Dallas Theater Center’s Director Of New Play Development Discusses His New Position And Making Original Plays In Dallas

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(photo from Dallas Theater Center website)

Today Lee Trull officially began his new job as Director Of New Play Development for Dallas Theater Center.  Trull has been a member of the Brierley Resident Acting Company and Artistic Associate.  He sat down with Undermain’s Literary Manager, Stephen Foglia, to talk about the intricacies of bringing new work to Theater Center.

Stephen Foglia: Could you describe the scope of your new position?

Lee Trull: I handle new play submissions.  I handle the reading of those plays.  Any committees or shared reading, I organize that.  Season planning, I work directly with Kevin Moriarty, my boss.  Producing new play readings, workshops, and productions.  So following plays all the way through from first read to production.

How much of that has already been on your plate, unofficially, maybe?

I would say most of them I’ve been involved with already.  For example, I did most of the producing for the Trinity River plays.  This past season I was the producer for our Stagger Lee workshop, which is this Will Power musical that we’ve been working on.  And I’ve been reading new plays and working with Kevin on season planning for a long time.  But that’s hard to do when you’re in the acting company. For six to eight months a year, I am doing something for the theatre six days a week, with Monday being my only day off.  It’s very hard to go to a festival or see a play in town, or to organize the reading groups.

Now when you talk about having these acting responsibilities and also unofficially starting to work in these other capacities – developing plays, planning seasons, getting readings going – is there a wish list you’ve already had going, and you’re about to start tackling it?

Yes.  Well, the main wish is to have more time to do it.  But what’s interesting about what we’re talking about is basically we’ve been producing new work without a play development director or lit manager for a while.

Are there consequences to that?

Sure, yeah.  Absolutely.  Things sort of split focus.  Sometimes I’ll be in charge of it, Joel will be in charge of it, Kevin will be in charge of it.  And there’s been a few missed opportunities.  We move aggressively and with great courage towards the big thing, and now that we’re getting bigger and we’re doing these larger shows, and more parties are involved in the new plays we’re doing, it’s starting to require some real focus to make sure steps aren’t skipped.

For example what kind of step might get skipped?

Huh.  Well.  For example, if you’re building a budget…If there’s not somebody tracking that the whole way, you can’t start to guide…

It’s really about guiding the whole process.  Being there from the beginning all the way to the end.  So that you make sure the writers are given the resources they need.

What role will you be playing in helping the playwright define what it is that they need through the reading and workshop process?

Honestly, when it gets into workshop mode, when there’s a director attached, I’d be working more closely with the director, in the same way that producers work with directors.  “We have this amount of money, we can allocate it however you want to use it, but at some point we run out of money.  So let’s start thinking about what kind of physical workshop we want, right, the physical life of that.”

As far as writers go, I don’t think we’ll be putting any restrictions on that.  If they write a play for one hundred people that’s set on the moon, and we need some sort of zero-gravity effect, that’s a bridge that you come to.  I don’t think when you commission a play that you start off by saying that it has to have four actors, has to be on a unit set.  Some people do that, but that’s not what we’re doing.  In fact, I think what we’re asking is for people to dream big, to make the play that they want to make.

I guess what I mean is more, when you’re in that development process, specifically readings and workshops, to what extent is that a dialogue between you, the director, and the playwright, and…

Do you mean dramaturgically, like input?

Yeah, input.  If we’re talking about a script comes in as Script A and will come out as Script B, how much of that will be input from you, or from…?

I think there’ll be a lot of input from me.  I personally believe that’s mostly about listening to what the writer says they want to achieve and trying to get that onto the page.  Saying to them, “hey, the play you’re describing sounds really, really great.  But just to let you know, what happens here in the second act is not what you’re saying is happening.  So is that the play you want to write or is the other one the play you want to write?  Should we go on this adventure, or should we go the other way?  Here are some ways the conflict could be clearer.”  That sort of thing is there all along the way.  And most writers want that.

How long do you need for a reading to start effectively tackling those questions.

It depends on the writer, I suppose.  Where they are in the process. There’s lots of kinds of readings.  One reading is just…

Sitting around a table.

You invite them down to a table, and you don’t really rehearse it, you just hear it out loud.  And I think in those scenarios you should be generous and say things like, “hey, how do you think that went?”  Or “do you have any questions for me?”  I don’t think that’s the time to tell them what their play is or how it should work.

Stepping up the ladder to something like a workshop, how does a workshop function?

