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.

Cast members on stage
Clubbed Thumb’s production of D Deb Debbie Deborah by Jerry Lieblich in the 2015 Summerworks series at the Wild Project. (L to R) Nick Choksi, Stacey Yen, Geoff Sobelle, Kate Benson, and Brooke Bloom. Photo by Elke Young.

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.

Two actors on stage
Pipeline Theatre Company’s Off-Broadway production of Clown Bar by Adam Szymkowicz, extended at The Box following a sold-out Off-Off Broadway run at the Parkside Lounge. (L to R) Amir Wachterman and Willy Appelman. Photo by Suzi Sadler.

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.

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My name is Shaun. I live in socal and just recently finished my second play. I'm just getting ready to work on my third one. Of course I believe that my work is quality and gives unique perspective. Who wouldn't? But I have been doing some research to find out who would listen to a new voice. Trying to find someone who would search for undiscovered talent in unlikely places. I happened to stumble upon this website and admittedly find this conversation curious . I respect the hell out of what you guys do and would like my work to be read by people who know what there looking for. My email is bigtymebvd@gmail.com. You never know, I just might be what your looking for.

And where and how does the story teller who wishes to gift the life experience without financial gain to the producer looking for what may be become the block buster to make him/her famous?You see I have a story. life experience, to tell that effects most families and they are not aware of what is coming that will disrupt their lives.. Nursing Homes for granny or granddad,

Natalie Gershtein, as a NYC dramatist who has focused on writing good roles for the ACTRESS, I have no fear of flying on a local magic carpet that leads to the door of any theatre. Would love to invite you to dinner in Manhattan to discuss the topic further -- and to show you my work. Whether we meet or not, you're doing a world of good by producing. Thank you.

This is a very important issue that surely needs attention in order for our field to develop and emerge. Competing with the bigger production companies is the opposite of what a playwright should seek to do; what does that do to the social structure of our theatre community? A playwright should seek to have his/her work seen, read and produced no matter the size of the company, in order to develop and hopefully one day have the chance to go bigger. As the article states, producing a script enables the playwright to move on and write more. If we want more aspiring theatre work to exist, our society cannot be built to gain only the big producers - this truly is a catch 22.

I think this conversation can extend to development opps as well. Here’s the thing – the Catch 22 - in all fairness, after that first production, a play might still need a bit more work to attract producers for future productions. But because the play has been produced – let’s say at a small theater – and has been reviewed – it is now ineligible for most development opportunities. So in addition to holding out for larger theaters, I think many playwrights also hold out for better development opportunities.

A bright spot and a GREAT example of how things could work is The Kilroys. The criteria for the list is that plays must be unproduced or have received only one professional production. Can you imagine how many wonderful plays – both on the list and the honorable mentions – would go overlooked it its one and only production made it ineligible?

Ouch. Yes. And ouch that you keep writing "young playwrights." The problem is the same regardless of the age of the playwright. Me, I'd be overjoyed to have a really well done production at any of the small theaters you list. And then I'd be looking to get that play done regionally, New York review attached to the query letter. But no, it probably wouldn't get a second life in New York.

You hit the nail on the head with the "next play" mentality. I operate to get my plays out there because you're right, if the play is that good, theaters will produce it. And if they don't want to, maybe they'll commission. Holding on to the does nobody any good, and I do think more progressive agents know this.

Thanks for voicing this. Perhaps more producer-playwright mingles/salons/introductions in the NYC area? Many 'single' writers looking for dates. Happy to brainstorm.

I think the trick of the second production is not just having a good play but also having enough of a platform (such as a large production or publication of the play) so that people are even aware the play exists.

The only requirement I have is that a producer possess the necessary greatness to recognize the greatness within me. My talent could only be discovered by my true peers. I should use that line in a comedy I am contemplating on egomania, which itself will be a sly test.

Though I admittedly came late to playwriting, these days I can barely finish one before the next is forming in my mind, begging to be brought to life, with as much promise and excitement as the one I am finishing. But I suspect if my creative spirit were to find out that I'd turned down a production in hopes of a bigger one down the road the quality (and quantity) of my writing would plummet.

Perhaps that is what happened to those who are obsessed with their one possible "THAT good" play.

