What If…Theatres Took Deep Dives With Playwrights?

by David Dower

in What If

Learn more about the What If…? Project

What if every theatre committed to producing several plays by a single unique writer each season?

So first thing that occurs to me is if every single producing theater in the US committed to producing several plays by a different playwright, we’d probably not have enough playwrights to go around. Would we? Aren’t there upwards of 1900 theaters operating in the nonprofit sector at this point? Are there 1900 playwrights with multiple plays? It’d be pretty cool to suddenly see that, that’s for sure! Can you imagine? 1900 different playwrights multiply featured in a single season around the country?

But let’s say that’s crazy. We’d never see 1900 different playwrights in a single season. Be a little realistic.

OK. What if every theater committed to producing several plays by a single playwright, period. If it didn’t matter whether it was a unique choice of playwright across the entire country. Then I slide down the other side of the hill: how many playwrights would that actually reach? Given the tendency to follow the leader in the new play sector, I could imagine that would be way, way less. We might, at that point, see a number closer to 100 different voices instead of nearly 2000.

Sound like a lot to you? Well, dig into the work of the independent theaters producing new plays around the country and I’ll bet you’ll find that many or more different voices already.

But wait? Wouldn’t some small hundreds of different voices, featured in multiples, still be an improvement?

We’d likely also see some small handful of writers over-served. A replication of the problem we see now:  if Playwright A is the writer of the play everyone’s doing this season, why wouldn’t that same “everyone” simply produce several of her plays?

And again, wouldn’t that also, perhaps, be some sort of improvement?

Because you still would have something that isn’t happening with any regularity (bless you, @signaturetheatr for your leadership here…!). And that something would lead to something powerful and different: a deep dive into the world of a single voice for a whole community of patrons. We’re producing multiple plays by a single author each year here at Arena and that deep engagement with the writing is something that energizes audience, local media, staff, and artists. But we’re doing it with “American Giants”. What if we did it with voices new to our audience? Sure, we wouldn’t be trading off the familiarity with that writer that all of the above (audiences, media, staff, artists) have going into a festival of, say, Eugene O’Neill. But familiarity cuts both ways, as we know from our own families… What if we took you on the same deep ride with someone entirely new? And if we were doing that alongside the other 85 theaters in our region, who were each taking you deep into the heart, mind, vision, and voice of someone else new to you?

How would you choose which dive to take? Well, how do you choose now when there are too many choices make anyway?

And even if you didn’t choose to take that dive with any of these uncharted writers, what would it change that such a thing was being done? If you personally were not in the forest to hear it when this particular tree fell, I bet it would still be heard. Loudly.

We’d run the risk of people tuning out after the first play. Feh. All theater worth doing runs the same risk. We’ve figured out tougher things. Many of us are going to do three plays anyway, so how much more does it cost, how much bigger the risk if they are all by the same writer? What if we did this multiple productions of a single writer thing nationwide and at all tiers of budget size and in all different aesthetics. We’d see our grand scale. We’d see our nationwide reach and scope. We’d see our lack of diversity in a bunch of different ways, no doubt. Maybe that embarrassment would be a catalyst. We’d see how little we’d seen up to the moment we did this, assuming we didn’t all do the same twelve writers and their same three plays. We’d see how deep our talent pool is. Would we be thrilled or disturbed? How deep is our talent? We’d see our preoccupations as a culture, assuming today’s playwrights are connected in some way to the culture. Are playwrights connected in that way?

But let me zoom in on one theater and see what would happen if we did this.  Just one theater.  Any theater.

We’d create real relationships between the artist and the organization, certainly. We’d know each other deeply by the time that season was done. Even Edward Albee found value in being around for more than a rehearsal and an opening when we took on his entire body of work. He was here a bunch.  And many, many people spoke with him at various events. And heard him speak at others. And debated his work with their friends and colleagues over a period of seven weeks of performances of nearly every play he’d written.

We’d create an understanding of what it means to speak of the “voice of the writer”.

Buckminster Fuller often talked about the fact that no single photograph could tell you that a caterpillar would turn into a butterfly. And no single photo could tell you that the butterfly flies. What does a single play tell us of it author with any degree of certainty? Meet Vera Stark, Ruined, and Fabulation tell you much more about Lynn Nottage than any one of them lets on. You see Amy Freed’s real mastery of language by watching her clone Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Wycherley with equal confidence and flair.

