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 Specifically, to qualify as a new play, the piece must be unpublished, with no previous productions.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.

a vintage painting of a woman
Card depicting a sorrow-stricken girl, who regrets her lost virginity. With the text below: “Oh! fatal Day when to my Virtues wrong, I fondly listen'd to his flattering tongue, But oh! more fatal Moment when he gain’d, That vile Consent which all my Glory stain'd. Published by: Sayer & Bennett 1781.

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.

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Thank you Carolyn Gage for this inspiring, exhilarating essay! The destructive cult of virginity affects girls as negatively as it affects playwrights and our plays, and we still haven't figured out ways to protect ourselves or our children, so how are we going to eradicate these notions with our plays? Ignore the cult - and proceed apace! I'd love to be able to send out my large cast, perfect-for-colleges play, but it was produced a few months before 9/11 and was moving to a larger theatre in NYC when 9/11 happened. This was a final blow for me at the time and ended my playwriting career for over a decade. As they say today, "I just couldn't." And I didn't. And there was no one to tell me I shouldn't. (And unfortunately I was socially to look for that permission.) Recently I decided, "eff it!" and started sending it out again, to colleges with theatre departments. My slut of a play may live again!

I like this! And agree that the defintion of what is new is taken to absurd extremes in the theatre business. And it's a serious blight on writers that many opportunities are denied a play once it has had any life at all. On the other hand, for a writer, it is always good, I think, to be working on something new--for the mind and spirit. We might all agree that theatres need to change their thinking, but they won't, I don't see it happening, so writers have to become keen strategists as to where and how they send/market their work, becoming players in the game, or just get the work out, no matter where and how. Both have their plus and minuses. There are lots of points in the comments below that resonate and offer ideas. For me, the greatest frustration around newness has to do with theme. Because our theatre culture is apolitical (a huge topic), writing plays which address issues of the day is an exercise in frustration because no one wants to produce them and they quickly become 'out of date'. This naturally has an effect on what gets written and has led to theatre's irrelevance in our country.

During the years I worked in play publishing, I had a different experience and point of view than this. Not only was it not a problem for a play we acquired to be published elsewhere (like in an anthology), we viewed it as free advertising for us.

If someone was self-publishing acting editions, we'd have asked them to stop and instead direct buyers to purchase scripts from us, but we would never have rejected a play because it was self-published or previously published by a small press, nor have I ever heard of such a position. In fact, we SOUGHT plays that had previous exposure in small press runs like this one.

http://www.amazon.com/Divin...

The virginity metaphor is apt when it comes to play production, but less so as regards play publishing.

Tell, it Carolyn! This is one of the reasons that I tend to call productions of my plays "developmental." And it's true...we're developing them. Some of the obsession with premieres could also be mitigated by AEA and the Dramatists Guild...which (I've been saying for a long time) need to have an actual contract for the DEVELOPMENT of new work which does not impinge on the "virginity" of a premiere. You're not going to get a SECOND production of a new play at a major regional...unless the first production was at a major venue in New York, in which case everyone will want to produce it.

Carolyn, you are so, so right. I find that you don't really learn about a play until it's been produced. After that first production you're now ready do dig in and do some important rewrites and get it up again, but alas, no one will take it because it has been tainted with a first production. One way around this that I've had friends try is changing the title. I hate the idea of doing that. That seems like changing the name of your child so the kid fits in. I also would hate the dishonest feeling that would give me for it is a great sin not to tell the producer that the play has been produced before. I had another friend who thought she was offering a virginal play to her producer, but her producer found out about some little thing she did in a different state that didn't think counted. He was furious and treated her like a criminal. If, however, you happen to be famous there are all sort of avenues for trying out your play. I never could figure out why some little theater in Kansas would care that it has been produced before in New Jersey. Certainly the two states don't share audiences.

And all squares are rectangles, what of it?

I think you're entirely misunderstanding the problem. Of course most productions are not premieres. Hell, most theaters don't even produce new work.

But if you are writing plays today, second and subsequent productions are, indeed, difficult in exactly the way Ms. Gage describes. New plays are sometimes considered "vetted" if they premiere off-broadway or on, or at a major LORT A or B theater. Those plays can do very well, provided they are well marketed and their author's well agented.

However, should a play premiere in a tertiary market or storefront venue, securing subsequent productions is INCREDIBLY difficult. NYC won't look because they don't understand it wouldn't have moved there in the first place. The LORT system turns up its nose because it didn't play in NYC. Storefronts may not actively discriminate, but the avenues by which they would discover a script are limited.

Your American Theatre list confirms Ms. Gage's assertion rather than upturns it: literally every play in their "top ten" premiered on Broadway, off-Broadway or at Steppenwolf, Goodman or Hartford.

Now, try getting your foot in the door with one of them with a script which premiered at, say, Phoenix Theatre.

What a great fresh perspective. As a poet, I have been constantly disappointed when my work is tied up in obscure journals or presses that go out of business, but remains ineligible for re-submission. At our website WinningWriters.com we decided some years ago to accept previously published work for all our contests, because why not give a signal boost to a great piece that deserves to be shared widely? I like the gender and class analysis here. Many publishers who think of themselves as "Leftist" probably never reconsidered their sim-subs rule through that lens.