The Productions That Never Were

Thumbnail
To date I’ve had fifty-four productions of my full length plays. But I’ve had nearly twenty-five productions that were planned and never happened. Some of these shows were supposed to happen in other countries, in Europe, in South America, in Asia. Interested parties have translated my plays into other languages for this express purpose.

Four times producers have told me they are going to put a play of mine up Off Broadway. All of them fell through. My play Nerve, written in 2003 and produced in New York in 2006 was supposed to happen three times in Los Angeles before it finally went up in 2012.

Sometimes I find out online about a theater somewhere planning to do a play of mine. They may ask for the rights from my publisher or just post the planned production on their website. And then I check back closer to the time of the supposed production and all signs of the intended show have disappeared.

This of course doesn’t include the rumors. Twice actors who were in a particularly well-received reading have told me they heard the big deal theater who hosted said reading is going to produce the play. It didn’t happen either time.

I’ve had more than a couple meetings with Lit people from major theaters in which they say something along the lines of I really love this play and would like to consider it for our season or the plays you write are the kinds of plays we want to do at such-and-such space. None of these have been a promise but all of them seem to be a distinct possibility. Until they aren’t. Time passes. Seasons are announced. Rejection letters go out. Or they don’t.

In our business we live on hope—hope that this next show will be produced, the reviewers will come and like it, that it will be published and then get more subsequent productions. Those productions will lead to more productions, will lead to the next play getting produced, and the cycle starts over.

As playwrights we rarely know why things don’t go. Most of the time it’s a money issue or a timing issue or people just stopped being excited or not enough of the right people were excited. Maybe the cast didn’t come together or perhaps it’s something political within the organization. We try to read between the lines in the rejection letters we get but sometimes there is no information to be had.

In theory, I would love more feedback from the people who reject my plays to know why. Unfortunately, probably the true reasons for a rejection are rarely helpful for a writer to know. It probably just isn’t the thing they’re looking for. Perhaps they already have their season. Or they did a play like that last season. It doesn’t fit with the aesthetic. It’s not right for this actor they want to work with or it’s not something this director wants to do. It would alienate the subscriber base. It isn’t the thing they’re excited about. It isn’t the thing the producers are giving enhancement money for. Really, there are so many plays submitted and so few slots, it’s a shock when any plays that haven’t already been tested get done at all. So when someone says to me I’m going to do your play, I believe them and want to believe they can and will do it.

When I stop hearing from a producer, that usually means it’s not happening. Two months becomes three months becomes four months. Suddenly it’s spring. Weren’t we going to do that play in the spring? Maybe they stop responding to my emails requesting an update. I go to their website and see my project is no longer listed as upcoming.

Unfortunately when someone tells me they’re going to do my play, I stop trying to shop that one around. I’ve written a lot of plays and there’s a bunch I’m always trying to push on large and small theaters. If you tell me you are going to put up X in New York, well maybe I can stop pushing X and put my efforts towards Y and Z. But then two years pass and it becomes clear that X is not going up. It may not be your fault you weren’t able to get it up but it also means that X has been sitting on a shelf for two years. What is worse is that if, as a playwright, you get into an option situation, you literally can’t show it to anyone else and for a little bit of money, a producer can sit on that play for a year or two and by the time that period is over, the buzz on that play is cold and it’s that much harder to get it up. Still if someone offered me an option tomorrow I would do it. Because of hope.

I am glad people from theaters tell me when they like my plays. I’m glad to have meetings where people buy me drinks or lunch, where we talk about casting, where they show me a budget. Even after, when it seems like the hope they gave me was false hope, it’s still hope that keeps me going, keeps me doing this thing. Without hope, what do you have? Possibilities are delicious. Reality can never measure up.

In our business we live on hope—hope that this next show will be produced, the reviewers will come and like it, that it will be published and then get more subsequent productions. Those productions will lead to more productions, will lead to the next play getting produced, and the cycle starts over.

If you tell me you will do my play I want to believe you will do so. But I need to be realistic about it too. Time has shown me that lots of things don’t go.

So what can I do? Perhaps I need to line up multiple producers for each project so when one falls through I have another trying just as hard? That plan is problematic for several reasons. At the very least I have to learn not to stop sending a play around just because someone says they’re going to do it. Until opening night, nothing is certain.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Interested in following this conversation in real time? Receive email alerting you to new threads and the continuation of current threads.

subscribe

Comments

7
Add Comment
Newest First

In light of the recent Apology-fiasco, this sort of article is one of the things HowlRound does really well: parlay the experience of an individual theatre-maker into useful career information for a whole class of theatre artists.

Thank you for this. The silence that follows the promise of a production has had me wondering--did I commit a gaffe and no one will tell me? Was there a chive between my teeth at that lunch? WHAT? It just...is. Or rather, is not.

To be frank, the lack of professionalism you have experienced is appalling to me. I understand not being able to get back to every single person who submits a play for production, especially at a large theatre that does a lot of new work. But to tell you that they are producing it and then simply stop emailing you when you request updates? That is completely unacceptable, in my opinion.

As a theatre producer, I disagree with you Andrew, This post merely expressed his accepted reality of "until opening night you can only hold your breath." I only produce unpublished works at my theatre and have more scripts sent than I can ever read. Adam does seem to have a firm reality of all the myriad of reasons a play may be on a producers radar only to be dropped later. HOWEVER, if a theatre tells a playwright they plan to produce a play, it is only professional, on the part of the theatre, to let the playwright know if plans change. That is common courtesy. Unfortunately, I admit that I have not always been as courteous as I should. But his musings above are valid.

Winnie, I absolutely understand, which is why I said that "I understand not being able to get back to every single person who submits a play for production, especially at a large theatre that does a lot of new work."

However, if you read the end of my comment, I think you'll find that you and I said almost literally the same thing. ;-)

I don't consider losing opportunities for a play for two years due to an option that causes it to just sit a minor problem. It's lost buzz, lost momentum, possibly lost everything. As a playwright who recently lost a self-production opportunity due to everything closing in - disappearance of the lead actor, venue being weird, and all the logistics taking away from focus at rehearsal, etc., I can feel the grueling nature of the process. It would be wrenching to wait months and have them not even provide the courtesy of picking up the phone to say, "It's not happening." For all the drinks, lunches and accolades, I think what every playwright really wants is to see, hear and feel our work on the stage.