At TCG National Conference, A Lively Discussion Of New Play Development

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At the TCG National Conference earlier this month, I attended a panel entitled “Living The Margo Jones Legacy: Breaking The Habit Of New Play Development”, the aim of which was to challenge current orthodoxies (including unacknowledged ones) in the development and production of new plays.  Discussion was lively and provocative – too rich, in fact, for the short timeframe allotted.  But there is one thread of the conversation above others I would like to air here on the blog and comment on a bit.

Jason Loewith, Artistic Director of the Olney Theatre Center (also former Executive Director of the National New Play Network and a writer/director himself), drew an image of the playwright’s progress through the national theatre landscape.  Theatres, he said, of different sizes, occupy different levels of the environment, and small theatres find young playwrights on the ground floor, pass them up to mid-size theatres in the understory, who then pass the playwrights up to the LORT theatres representing the canopy or emergent layer.  His metaphor approximated the layers of a rainforest and nicely captures the living web of competition new plays must operate in.

Perhaps a more apt image (given that species in rainforests do not actually pass upward from layer to layer in hierarchical progression) would be the major and minor leagues of professional baseball.  A successful player will, in time, move up the organizational chart, passing from Double-A to Triple-A, from Triple-A to the majors.  Although the formal farm system of baseball, where minor league clubs are affiliated with majors for the explicit purpose of developing talent, is not broadly reflected in theatre, that teleological orientation is, I think, what Loewith intended in his image: good playwrights are supposed to grow from one stage to the next, with the ultimate purpose of playing in the big leagues of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the major regional theatres.

That metaphor may be troubled, however, in one significant respect: a baseball player or a rainforest animal may only occupy one space at one time; a playwright, through her work, is capable of occupying many spaces and many layers of the environment at once.  To put this more simply: just because Chekhov has achieved the final success – in theory – of having Uncle Vanya produced at the Public or wherever, does not mean Gangplank Theatre, a made-up company of recent grads living aboard a yacht on the high seas, will not be producing Vanya this fall.  Or, to choose a new playwright, Annie Baker is more or less bestriding the world right now, with Obies, and commissions, awards, productions at Soho Rep and Playwrights Horizons casting spores that germinate in mid-size regional theatres all across the country.  But all the same The Aliens will continue to be produced by small companies, ad-hoc collectives of homeless theatre-makers, and many others on the forest floor.

The majority of companies do not select plays for their newness.  The majority of companies want to do good work that they love, that fits their style, and that will draw in audiences.  They’re going to grab plays by successful artists.  Successful plays.  The same ones, for the most part, that everyone else loves.  And the more they produce plays that are already successful, the less they operate as a feeding system, passing new playwrights on to the majors.

There’s a related inverse example as well.  Many small companies produce work internally.  They may have writers in their company, or they may develop work as an ensemble, but they may ultimately be islands unto themselves.  They neither draw successful work in, nor pass their own successes out.

Loewith, I suspect, was very much aware of these facts when he said we have “a system that privileges the winners.”  Without using the term, he spoke of market inefficiencies in the development of new work.  Ideally, that baseball farm system would be in place: from the outside one would see a pyramidal flow as the best playwrights pass onward into ever more elite fields of bigger, better-paying theatres.  The current system does that to some extent, but it is choked with inefficiencies.  Because the same dozen or so playwrights win all the prizes, grant money, and commissions one year, that prevents many writers of the tier below from ascending (or even, sometimes, having the stability to maintain the same level), and makes the current winners more likely to gobble up a disproportionate share of productions and future prizes with their new plays next year or the year after.

On a more granular level, he and playwright Anthony Clarvoe, spoke of successful writers being over-commissioned, such that not only were other writers left in the cold, but even the winners were unable to truly serve all their commissions.  And, as a not-to-be-overlooked footnote to the inefficiency problem: many of these commissions are ultimately going unproduced.

So redistribute some commissions, right?  Spread the awards around.  The solution seems obvious.  If the goal is to fund and produce a wealth of great plays, and if one accepts the panel’s axiom that great plays come from great playwrights (Ben Krywosz of Nautilus Music-Theater: “If you want great work, develop the writer, not the piece.”), then one would certainly want to remove obstacles that keep more potentially great playwrights from reaching the top.

I suspect adjustments to the current model may have limited returns, however.  The American theatre industry is not growing.  The pie is the same size or smaller each year.  Logically, then, for any new playwright to get a larger slice, that has to come out of the share of another, more successful playwright.  If the pie were enormous to begin with, that might not be a problem, but, in truth, even very successful playwrights are hardly making a killing from their theatre work.  Find a well-heeled dramatist, and you can bet you’ve got someone who moonlights in Hollywood.

If there are more good playwrights than well-funded theatres (and the panel certainly appeared to take that position), it is natural that the heavies will gather up the greatest shares.  And though it is a frustrating potential bottleneck to the dream of maximizing new play development (and an even more frustrating bottleneck to aspiring writers), the current system may not be unjust.

The panel offered clever and exciting alternative models for play development aimed mostly at navigating the funding chokepoints and soul-crushing development cycles.  Unfortunately, helpful as these new models will be to the current and next-generation of playwrights, they don’t really change the underlying system.  The new play development models mentioned generally confer skill development and guaranteed productions in place of financial compensation.  That’s great for writers honing their craft and attempting to move up the pyramid (no, really: it is very good and no small thing), but those writers are eventually going to take whatever success they have in the alternative model and use it to reach the big leagues.  Jumping metaphors, they’ll use whatever power they gain to take a bigger slice from the same old pie.

Maybe that’s fine.  Anne Cattaneo of Lincoln Center, who led the panel, seemed entirely comfortable with making playwrights less comfortable.  She suggested, as a pure thought experiment, the complete elimination of all commissions, which often lead to weaker writing, in her opinion.  She was not at all troubled by pushing established writers off the dais to make room for younger artists, since most great writers do their best work by mid-career (her argument – though see how it neatly solves another chokepoint of the pyramid structure).  She was highly skeptical of mentorships that might give a kind of security to a young writer but cost her a portion of her voice.  Finally she didn’t think writers should even be so concerned with penetrating existing organizations, since the most celebrated artists have frequently grown up alongside their own artistic collectives.

Cattaneo’s viewpoint had a refreshing directness.  She picked historical great plays and playwrights, identified commonalities, and advocated (again, as a thought experiment) embracing those results at whatever cost to the status quo.  Her ideas were discomfiting and could be disastrous if enacted, as they would seemingly lead to even less stability in the lives of playwrights, but to paraphrase Peter Brook, if shit makes the best fertilizer, there’s no sense being squeamish.  She, of all the speakers, truly challenged orthodoxies and not just habits.  Where Loewith and others spoke of systemic problems with tremendous acuity, only Cattaneo’s radical approach could actually circumvent those problems (by either disassembling or ignoring them, essentially).

I wish they had had an hour more to talk, at least, but this is roughly where the conversation wound down.  I suspect the current habits and orthodoxies may remain for some time, only intermittently challenged, so there remains much more to work out on this subject.  And should one of the proposed revolutions occur (targeted, internal or broad, external), there will certainly be new habits, new orthodoxies to question.

Above image: rainforestheroes.com

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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