Those are very new to me.  We did a three-week workshop for Stagger Lee, which had a band and a choreographer, costume designer, set designer (even though we didn’t have a set), a director, actors, dancing, and invited audience.  Um, that was doing a play [laughing].

And I would say the mistake I won’t repeat, as far as my contribution to that, was I was way more worried about “where are we gonna find a good electric guitar player?”  And I didn’t really jump in to thinking about what am I hearing, what’s happening on the page until the very end.  I think the next time we do a workshop, I’ll be trying to facilitate getting them the resources they need and also being there to help in the process of writing.

It seems with Dallas Theater Center that generally when you’re doing workshops there’s an implied commitment beyond that. 

Yes, absolutely.  Everything’s complicated, but we are not commissioning plays simply to provide money and give an artist a place where they can stop and write something.  We want to do the play.  We really want to do the play.  So we’re pulling for it.  And we’re commissioning writers we believe in.

I want to talk to you about the season planning part of this.  What are the goals when you go into season planning meetings – who are the masters you serve there, and what is the kind of language you use?

Well, the master we serve is Kevin Moriarty, and he has a lot of goals.  He always says, “Here’s what we’re trying to do.”  And everything works within a system.  So we want to make sure we do a new play or musical every year.  We’ve been doing two musicals a year for the past few years.

Are there quotas when you go into season planning?

I think unofficially we try to hold ourselves to that sort of model.  We want to do an intense smaller, newer play.  Oedipus El Rey fit into that.  [It’s] a little more adventurous for our audience.  And it’s in a smaller space, but it’s part of our season.  All of our subscribers will get a chance to see it.

As Director Of New Play Development, is adventurous a place you want to be, moving forward?

Yes.  But let me just be clear, I don’t think edgy means anything.  I think there’s many ways to be adventurous.  I think Fly By Night, which is the show we’re doing right now, has a lot of heart.  There’s darkness, there’s sadness, there’s all kinds of things.  But I think it’s adventurous.  Fly* is adventurous.

*Editor’s Note: FLY is the upcoming Peter Pan-based musical by Rajiv Joseph and Bill Sherman.  FLY BY NIGHT is an original musical from Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly, and Michael Mitnick.

What makes it adventurous?

The ride you go on.  The fact that the music feels like something that you haven’t really heard in a musical before.  Fly has a book-writer, Rajiv Joseph, who hasn’t written a musical before, and he writes sort of crazy magic-realism plays.  So I would say adventurous is fine.  What I’m most drawn to in the writers that we like is heart.

What does that mean to you?

Love.  Passion.  The way Kristoffer Diaz just puts it all towards the audience.  I think that the plays of Kim Rosenstock, and Kris Diaz, and Rajiv Joseph are very vulnerable and filled with energy.  I think of the first monologue in Chad Deity where he’s like, “OK, I’m a kid, I’m eating cereal, I’m sitting on the floor, I’m in my Underoos, I’m watching wrestling.”  There’s something about that just is so embarrassing, so vulnerable, so “I’m gonna tell you who I am now.”  That’s the kind of stuff I’m into.

Is there a new play you’ve read recently that’s knocked your socks off?

Most of the writers I get sent are MFA students that are hot or writers that are about to break in New York.  So for example, Bethany, which just was produced in New York was a play that I really liked a few years back.  Laura Marks is that writer.  Belleville, the Amy Herzog play, I quite like.

In the interview you did with D Magazine, Liz Johnstone asked you about supporting local playwrights, and you talked about several established Dallas playwrights.  Vicki Cheatwood, Matt Posey, Steve Walters.  In those latter two cases, those are writers with their own companies they’ve started.  It seems to me in some cases these playwrights are having to self-produce in order to get productions. Is that something that DTC has the ability to add to, or disrupt, or improve upon? 

Yeah, I don’t know the answer to that yet.  I think it’s a tricky question that requires more thought.  On my part.  I will say that our playwright-in-residence, Will Power, is enthusiastic about this subject.  About us getting to know, and being around, and saturating ourselves in the work of local playwrights.  We’re so far ahead on what we’re going to be producing, and we have commissions out, that I think it’s more about “how can we be involved, how can we help…how can we not only help, but be informed and changed by their work and by the work that’s happening.”

What Matthew Posey’s doing has little to nothing to do with what we’re doing, but it’s causing reaction in this town, and I think that it’s stupid to not be aware of that and listen to it and feel affected by that.  I don’t know the answer to where we are with local writers yet.  I know it’s something that concerns those writers.  I’ve heard that from them.  “How do we get a place at the Theater Center?”

