National New Play Network Announces A New Play Exchange

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The National New Play Network recently announced a $110,000 reward from the Doris Duke Foundation to build what they’re calling a New Play Exchange.  The exchange will be web-based and lean heavily on social media functions to help writers, literary managers, and producing theatres connect with one another on the subject of new plays.

The press release is here.

NNPN is projecting a 2015 launch.  The central feature they tout in the release is crowd-sourced script recommendations.  Readers will be able to easily identify new scripts of interest based on the word of others and to promote discoveries of their own.  It is difficult to tell from current information the precise form these recommendations will take.  Potentially they may be similar to CouchSurfing vouches or even as simple as Facebook likes.  “By privileging recommendations (instead of ratings or reviews),” the release says, “the Exchange creates virtual networks of positivity surrounding plays and playwrights of promise.”

A binary system like this probably benefits playwrights more than readers.  It is inarticulate, and by removing all qualifying statements and equivocation, it will favor thumbs-up responses.  For a reader in search of a great script, raw yea votes (out of a likely unnumbered total) might not be the most helpful beacons.

Thankfully, NNPN is envisioning a more elaborate set of tools to complement the central crowd-sourcing mechanism.  For one, readers can identify other artists with similar tastes or missions and choose to track their recommendations.  Newsfeeds can keep readers updated on particular writers or scripts as they garner productions, reviews, and awards.  Direct messages between users can circumvent the up-or-nothing nature of the recommendation system and allow people to really discuss new scripts.

But that’s all in the press release.

I’d like to talk a little about why this excites me as a literary manager and theatre artist.  If NNPN is able to deliver on the promise of their New Play Exchange, they will make my job easier.  More specifically, they will take a part of my job that is currently quite time-consuming and occasionally rather difficult – the search for new scripts – and make it much easier, so that I can concentrate on the part of my job that actually should be difficult and time-consuming: reading and evaluating new scripts and trying to get them to production.

I acquire new scripts in two broad ways: I am given them directly by agents, playwrights, or colleagues, or I track them down independently either through the library or through online purchase.

Online purchase may be profitable for the playwright (particularly if my read does not lead to a production), but it is generally a wasteful and unnecessary route for a theatre to take.  It is also limited because the vast majority of new scripts are unpublished.  The library has a tremendous catalogue, but it also holds only published scripts and favors known playwrights.

Direct exchange is how I get access to a diverse array of manuscript and digital copies of fresh work (from both known and unknown playwrights).  But still you might be surprised how much work goes in to just getting copies of scripts that I am actively searching for.  Agents are not always easy to find or quick to respond.  Every title I decide to hunt down is a new adventure.  While I’d stop short of calling the work hard in all but a few cases, there’s no question it takes up time and energy that could better be spent actually reading and thinking about the scripts.

And I’ve said nothing so far about how I decide what scripts to search for in the first place.  That’s almost entirely a matter of reading reviews and tracking playwrights through a scattered array of online sources.  I happily take recommendations from colleagues, but there aren’t many theatres in Dallas doing the kind of work I look for.

So I imagine being able to log in to the New Play Exchange.  I check the newsfeed, scanning for items about playwrights and scripts I’ve tagged.  I open my mailbox to read a direct message from a playwright I’ve been in contact with about their work.  I scroll through the list of Artistic Directors, Literary Managers, Playwrights, and Directors I follow to see what they’ve liked recently.  I add a few new titles to the sticky note I keep on my desktop.  Then I hit the database and grab every script on my list, all from one location.

For this to work, it’s really important that NNPN is able to get as many scripts as possible on that database.  NNPN and its partner organizations (including New Dramatists) help promote the works of a huge number of established and up-and-coming playwrights, but a great deal of their success, from my point of view, will hinge on their ability to fill in gaps.  Every rising writer who refuses (or whose agent refuses) to upload digital files of their work damages the integrity of the whole and makes the New Play Exchange less of a one-stop shop.  I hope that if playwrights are uncomfortable making their work available even to the subscribing community, the exchange will at least make those writers and their agents easier to find and follow.

If this makes life better for literary managers, it should also make life better for playwrights.  Young writers looking to spread their scripts around and gain productions currently don’t have many better options than directly submitting their work to theatres, and many theatres don’t even read unsolicited submissions.  If their scripts are in the database gaining readers and recommendations, they might develop some of their own magnetism, so that readers who come across them are less likely to simply pass them by.

The U.S. theatre community can feel like a small world, but it is also fragmented in important ways that make it harder than it should be for playwrights and producing artists to connect.  The National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange could be a big step towards uniting those of us involved in new work.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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