13P: Playwrights Take Power (Updated)

Recently Stan Wojewodski, who is directing Undermain’s upcoming production of Penelope, spoke with me about major playwrights in the current American experimental landscape.  He mentioned the work of 13P, an organization I was unfamiliar with, composed entirely of playwrights with whom I, and the rest of Undermain’s artistic team, are now extremely familiar (we’ve admired many of their plays and produced a few, including those by Sarah Ruhl and Young Jean Lee).  Noting my curiosity, Stan was kind enough to send on a link to the website archiving 13P’s work.

13P website.

As the mission statement reveals, 13P sought to break through the play development cycle and actually get the work of exciting mid-career writers produced.  The website is a fantastic resource.  It’s both incredibly informative — it dives into all the grubby practicalities of raising money in the arts — and inspiring for those who seek to take more control of their creative future.

Next week I hope to update this post and spend a bit more time discussing the work of 13P and some of the issues it raises with respect to the course of American writing.  For now, though, I hope you’ll click through and discover 13Ps story for yourself.

Update (12/4)

The writers and producers of 13P made it their mission to combat the trend of “play development” that had, in their view, ceased to help upcoming writers and had, in fact, even begun to undermine them.

To an ordinary theatre-goer, particularly outside New York, the problem with play development may not be immediately clear.  The theatrical diet of American audiences comprises mostly revivals, with an occasional fresh Broadway hit thrown in (touring or otherwise).  The region from which new works emerge is a fog-shrouded wilderness.

So let’s say you’re an up-and-coming playwright with a production or two under your belt and a portfolio of new projects.  Let’s go a couple steps further and say you’re in New York (because that’s where the action is, right?) and you’ve got an MFA (because most hot young playwrights do).  Now, you want what every other playwright wants, don’t you — you want those plays on your hard-drive to become plays on-stage, and you want those plays on-stage to become money in your bank account, including eventually commissions for more work so you get to put new plays on your hard-drive without worrying about putting food in your belly.

But how do you do that first part?  Years ago you talked your director friend into mounting your first play at the New York Fringe, and that went pretty well.  Free press.  Good crowds after you got out and plastered half the borough with posters.  But your director bud moved back to Austin to market earbuds for pre-teen metalheads, plus you’re significantly lighter in the pocket after your stint in grad school.  Speaking of school, you had that amazing collaboration with the dance students that blew your mind and made you think suddenly you were capable of making just about anything happen on-stage as long as you had a few supple bodies with breath in them.  But space was provided, and oh yeah, so were the dancers for that matter.  How much do you think it would cost to hire them back now that they’ve graduated, too?  Would your parents chip in?  Maybe tell them you need the cash to buy health insurance.  And how would you find those dancers anyway?  Nobody told you back then that you needed to keep the contact info of every remotely useful human who crossed your path.  Maybe they’re on facebook…

Point is you’re gonna need money, and you’re probably gonna need a support system.  Fortunately, those are both available in the form of (drum roll)…grants and contests!  So now you’re combing through the Dramatist’s Resource Directory applying to everything that looks halfway possible.  And lucky you, your play wins the [redacted] Prize!  That’s $5,000 cash-money, plus a staged reading of your work.  Hooray!

The reading goes great.  You learn a lot hearing the play out loud.  You shake a lot of hands.  You feel the play is about to achieve liftoff.  But now it’s two months later, and the play is sitting on your hard drive pretty much right where it started, and you and your fancy [redacted] Prize can’t get a serious look from any quality theatres because they only do one new play a year and it’s mostly by the same two or three writers they keep in the stable.  So you take your [redacted] Prize, and you do the only thing you can with it: use it to garnish an application for more prizes.  Soon your play is quite decorated, and you’ve had three readings and a two-day workshop with a charismatic local director.  But no one is producing it, and you still haven’t seen the damned thing on its feet.  Congratulations.  You are now the envy of 99% of America’s playwrights.

Putting aside for a moment the frustration this system inspires in the growing playwright, one might reasonably point out that all these readings may eventually lead to a production and that the final script will be much improved by the process.  This, after all, is the claim of most organizations who put on readings and workshops: we will assist you in developing the work towards a future production.

The problem — to come full circle — is that the latter part (full production) is mostly a lie, and the former (development) is at best a barbed gift.  Most of these readings and workshops do not lead in any direct way to productions.  13P was born because the writers involved, with a few exceptions, simply could not get their work produced, no matter how many readings or small awards they earned.  A few of the playwrights were even well-known and comparatively successful at the time.  Circumstances are not very different in 2012 than they were when 13P began in 2003.

