Rules of Engagement for New Play Development

I had just finished working my play Two Degrees at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ New Play Summit when I got a call from Sarah Greenman, the Creative Director at the Statera Foundation. She wanted to know if I might want to lead a panel at the 2016 Statera Conference.

I’ve been part of truly top-notch development opportunities—like the New Play Summit and Seven Devils Playwrights Conference—but I’ve also experienced opportunities that were…not so great. I knew immediately the panel I wanted to lead, and I knew who should be with me: my Two Degrees team—director Christy Montour-Larson and dramaturg Heather Helinsky—along with Jeni Mahoney, Co-Artistic Director for id Theater, and Artistic Director of Seven Devils Playwrights Conference. The four of us have seen it happen, time and again: even with the best of intentions, the most insistent or most powerful voice overpowers the playwright’s process. And when that happens, the play loses.

Despite the growing number of opportunities for new plays, we struggle to establish, convey, and train others in the “best practices” of new play development. We hope these “Rules of Engagement” will help all of us foster healthier conversations about new plays and new play development.
—Tira Palmquist

four women at a panel
Heather Helinsky, Jeni Mahoney, Christy Montour-Larson, and Tira Palmquist at the 2016 Statera Conference. Photo by Lisa Young.

 

Sometimes the playwright needs to see it not work in order to realize why it is not working. (Sometimes the rest of us need to see it not work to truly understand what the playwright is trying to do.)

1.     Trust the playwright first. Try things before trying to fix them. Don’t try to talk the playwright out of things that strike you as confusing, impossible, difficult, or inconvenient to your process. Try to understand her intention before imposing your own (even if you’re sure yours is better…even if, in fact, it is in some ways “better”).

2.    Trust the process. Invest in the process rather than investing in the outcome of the process. Accept up front that the play may move from A to Z, from A to B, or from A to J and then back to D. The process might be messy, fraught, challenging, or revelatory—and might need to be all of those things. Keep your knees bent, and be ready for change.

3.    The playwright has the right to write. No matter what, use the most current draft. Likewise, if there is a legitimate need for a cut-off time, be clear about the reasons (and the deadline). This is where clear expectations for the process are paramount.

4.    Let the playwright see her play. Sometimes the playwright needs to see it not work in order to realize why it is not working. (Sometimes the rest of us need to see it not work to truly understand what the playwright is trying to do.) Seeing the play, warts and all, can be one of the most significant gifts you give a playwright in the development process.

5.    The director is a midwife. You’re here to deliver the baby, not attend its high school graduation. The playwright has a right to see their play directed—not your play.

6.    No one in the room should have a greater stake in the life of the play than the playwright. The midwife rule holds for all collaborators and the organization as whole. The carrot of future production can be a great incentive. Yet, if it creates a sense of “shared ownership” of the trajectory of the process, it can impede the playwright’s freedom to explore the work as broadly, deeply, and adventurously as she otherwise might.

Maintaining the same approach to every play, to every project is antithetical to the creation of art. Instead, new play development should be guided by ongoing reflection, and asking: How is this supporting the playwright?

7.    Not everyone is a dramaturg. During the process, everyone will have opinions about the script—what's clear and what's not. Too many voices asking for changes all at once can be overwhelming. Discuss with the entire creative team about how the playwright wants to handle notes and feedback. Simplify whenever possible. If there's a dramaturg present, please use that person as a point of communication.

8.     Trust the audience. The audience can definitely be part of the development process, and should definitely be part of the conversation. But remember: audiences need to know the rules of engagement as well. Audience engagement in the development process means setting appropriate expectations for audiences.

9.     Model appropriate feedback behavior for your audience. Ask audiences to frame feedback so that is supports the development process. You may need to remind the audience that they’re not there to tell the playwright how to rewrite the play. You may need to offer them the tools and support they need to do this. For example, offer them prompts to help start the conversation, or give them examples of helpful (neutral) questions.

10.  Be honest about who you are serving…and when. It may simply be true that your desire to support a playwright in developing her work must—at some point—take a backseat to your need to satisfy a paying audience that has certain expectations. If so, own that up front. It’s better for everyone.

11.  Keep lines of communication open. Begin the process with a conversation. Punctuate the process with conversations. When in doubt…have a conversation. Usually, the biggest problems occur because someone made an assumption, and didn’t convey that assumption to everybody else in the process. Have appropriate expectations, and convey those expectations in a clear and timely fashion.

12.  Be prepared to let shit go. The process asks all of us to take risks, so at some point someone will panic and say something stupid (or insulting, or lacking in self-awareness). This is because they are human and probably also tired, frustrated, scared, hungry, or confused. Everyone has to be ready to let that shit go. It is poison. If someone can’t let it go, refer to rule #11.

13.  The play will not be finished in development. The fruits of the development process may not be felt for weeks, months, years. The goal isn’t to be ready for the production. In the best possible case, you might be ready for a rehearsal process (in which there will doubtless be more changes.) The only real measure is whether the play and/or playwright took the next step in its process.

14.  Avoid dogmatic commitment to rules. Maintaining the same approach to every play, to every project is antithetical to the creation of art. Instead, new play development should be guided by ongoing reflection, and asking: How is this supporting the playwright? If you cannot answer this question, then it may be time to review your process. A shift in practice is not necessarily a shift— philosophically—in process. After all, process is not about what you do, but why you do it.

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I'm not exactly sure why the article did not mention this, but after many readings in New York, Toronto and London of my own and other writers plays, I discovered that the most important element in the process is the actor. There are actors who know how to sit at a table and give you everything and more than is on the page. If the actors don't deliver what you think you wrote than the playwright has to consider that the play was not written to be acted. Plays are trampolines for actors so if the actors are not soaring the playwright has to sit back down and figure out why. Shakespeare wrote for a group of actors and his plays have lasted 400 years. Write for actors and you have a head start on getting a production. Great playwrights are the ones who great actors want to work with because every part allows them to exhibit their craft. And after directing over 40 plays, modern and classical, I know that the playwright is the "mother" and the director is the "father" to a beautiful new creation.

Hi Mike - thanks for remembering to credit fabulous actors. It is very true that having the right people in the room (whether they be the right actors, director, dramaturg, etc..) is so very important. Our goal was more about addressing the ways in which we can can establish clear, grounding ideals for all artists in the room that will support, protect and challenge the playwright, regardless of who we find ourselves in the room with.

excellent points and thank you. I work with new playwrights, new plays, and devised work processes and love your points and organization in this article. Well done and thanks for posting!

as someone who works intercultural, assumptions are something that we always have to be questioning and looking at. So kudos for bringing that up too. We all have assumptions, and our process is made so much deeper when we can identify and bring them to light.

What is appalling about this article is that it should have to be written at all, or addresses a perceived need. It might be said: great plays are all alike, but dysfunctional ones are dysfunctional each in its own way. A lot of food for thought here about the "process" as you say.

One wishes it didn't need to be written but the truth is most of us learn to how to deal with plays by dealing with either dead/not-present playwrights or in academic classes take a more literary view of plays. Neither of these prepare us for play development, but for some of the even the best intended folks, it's all they know.

I am not sure I agree that this doesn't need to be written. There are new companies, new playwrights, new directors, new actors, even new audiences all looking to places like HowlRound to help them define and streamline and better their processes. I would love to see this be an ongoing professional discussion that goes deeper and wider. We can all get better.