- Where Do New Plays Come From?
A new work of art that offends no one, neither surprises, frightens, mystifies nor startles, is not a new work at all, but a clone of the past.—Craig Lucas (2008)
My questions are simply these: Where does interesting new work come from? How does it get nurtured? And why is it not being produced more readily in nonprofit regional theatres in the United States? Has the nonprofit regional theatre lost its purpose and run its course when it comes to generating new works?
Without the development and nurturing of new plays and playwrights the theatre will atrophy; from where I stand it has already shriveled significantly. Regional theatres produce uninspired work, but new play development organizations offer an alternative process of new play selection outside of the nonprofit regional theatre construct.
Working in new play development for the past 15 years, I have observed a marginalizing of new playwrights in nonprofit regional theatres. This is because theatre managers think that plays are worthy of development funding but not necessarily worthy of production.1 The regional nonprofit theatre began in the 1950s and ’60s with the avowed purpose of bringing compelling stage work—both new and classic—to the fore, regardless of profit margins. Now it is more than a half-century later and the American regional theatre has lost its sense of purpose.
Recent articles by Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times (2008) and Steven McElroy in the New York Times (2008) and playwright Richard Nelson’s (former Chair of the Yale Graduate Playwriting Program) keynote address to the Laura Pels Foundation (2007) reinforce what I am saying; this is an important and ongoing topic of discussion within the theatre community.
The process of new play development by playwrights working in a non–production driven environment is important but often overlooked by theatregoers. The validity and ultimate purpose of something theatre professionals take for granted—such as having a common working method for new play development—is still questioned by funders.
The list of new play development organizations is modest. By my count there are 15 autonomous programs that are not related to regional theatres:2
Jaw/West, Portland, Oregon
Lark Play Development Center, New York City
New Dramatists, New York City [End Page 7]
The New Harmony Project, Indianapolis, Indiana
New York Stage & Film, New York City
Ojai Playwrights Conference, Ojai, California
O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, Waterford, Connecticut
Orchard Project, New York City
PlayGround Festival, San Francisco, California
PlayPenn, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Playwrights Showcase, Bay Area, California
Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, Sundance, Utah
WordBRIDGE Playwrights Lab, Clemson, South Carolina
Young Playwrights’ Inc., New York City
A wide range of plays are developed annually through the programs of these organizations. PlayPenn and The Playwrights’ Center (PWC) for example have summer festivals that feature six new works after a two-week rehearsal period. PWC has a fee-based annual membership for playwrights. New Dramatists enlists playwrights for a seven-year membership and an annual search for new playwrights yields seven to ten artists who can develop their work at their own pace. On average, New Dramatists has five or more invited or open workshops and readings during any given month. Standard Actors’ Equity Association and Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers (SSDC) workshop contracts are used for either a one-day eight-hour staged reading or a 29-hour workshop period. Usually a small flat fee for the theatre artists is paid, plus a per diem and housing for out-of-town artists.
The success rate for new plays going into production after development is quite high, according to PlayPenn artistic director Paul Meshejian: “Of the fourteen plays that PlayPenn has developed, eight have been produced with four plays from the 2007 conference scheduled for production in the 2008/09 season. Those four are slated to have at least ten productions—three of them by local companies” (2008). Productions are primarily at small-budget nonprofit theatres with a very minor percentage at large-budget regional theatres. PlayPenn’s rate of return is on a par with other play development organizations. However, PlayPenn does not pressure...