What if every theater committed to producing several plays by a single unique writer each season? Or even for one season, for starters?  I bet the narrative frames we’re currently trapped by in the #newplay sector would finally be shifted. To what? I don’t  know, but I think I’d like to find out.


David Dower is the Associate Artistic Director at Arena Stage in Washington, DC and the architect of the American Voices New Play Institute there.

  • http://www.halcyontheatre.org/tonysblog Tony Adams

    I actually have seen a lot of this with small and midsize companies. Not necessarily all in one season, but multiple plays over multiple years.

    The scale and scope is already in place in many places, but the reach doesn’t expand to greater prominence. I think part of that is lack of communication between scales of production. IE a lot of small theatres talk to each other. A lot of large institutions talk to each other, but often there’s little talk between large and small. Midsize orgs can be even more isolated. And often there’s even less conversation between the field and audiences.

    (sidenote: I actually think you could see 1900 playwrights in a year.)

  • http://www.tcgcircle.org/ August Schulenburg

    Tony,

    I agree about the number of playwrights – Adam is up to 358 and appears to be going strong- http://aszym.blogspot.com/
    I hope rehearsals for the Alcyone Festival are going well!

  • http://www.halcyontheatre.org/tonysblog Tony Adams

    Thanks. First Q2Q is tonight. Fingers Crossed.

    Adam’s work is pretty incredible. If a theatre across the country produced 1 play by each of the writers he’s interviewed at the same time… wouldn’t that be something?

  • http://www.xanga.com/mtorta Marisela Treviño Orta

    Sleepwalkers Theatre is doing this. This entire season is dedicated to the work of one playwright, JC Lee. And I believe all the plays are world premieres. http://www.sleepwalkerstheatre.com/current.html#now

  • http://www.suilebhan.com Gwydion Suilebhan

    According to both the Dramatists Guild and the Playwrights Center, there are 10,000 playwrights in America. I myself have assembled a list of 200 in the DC area alone:

    http://www.suilebhan.com/2011/05/06/dc-playwrights/

    Finding 1,900 would be easy — very easy. Much easier than convincing the Shakespeare-centric among those 1,900 theaters to play along.

    It’s a terrific idea, and I’d love to see it happen to whatever degree. I myself have been produced three times (over about five years) by the same company, and our relationship gets deeper and deeper all the time.

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  • http://www.christine-evans-playwright.com Christine Evans

    All great suggestions. I’ll add another: committing to a playwright in residence as curator and host of a season. So that writer would also invite other writers into the season, based on the conversation between their work. This would both support an individual writer and extend the conversation to a wider context. To be clear: I’m not talking about writers getting their friends gigs, but building context and community. Art doesnt happen in isolation. I can imagine (say) Migdalia Cruz putting a Fornes play and a Solis and a young unknown protege’s work alongside her own- building a curated map of creative influence (not necessarily similarity). This would encourage generosity in writers and I’d think would be tremendously interesting to audiences. After all, “new plays” are not a genre- different writers come from different lineages and struggles. How great for audiences and artists to see legacy and creative history, instead of the single play appearing as if out of nowhere, identified only through the “brand name” recognition of its author. This is what art galleries and art historians have done so successfully in presenting visual art. There isn’t just Monet; there’s “the Impressionists”, which means a whole cluster of things, historically, socially and aesthetically. Building a dialogue between artists and audience will be so much richer – and create respect through understanding. It is far easier to respect work you don’t “like” when you grasp where it comes from and why. Absent that, there’s a default American- method , Aristotle-Lite frame around “new plays” which can seriously misrepresent the work.

    So that’s my “what if. “. What if playwright in residence curated a season around their own circles of influence? What if the dramaturgy around this writer’s work was more European in style- building context and history rather than script- doctoring? What if the audience were invited into a conversation about legacy and artistic movements, rather than being “targets” for one-off market testing of flavor of the month hot young product (the play)? Think of the language theatres use- hot young playwright, fresh new play. It’s demeaning and irrelevant to what writers actually do and it’s not how we see ourselves.