I think you've landed on a great point, and one that I've heard other playwrights point out as well. The worry for playwrights, I believe, is that sometimes it takes years and years to write a play THAT good that it might be exciting to the larger theatres. Sadly, if a smaller theatre touches it, it is then taken out of the running. I think this issue can be a scary one for playwrights, but in my opinion it's worth weighing out the benefits that can come from working with the little guys: the opportunity for you to be seen, for the larger theatres to keep their eyes on you, and for your next play to be taken seriously.

Even if it takes time to write another play THAT good, the optimist in me believes that talented and hard working playwrights have more than one great play in them to share.

Thanks for your thoughts!!

You're welcome! (And I agree with your comments, especially with how it's worth weighing the benefits that can come from working with the "little guys".)

P.S. Robert: I love that line! ("The only requirement I have is that a producer possess the necessary greatness to recognize the greatness within me.") LOL!

When you're talking about a business that is primarily built on subjectivity, there are few plays that are that GREAT. Barring a few, many that are produced--and many more that don't get the chance--are at the same level. After a point, it's all in who gets promoted, because then those people continue to get promoted. A more equitable system would be the best benefit of all. This is why I love small companies; they're truly interested in new work, and not in the next whatever play from the last big name. I had two readings back-to-back, one at a small company, one at a big. I was treated so much more professionally and enthusiastically by the small company. Isn't that why we do it?

The problem is that live theater is not only an "industry" in the service of the 1%, it's also an art; as such it would be best to go non-commercial, have a National Theater, paid for by taxpayers, and which services all segments, all colors, of our country with the intended result of full employment for serious theater workers. A great country is known for the art it supports.

Neal Reynolds- for starters, I'd define the serious theater worker as an artist who has the training, experience and demonstrated commitment to serving the community in which they live. Search the Federal Theatre Project under Roosevelt in the 1930's for possible clues and your rubs.

I am happy for the little guys to put their time and resources into any one of my plays -- I will write more, and I am glad for my work to get up and strut, here in NYC or elsewhere. I have not had this problem or perhaps I have been ignorant of it. My work has been up at Clemente Soto Velez, manhattan theatre source and others, and I am not holding out for the bigger venues. I feel certain there are other playwrights out there like me. What can I send you and where can I send it?

I've encountered this problem, but figured my best way forward was to write more plays and generate a body of work. I had my first full length win a major award, which resulted in several readings and eventually a production by a small company that specializes in new works. It got solid reviews and... and now I don't have any place to send it. On the other hand, I just finished a new full length, and I'm starting to send it out for development opps and contests, and we'll see how that goes. What type of plays do you look for for production? I'd be happy to send it to you when it's a little more refined, if it's something in your interest area.

Hey Sam! Yes, you just summarized the unfortunate reality for many playwrights who have had a production of their play produced: "...and now I don't have any place to send it."

Of course, this is a much larger issue that touches on the "premiere syndrome" and the producing trends in many of the bigger theatres, specifically in New York. I hope your new full length gets attention, and maybe that can be attributed, at least in part, to you having had your first production with a small company.

I don't have any set criteria for plays I like to produce. I think it needs to be the "right fit." I have also started to align with specific not-for-profit companies that I like to produce with, which also have their own missions to maintain. As I mention above: I'm happy to read any play, whether it's been produced before or not - to me that's the first step in getting to know a playwright. I don't consider it a "submission" for the play to be produced, I see it as the beginning of a relationship.

I think developing solid and lasting relationships between playwrights and producers - whether individuals like yourself or companies, etc. is probably the primary way for new playwrights to develop a career rather than just 'get a play produced.' For me, having access to development time, people, and space is as critical for relationship building as it is for play development.

I made a joke on another forum that all this talk about relationship building makes me think we need a dating site for playwrights and theatres to meet and get to know each other. Maybe we need our own "The Bachelor" style reality show. Live onstage of course. The audience can help decide which playwright the company should pair up with. Edge of your seat viewing. :)

What's super annoying about this issue is that there's evidence to show that producing world premieres is RISKY, financially. Theaters should be CLAMORING for second productions, because those are the ones that entail less risk: the same way you're financially MUCH better off if you buy a slightly used car and let the first owner take the depreciation hit.