We run into difficulties at Undermain because we are committed to new work, but if you look at how our seasons are put together, it’s only three shows and really only on average maybe one premiere per season, and often those slots are taken by writers that we already have long-established relationships with.

And very specifically they fit what you guys do.  We have a broader mission, but broad doesn’t actually mean every writer fits into that.  And there’s a certain bigness that our audience requires, and that’s the Catch-22.  If you don’t get the resources, you don’t get the chance to explore that side of yourself.  You’re trying to write a two-person play that somebody will produce somewhere, you know.

You’d also mentioned the idea that you could be in conversation with other theatres across the country, regional theaters and their literary departments.  How do you see that relationship working? 

Oh, that’s my favorite part.  I want to meet everyone else that’s doing exciting work.  And I want to exchange ideas.  I want to be at the table with other people that are busting their asses at cool theatres all around the country.  I’m now available to go to conferences.  And so I’ll be able to go get to know lit managers, associate artistic directors, directors of new play development, artistic directors at theatres our size.

There’s a lot of stuff that’s not right for our theatre.  Enda Walsh may one day write something that’s totally right for our theatre, but he’s exploring things that we’re not into yet.  Which means I get to go shop Enda Walsh around.  Which was shopped to me by Cecil O’Neal.  So then falling in love with it because someone else was in love with it.

New play development is all about falling in love.  Gushing over [a writer’s] work.  Wanting more from it.  Being demanding because you love it so much.  And when you love something, you want to share it with everyone you know.  That’s gonna be my favorite thing.  Being able to share writers I love and plays that I love with other theatres around the country.

And that can include local writers that maybe aren’t right for our stage yet for whatever reason.  I would love to be able to say, “hey, Wooly Mammoth, you’ve gotta read what this Dallas playwright is up to…”

That’s something that frustrates me a little bit in the discussion of “why isn’t Theater Center producing a local playwright?” is it overlooks the fact that there are other ways to support local playwrights aside from specifically producing them on your stage.  A healthy Theater Center relationship with writers is great for the ecosystem period.

There’s been some criticism of us bringing Will Power in as a writer-in-residence because he’s not local – first of all: he is local.  Before he became our playwright-in-residence, he moved his whole family to Dallas.  [laughing] He lives in Oak Cliff.  He’s lived there for a year.  He teaches at Southern Methodist University.

He’s in the community, and he’s invested in the community.

He’s very invested.  This is before he was named playwright-in-residence.  This is part of why we were interested in him.  We thought “wow, this is already a guy who 90% of his thought about art starts with community.”  And our community is going to be made better by that.  Because he loves our community.  Because he loves local playwrights.  Because he won’t shut up about them.  Because he wants to find opportunities to invest in the community and to work with playwrights.  And if Will ever leaves, he will have left Dallas a better place than he found it.  Much better than I will.  He’s a much better ambassador for making new plays than I ever will be.  It’s in his bones.

How will you be working with him during his residency?

One thing I’m going to propose to Will – I haven’t proposed this yet, so who knows if he’ll go for it – is that anything he reads, I read, and anything I read, he reads.  So that we can have a complete dialogue about what we love.

Is this a “no matter how bad”…?

Absolutely.  Yeah.  Because it’s often in what one person loves and the other person thinks stinks where you find the most interesting dialogue.  And you start to learn something about somebody.  And it’s how a play doesn’t get missed.  When did I become the genius that can spot the new Eugene O’Neill from a mile away?  I’m not.  I’m just some guy that wrote some plays, acted in some plays, thinks about new plays.

If this is highly successful, if you’re able to meet the goals that you set for yourself, where do you see it five years down the road?  What’s changed?  What’s new for Dallas Theater Center, what’s new for Dallas?

I think there’s a healthy exchange of plays and playwrights.  Dallas thinks of itself as a place where new plays happen.  Which is already well on its way to being.

You think so?

Sure.  I think Kitchen Dog has a lot to do with that.  They’ve sort of doubled down on that, and they’re getting respected for that nationally.  And I think there’s a healthy discussion.  I mean, you know, Undermain has a lit manager.  First of all, when did that happen, and who knows that happened?  If we all start to talk about that, focusing on new plays, giving resources, staff positions for new plays, I think that this is all very healthy.  And I would love to see that grow.

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