The Playwright and the Panel

Turning the Model on its Head

Dan LeFranc is the Playwright-in-Residence at Playwrights Horizons  through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about his residency experience here and learn about the impact of the program at large here

We've all been there. The curtain call is over, the house lights come up, and a representative from the theater comes out on stage to inform the audience that, in a few minutes, there will be a post-show discussion with the playwright. Swiftly, those who are brave enough get up and head for the lobby. The rest, feeling a sense of obligation, stick around for the inevitable loop of questions that get asked time and time again. “How was the play developed?” “Where do you get your inspiration from?” “What show do you write for on television?”

Then, after the James Lipton impersonator has rehashed the same ol,’ same ol,’ he opens it up to the audience for further  questions. Inevitably, someone launches into a questionless monologue about what he or she thought of the play, while the rest of us squirm, wondering why we didn’t escape with the folks already on their second drink at the bar.

Thankfully, a partnership at Playwrights Horizons in New York City is rethinking that model. Playwright Dan LeFranc and director of New Play Development Adam Greenfield are turning the concept on its head by making the playwright the interviewer, instead of the interviewee. 

Dan is currently in residence at Playwrights Horizons. Funded and administered by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, Dan and thirteen other playwrights are in residency for three years at fourteen theaters in eleven cities across the country. The writers are salaried employees of the theater, and they are given time, space and resources. The idea is to embed playwrights in theaters, and understand what value there is to having a playwright on staff.

I have been sitting down with Dan and Adam for nearly a year now documenting the residency’s impact on the players and the larger theater community. In addition to Dan’s creative work, he and Adam have been working closely on developing this new way of conducting panel discussions. 

“I knew for a long time that (Adam) wanted to do panels that involved people from other fields besides theater,” Dan said, “but it also emerged out of conversations we had been having about the general shittiness of theater panels, in general.”

Adam continued, “One of the things we shared going into the residency was a desire to find ways to change the way audiences relate to new plays. So that audiences aren’t just hearing theater people talking about theater, but that the ideas of the plays are being opened up and looked at in a larger, broader context. We have the resources of New York City and all the people that live here, and the chance to hear the ideas of the play bounced around by them. So we were talking about the best ways to do that, and then (Dan) had the idea that the panelists should be chosen by the writer.”

“And that the writer leads them,” added Dan.

The idea of having the playwright curate her or his own panel shouldn’t seem so novel, and yet I can’t remember if I’ve ever been to one. It only seems natural that the playwright-in-residence would come to this conclusion, and thus the plan was set in motion. Though Dan was put in charge of the program, it remained a close collaboration with Adam and the literary department. 

Adam made the point that there wasn’t a template to follow, and that they were making new discoveries every day. “We hadn’t done this here before, so we had a lot to figure out, and once we did it, we tried it out a second time, and we found that some of the things we did the first time didn’t quite adapt very well, so now we’re going to adapt the model again for the third panel. So this year has been very much a test. We’re doing it for three shows this year, and then next year we’re going for all six.”

The three 2013/14 playwrights involved are Anne Washburn, Madeleine George, and Sarah Ruhl. Each were contacted at least a month before their rehearsals began to discuss the idea and brainstorm who they want to invite.

The first panel was about Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. The panelists included John McWhorter, author of Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic for New York Magazine, and Jon Vitti, long-time writer on The Simpsons. Here’s a link to the recorded panel.

The (curious case of) the Watson Intelligence by Madeleine George was the focus of the second panel. She spoke with Eric W. Brown, the director of IBM Watson Technologies, Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think like Sherlock Holmes and Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s Radiolab. Here is a link to the recorded panel.

Thus far, the audiences have been very engaged, because they can feel the playwright’s own interest in the questions they are asking. This resulted in the audiences asking more meaningful questions, and opening their minds. Dan recalled a story about a woman at the first panel who didn’t like the play, but after hearing the panel, she began to think differently about it. She was able to put the play into a larger context and understand it more fully. It completely changed the woman’s perception of the play, and she was amazed. It is these kinds of enriching engagements that Dan and Adam are hoping to provide artists and audiences alike.

As a writer, Dan also made it clear that he wanted “to demand more of each other as playwrights. Right now, I feel like, the plays that get rewarded are small plays— plays that do one little thing very well. They aren’t the most ambitious plays in the world. We could be thinking bigger. But when I see Madeleine George up there with Eric Brown or Robert Krulwich, and Anne Washburn up there with Matt Zoller Seitz and Jon Vitti and John McWhorter, I get excited because it sends a message that their plays are about big ideas, that they’re ambitious and relevant and necessary pieces of writing, and I would love for that spirit to infect the American theater.”

“Playwrights Horizons produces new American plays that we feel are relevant to the world,” Adam said, and that are telling stories about the way we live and the way we think today. That’s also what this panel discussion series is trying to get at. What are more ways that we can talk about the work we’re doing in terms of how it touches our lives beyond these walls?”

The upcoming third panel will be centered around Sarah Ruhl’s play, Stage Kiss. Sarah will lead the panel on Monday, March 17th, 2014 at 3:30pm PDT/ 5:30pm CDT/ 6:30pm EDT/ 22:30 GMT. It will include actor, Hamish Linklater, actress, Kathleen Chalfant, psychologist, Anthony Charuvastra, and Esther Perel, one of the world’s most respected voices on erotic intelligence.

If you aren’t in NYC, the panel will be livestreamed on HowlRound TV.

 

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This is an excellent idea, though not novel. From personal experience, we did this in 2007 at The Public with my play In Darfur, where we had talkbacks most nights, with people who had worked on the ground in Sudan as aid workers, journalists, activists and refugees. In a surprise twist, one night our talkback guest was a Darfuri refugee, Daoud Hari, and when he walked in I was dumbstruck--under the name Ibrahim, he had been our interpreter when I traveled there for research with journalist Nicholas Kristof. Whether or not I expected Daoud to get out of Chad alive, I certainly hadn't expected him to be the talkback guest for our panel at the public. We also went a step further, we circulated postcards for audience members to urge legislators to vote yes to divest pensions from Sudan as part of a larger campaign, and we worked with anti-genocide NGO's Enough! and Genocide Intervention Network to raise awareness about the genocide and to connect audience members directly to their legislators via 1-800 numbers. We're also doing it currently with The New Black Fest's presentation of Facing Our Truth, six plays on race and privilege, which have moderated post-show panels with community activists to discuss the themes raised in the work.

Also, you should check out Barter Theatre's Appalachian Festival of New Plays which runs a panel without the playwright and the Last Frontier Conference up in Alaska which does something similar as well. It's great what Playwrights Horizons is doing and a twist on what others have done, but not completely new. If you head down to New Visions/New Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center in May, you'll also see a new approach to discussing work.

More locally, in June at NYU Steinhardt's New Plays for Young Audiences series at the Provincetown Playhouse, I'll be leading our post-show discussions in which we'll utilize alternatives to the "traditional" format.

I've done something like this, but not in any "official" capacity. The conversations that happened were far richer and more nuanced than how a play fulfills or falls short of the standards for "quality writing for the stage."

It's not as straightforward as, "Liked this, hated that," but such reactions are valuable because they do guide my writing process in future drafts. (Since I have a weakness for tinkering with a thing until it breaks, such conversations help me figure out what I need to keep intact through my revisions.)