I want to approach the question of artists’ needs from the point of view of one who has spent the greater part of several years navigating play development and what it actually means. There is too much play development and not enough production opportunities. Endless readings and workshops can turn what was once a play into a bedtime story – yawn.
As a somewhat fledgling playwright who has been fortunate enough to be given opportunities to develop my work, there is a simultaneous excitement and anxiety about the convergence of development, innovation and collaboration. Innovation in the theater is a communal act and although I believe in sharing and playing nicely with others, there’s always the possibility that instead of a vibrant new work you will be left with a cold, dead, broken thing because of how it’s handled. What does form or function mean when the play, the essential kernel of meaning, is dead? Most of us can think of a play production that deep deep down reminds of a dirge, or some kind of accidental, gawdy mourning ritual for the play that maybe once existed. Parades of corpses are only interesting when they are intentional; there is the vague horror of boredom as you stifle a yawn. It’s possible to overdevelop something, to talk it to death, before it has had a chance to live. Development, as it currently exists, often gets in the way of true collaborative innovation.
At the beginning of a process, playwrights need silence so that the traces of something, the mist, can form into something concrete and meaningful. The ghost of a play is so fragile; any little thing can make it disappear and no amount of coaxing, once it has been frightened, can call it back again. After the shape the play is formed, however crudely, voices are needed to help it grow into maturity. Lots of voices. Playful voices. Voices that are brave. Plays need to be seen, heard and experienced.
Audiences are needed as much as actors, directors and designers. As much as playwrights. Audiences tend to come so late in the game of play development. Playwrights need space to fail in front of an audience, and to write poorly, and still be given opportunities to grow. They need to collaborate with designers. They need a playground filled with friends who want to play with them, truly play, with costumes and lights and sounds and all of the things that make a play, a play. They need productions, or rather, for the others in the game to take the game seriously. Productions are serious play. Productions, for playwrights, are rare. Productions are the exception to the rule. This should not be so.
I enjoy readings and workshops. There is the play, thin, naked, sometimes shy, bubbling with possibility and hunger. But I think it’s deeply important for plays to be fat. I like fat plays the same way I like chubby babies. I want to see productions the same way I want to see little kids put on clothes, their mother’s heels and lipstick. They are fun and it’s necessary. The question then becomes, who will pay for this serious play? How can we invest in our artists and nurture their creativity. Who will pay for the costumes? Who will pay for the lights and sound? Who will pay for the lipstick?
Playwrights need productions. They need money. They need lipstick. And it’s imperative that we convince those who can afford it that the arts are something worth investing in. Readings are wonderful. Workshops are great. But productions are imperative to the growth of playwrights.
Art is worth investing in, as is education and health care. It’s sometimes worth investing in art that’s messy and unresolved and strange as a way of getting to the good stuff, the meat on the bone, the meaning.
It is interesting to think about the fact that we think that the play of children is quite necessary. Play, for children, is a part of the work of life. Lessons are learned about sharing, communication, imagination and bravery. Play is not only permitted, it’s encouraged. When does this encouragement to play stop? Why does it stop? How can we get back to a place where it’s encouraged in artists so that lessons can continue to be learned?
In my daydreams, I see a space similar to a playground where playwrights can go and have their work produced – direction, costumes, lights, sound, makeup, actors (off book). They are produced even if the piece that is being worked on is not quite “ready”. They are produced and the work is playful and serious and rewarding and fun. They are produced and audiences come regularly to see where the piece is and how it has evolved. They are produced and can collaborate creatively, observing when things seem to work and when they don’t. They are produced and they are able to play and no one tells them that they have to play at half measures, quietly, subject to oppressive rules about form and content and budget and time constraints. They never have to stop. They are produced.
Amina Henry is a playwright, teaching artist and freelance literary editor. She is a graduate of Yale University (BA English) and the NYU Performance Studies masters program. Her work has been developed and/or produced by: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, MPAACT Theater, The Brick Theater, The Cell Theater, The Hive Theater, Drama of Works, HERO Theatre, Brass Tacks Theater Collective, Shakespeare’s Sister Company, The Workshop Theater and HERE Arts Center. Play publications include: “Hello, My Name is Joe” in 24 GUN CONTROL PLAYS, published by NoPassport Press, and “My Beautiful Grandmother” in The Book of Estro 2011. She is a 2012-2013 Core Apprentice Playwright at The Playwrights’ Center and a 2013 Leah Ryan FEWW Playwriting Finalist. She is currently an MFA Playwriting candidate at Brooklyn College under the guidance of Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney.