremendous loss. Loss of visibility, loss of opportunity, loss of entrepreneurial incentive, loss of dramaturgical polish from seeing the work performed, loss of a considerable number of outstanding and brilliant plays, especially those considered “ahead of their time,” because of the traditional prejudices of mainstream theatre.
And, as usual with losses, the marginalized take the biggest hits.
I would like to see folks really challenge this obsession with 'purity' as it relates to manuscripts for new work. The protocol is shot-through with patriarchal and deeply classist prerogatives and assumptions about the entire nature of the relationship between the producer/publisher and the playwright.
Playwrights without mainstream commercial connections have to choose between going with what is available to us (self-production, local amateur productions, new play festivals in obscure venues), or else clap a chastity belt on that new play and lock her up in a lofty tower, awaiting the day when some intrepid prince of a producer or publisher, acting on a rumor, will manage to slash through the brambles of class/race/gender/sexual orientation to scale the ramparts and rescue the maiden.
These are ugly choices that do not serve audiences. This is a cult of virginity. This is a new play system that has been devised solely to protect proprietary interests of potential producers and publishers. They want to be able to discover, introduce, initiate. They must be the first. The property to be acquired must be absolutely virginal and, of course, the expectation of monogamy will be one-way.
If my “new play” was performed for one night in the Maine New Play Festival, why should it no longer qualify as a new play? Is that really going to affect the way it might be received by an audience anywhere else? It’s still recently written. It’s still filled with radically alternative paradigms never before seen on a stage. It is still “new,” as in, “novel, original, fresh, imaginative, creative, experimental, contemporary, up to date.”
And what if I self-publish the play on a site like Lulu.com, because I want my friends and fans to have the ability to read it on a Kindle or in a paperback? What does that have to do with getting it picked up by one of the drama presses that has an ability to put it in a catalog that will be browsed by college and community producers all over the US?
As a lesbian playwright whose plays focus on the lives of women, I made a choice early on in my career to get my work out there as much as I could, in as many ways as possible. To that end, I have founded multiple theatre companies, performed my own work, toured in my plays, published them in multiple formats on multiple platforms in both anthologies and acting editions, recorded them, and commissioned translations. Very few of my plays are virginal enough to meet the submission qualifications for new play festivals and producers.
Do I resent the limbo status of these “tainted,” no-longer-virginal-hence-no-longer-desirable new plays? Deeply. But not deeply enough to lock them up and wait for the (white, male, heterosexual) prince.
I would like to see our industry do some soul-searching about this new play situation. I would like to see folks really challenge this obsession with “purity” as it relates to manuscripts for new work. The protocol is shot-through with patriarchal and deeply classist prerogatives and assumptions about the entire nature of the relationship between the producer/publisher and the playwright. This should be a relationship of equals. I do not demand that they come to my work with no previous experience with producing or publishing, and I find it an insult that they impose a virginity criteria on my work. In their fixation on virginity, these publishers and producers bypass many fresh and innovative plays and they penalize the most entrepreneurial authors.
What would I propose? For starts, unless a play has been published by one of the drama presses that is specifically in the business of licensing productions, previous self-publication or publication in a collection of mostly non-dramatic works should not disqualify the play from consideration by the drama presses.
In terms of production, the issue becomes more complicated, because of questions about what qualifies as “professional theatre.” Should the term “commercial theatre” exclude regional non-profits with Equity actors? Certainly, academic productions or one- or two-weekend festival productions should not count toward ruining a new play’s prospects.
The National New Play Network has pioneered an interesting work-around for this cult of virginity. They named it the Rolling World Premiere. In a rolling premiere, a number of theatres within their network commit to produce a new play in the same season, all with world premiere credit. Think “rolling virginity.”
It’s a creative idea and an improvement for the playwright whose work might never see a second production after a traditional premiere, but it doesn’t entirely solve the problem because it relies on a system of networking that is not available to the majority of playwrights.
It will be up to the audiences and the playwrights to protest this cult, because we are ones who pay the highest price for it. These virginity tests constitute some of the most pernicious barriers to diversity in contemporary theatre, and until we do away with them, audiences will continue to be denied the chance to experience many groundbreaking works.