The New Playwright Problem
For years I have listened to dialogue surrounding the difficulties of making a living as a professional playwright; about how rare it is for a new play to be produced; about the simple odds working against a new playwright: X number of new writers, and only Y number of theatres in the country that produce new work. We, as an industry, speak all the time about ways to get a new play onto a literary manager’s desk, and about the real struggle for playwrights awaiting their first production.
As of late, a new challenge has emerged. New for me, maybe. You see, I’m not a playwright looking for someone to produce my work. I’m a producer, looking for the perfect play (perfect in my eyes, that is); looking for the playwright deserving to be seen and heard; looking for the next piece of theatre that reminds us all why we do this. Of course. That’s obvious. That’s what we’re all looking for.
Coming into the industry as an independent producer, I seemed to think that the answer to the unproduced playwright’s problem was simple: If only there were more people out there who could produce these new plays. I strived to be one of those people. Working through an MFA program as a producer, this way of thinking really felt intuitive. If you put ten new playwrights and ten producers into a room, the math does itself. But my problem is no longer with the numbers.
Without turning this into a debate about the “premiere syndrome” running through America (more specifically, perhaps, in New York), I’m interested in fueling dialogue about the way the industry is raising new playwrights. Although there are hundreds of struggling playwrights yearning for a production, there are also independent producers and small not-for-profits hearing the words, “You can’t produce my play first, because then the larger theatres won’t want to produce it.”
The real problem: it’s true.
Is there room in the industry for independent producers to craft a career by choosing plays, renting theatres and making it happen? Am I actually doing a disservice to new playwrights if I produce a great production of their play?
The Premiere Problem
Well, most of the time it’s true. I’ve been wrestling with this idea for months, wondering if there is room in the industry for independent producers to craft a career by choosing plays, renting theatres and making it happen. It’s a win/win for all, right? Wrong, apparently. What happens to the play after it’s had that great run at The Gym at Judson? What happens once it’s been reviewed at the Wild Project and then the larger not-for-profits no longer consider it a new play, or an option for their season? Am I actually doing a disservice to new playwrights if I produce a great production of their play?
I posed this exact question to a couple of the professionals I respect most in this field. In sum, the not-for-profit’s answer: “Yes, we won’t produce it if the play has already been reviewed.” The commercial producer’s answer: “If a play is that good, people will produce it.”
Neither is wrong. Yes, there have been cases where a play is that good that a not-for-profit will forego the “premiere” stamp and produce the play. Second Stage’s production of Between Riverside and Crazy, which first opened at Atlantic Theater Company in July 2014 before returning for a second run at 2ST and winning the Pulitzer is a prime example. Look too at The Foundry’s production of A Good Person of Szechuan, which was remounted at The Public Theater in October 2013 after a successful run in one of La MaMa’s theatres earlier that year. Yet, both of these circumstances seem to be the exception to the rule, and both are examples of a play that was just that good that the same production was remounted later at a larger institution.
The most obvious dream of a second life after a premiere is the esteemed Broadway transfer (from The Public’s mouth to Broadway’s ears), as in the cases of Fun Home and Hamilton. The larger not-for-profits have been known to produce hits that transfer directly to Broadway (MCC’s Hand to God, NYTW’s Rent and Peter and the Starcatcher, Atlantic’s Spring Awakening, 2ST’s Spelling Bee and Next to Normal, etc.), but those are companies with reputable years under their belts, relationships with commercial producers, and structures in place for high level transfers. Far more impressive are the smaller companies that have been able to produce such impeccable work that surprise commercial runs spring out as a result (I’m thinking now of Ars Nova’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812).
Unfortunately, I find myself unable to procure an example of a play that has had a small, and reviewed, production at one theatre that then went on to have a new production at a larger theatre in the following season. Second productions of new plays that have been produced in New York are not likely to be awarded with another production so closely following the premiere, and are thereby tossed aside as unproducable.
Thus, I return to my original question: “Am I actually doing a disservice to new playwrights if I produce a great production of their play?”
Small Theatres, New Plays
There are a number of small but mighty not-for-profits out there (when I say small, I mean companies with budget sizes under $100K) that dedicate themselves to new plays: Pipeline Theatre Company, Colt Coeur, and Sanguine Theatre Company, to name a few. The reality is that many of these companies have come up against a challenge with new playwrights. Agents representing young playwrights who have written a potentially viable play are advising their clients not to work with these small companies, and to hold out so that their play can be produced in five to ten years at one of the larger companies. Now I ask you, how are we raising new playwrights?
In no way do I blame the agents, who for all intents and purposes are outlining a real and difficult dilemma for their writers. However, for most new playwrights who have been searching their entire careers for a company to produce their first play, one would think that a great production at a reputable house like Cherry Lane, HERE, or 59E59 would be a realized dream. Yet, with playwrights holding on to their best work and hoping for grandeur, the small companies with big talent are actually competing with the larger organizations for those rare gems.
Young playwrights are at a crossroad. Do they get on board with a production of their play at the smaller company, which may take that play off the table for larger theatres in New York, or, should they hold out in the hopes that in seven years their play gets selected as one of five plays in that Off-Broadway theatre’s season? As we know, those odds are rough.
It’s at this point where I feel I am becoming overly pessimistic. Big questions with no immediate solutions can have that affect. What can be done to start to address this predicament? To me, it begins with how we’re raising playwrights.
Young playwrights are at a crossroad. Do they get on board with a production of their play at the smaller company, which may take that play off the table for larger theatres in New York, or, should they hold out in the hopes that their play gets selected in that Off-Broadway theatre’s season?
What About That Next Play?
Instead of training writers to think that they should hold on to their one potential hit so that they can throw their hat in the ring at the large theatres, maybe we should be advising them to get out there so that their plays can be seen by the big guns, and so that the next play they write can make its way to the top of the pile in the literary office. Surely they plan to write more than one?
Instead of focusing on reviews as the death of the premiere, let’s look to those small companies who are able to successfully support a playwright, and can ultimately put that writer’s work on the theatre map. Last season alone, I witnessed a rare rave from Mr. Ben Brantley himself raise the profile of an unknown (and female!) writer during Colt Coeur’s NYT Critics’ Pick production of Dry Land by Ruby Rae Spiegel, and again during Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks production of D Deb Debbie Deborah by Jerry Lieblich, which also received a NYT Critics’ Pick.
Instead of thinking that New York is the endgame, the only place where theatre matters, let’s think of production’s like Pipeline Theatre Company’s Clown Bar by Adam Szymkowicz, which was yet another NYT Critic’s Pick production and jumpstarted Szymkowicz’s play on a trajectory where it has now been produced in states across the country, from Massachusetts to Louisiana, Nevada, and Washington.
Should Spiegel, Lieblich and Szymkowicz have held out for a larger company to [maybe] produce their play in a season many moons away?
I can’t solve the “premiere” problem in New York, and I can’t pretend that working with small companies on a new play isn’t a risk for writers. But, isn’t new play development risky to begin with? As a writer, your play is in a vulnerable position whether it’s being produced at LCT3, Playwrights Horizons, P73 or Playwrights Realm.
Why not take a chance when the opportunity arises to bring that script to life? If you can trust the artists, the company, and the work, why not let us little guys put all our time and resources into your play?
Dear writers: We’re waiting for you as much as you’re waiting for your first production.