- Playing Together! How the New York Writers’ Bloc Created Camaraderie, Community, and Great Stories
In their 2009 study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, authors Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Voss suggest that there are a number of ways in which playwrights are at a disadvantage. They claim, in short, that the present apparatus of new play production in the United States favors playwrights who are already visible, while emerging playwrights may consider themselves lucky to earn a developmental reading at a major regional theatre. For many playwrights, the phrase “new play development” is synonymous with “developmental hell,” which can be defined as the series of readings and workshops a play may be guided through without the hope of a production (Bray 2011). Furthermore, as production opportunities have dwindled, developmental readings have been on the rise. These readings constitute one style of playwriting workshop: the script-based workshop.
With the script-based workshop, a single script and the author are brought in for a reading, followed by a talk-back session (Sweet interview 2010a). While there are certainly positives to having a reading, Outrageous Fortune successfully argues that the reading model has shaped the way that plays are being written: to be less theatrical and more a form of reader’s theatre. This is also a concern for playwright Steven Dietz, who has argued that playwrights have adapted to the trend of readings sans production, and as a result are no longer playwrights, “but staged-reading writers” who are being pushed further away from the rest of the US theatre by writing plays that are not aesthetically suited for production (qtd. in London, Besner, and Voss 43).
The second style of playwriting workshop is the writer-based workshop, in which a group of writers are brought together in order to present a section of a play at a time (Sweet interview 2010a). These groups have regular meetings, in which writers learn one another’s styles, and also learn how to find their unique writing voices. These groups may operate under the auspices of a larger organization, such as the Playwrights/Directors Unit at the Actors Studio in New York or Blueprint, which meets at Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre Company, or they may be independently run. The issues that may emerge in these groups are that playwright members either need to create plays suited for the larger organization or that the group may be led by a competitive playwright (a point to which I shall return).
In the final pages of Outrageous Fortune, the authors offer a passing glance at playwright-led production companies, which have side-stepped the status quo. In a way, their suggestion that playwrights and like-minded artists band together to create their own companies is nothing new. The Little Theatre Movement emerged during the early twentieth century in order to create works outside of Broadway commercialism (melodramas and revue shows, such as the Ziegfeld Follies). In the 1960s, Off-Off Broadway emerged in the coffeehouses and found spaces in the name of forming artistic communities. In the unfortunately out-of-print Off-Off Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater, David Crespy argues, as the title suggests, that the Off-Off Broadway theatre movement was the result of playwright initiation. Joe Cino, Reverend Al Carmine, and Edward Albee all had a hand in shaping Off-Off Broadway, which would lead to a larger turn for the American playwright. Crespy suggests that it is the “pioneer” spirit of the Off-Off Broadway artist that resulted in a proliferation of small theatre houses across the country (12–13): [End Page 1]
Off-off [sic] Broadway stages are found thousands of miles from New York—in Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles—wherever there are artists hungry to produce fresh work. For emerging playwrights, off-off [sic] Broadway is a place to see their work performed without depending on producers, agents, directors, or other third-party endorsers. It’s a theatre that places primary focus on new scripts peopled with extraordinary characters telling powerful tales, using all the magical directorial and acting talents...