And the development game is, despite appearances, dangerous for new writing.  Though it is undoubtedly helpful in many cases, its broad effect is to flatten voices and make theatrical innovation more difficult.

Common sense and practicality tell us that writers may benefit from outside perspectives and the chance to discuss their work critically with other artists.  Play development offers this but in a distorted form because the goal is not truly artistic — to improve the play for production — but commercial — to improve the play to get a production.  If it’s difficult for a committee of artists to write a play (and it is), then it’s much worse for a committee of ad-men.

Even in cases of real integrity, the process can be treacherous.  Work-shopping is a matter of looking for solutions to ameliorate the flaws of the play.  The play’s author has an individual, and hopefully unique, sense of direction to guide her as she hunts for answers.  A group, in achieving consensus, will almost necessarily trod well-worn paths.  The answers that seem so obvious and right are often that way because we have seen them before.  Fixing one or two problems in the play in the conventional way might very well be an improvement.  Fix too many, and you end up with a conventional play.

With troubled scripts, of the kind young, talented writers are likely to produce, the process is a slow, nearly invisible subversion.  The final play may in fact be better than the flawed draft that came in.  But it will have been transmuted into a merely good (or tolerable) version of several pre-existing plays, rather than an improved version of the original.  The Platonic ideal of the story the playwright thought she was seeking will have been long left behind.

Witness this problem in Hollywood, where if anything the development game is even worse.  Agents frequently complain that every script they receive functions in the exact same way, with identical story beats occurring on identical pages (this is to say nothing of actual retreads, reboots, etc.), and yet they will turn around and support the system (producers, other agents, managers, execs, script gurus, seminar speakers, etc.) that makes this homogenization inevitable.

Charlie Kaufman (AdaptationEternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) somewhat famously described what this does to the writer in a BAFTA lecture:

“As I’m sure you know, there is a fungus – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – that infects the brains of carpenter ants and it turns them into zombie slaves, more or less. What happens is that the ants climb to the underside of leaves near the forest floor, secure themselves to the leaves and then die, becoming a food source for the fungus.

Eventually the positioning of the ant corpse serves to allow the spores to burst out of the ant’s head and rain down on other ants. This is true. And it’s very successful. There is fossil record of this occurring up to 48 million years ago. The thing that’s fascinating about this to me is that the ant is acting mindlessly against its own interests and the interests of its fellow ants by becoming a tool of the fungus. I think a similar system has evolved in our culture...And I don’t think it’s symbiotic. As far as I can tell the carpenter ants don’t get a damn thing out of it

The development system, which has proven adept at turning young plays and playwrights into versions of other slightly-less-young plays and playwrights, and which has not managed to furnish nearly enough productions to justify itself or allow most theatre-goers to countenance a contemporary American drama, perpetuates itself not only at the expense of the writers who submit to it, but by way of those writers.  Note here that it is only in the best cases that the workshops described above are operated with artistic concerns first in mind.  In most cases, the goal is in one way or another commercial.  Or at the very least seductive.

If this sounds alarmist or spectacularly ungenerous towards organizations who are ultimately putting up a lot of money to support the theatre, take a moment to reflect on the great playwrights, the writers who have truly mattered in the history of theatre.  Now pick your favorite play of theirs and imagine submitting it to workshops and endless readings.  Whatever play you chose, it cannot be hard to see pages and scenes stripped off the bones, hurled to the wings.  So many clear fixes.  So many ways to make it more produce-able.

And here we arrive at a final irony: all this development is done in the absence of the play itself.  The play does not exist on the page, and it can hardly be said to exist in a reading.  The play exists in time and space when actors perform it.  Changes to make the play more produce-able are made without any idea whatsoever of what the play is like produced.

This is not a call to liberate artists from scrutiny: plays always need work — even the good ones.  For the health of theatre culture, though, that scrutiny needs to better serve the artists.  The thing that needs developing is their play, not some general play that genetically resembles it.

And that is why 13P’s work is so important.  These playwrights recognized that their growth as artists was ill-served by the development process, so they banded together to break through the system.  As they attest in the interviews on their website, the productions were mostly very successful, and the experience of working on them through a full rehearsal period and run was invaluable to their understanding of the craft.

13P has imploded, as planned all along, but their battle is not really over, and it behooves those of us who want to see a healthy American theatre to know the lay of the land.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager