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.