by Crystal Skillman

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference


(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Artistic Innovation is all about the new. That’s what we’ve all been discussing here thanks to Caridad Svich inviting us as theater artists to share here on this wonderful TCG forum. As a playwright let’s face it writing new work is the scariest, deepest, most fun dark ass shit one pulls off (or sometimes doesn’t!) in the attempt to grow as an artist.

“Is this really me? What is this new play? What will be an audience’s experience?”

Each playwright has a different path to accomplishing this. The plays I’ve written for the past five years – from Cut, which was my break out play a few years ago, to Geek, just debuted this spring, to Follow, a play only ten folks could see a night last fall – were commissioned.

For me this hits the process of artistic innovation.

In my head it works this way:
I’ve got the new idea (GEEK: two girls racing through an anime convention with a darker purpose looming with a Dante’s Inferno like structure. I know it’s a personal piece for me – something I consider important when choosing what to write. It’s personal as I go to conventions with my comic book writer husband Fred Van Lente). Now that’s ADDED to the wonderful innovative theater that is commissioning me to write a new play for their audience (NYC’s wonderful theatre company of awesome VAMPIRE COWBOYS) who can really create this MAGIC! The final part of this equation is the AUDIENCE. The audience has to be inventive. They want to be. They’re looking for different experiences if they’ve come to this theater. Specifically, they are looking for plays that reflect their lives in the Geek culture and they seek diversity. No disrespect, but that ain’t happening on the Great White Way right now or around the outskirts which is what only creates more HUNGER for the NEW.

Boom! Artistic Innovation from me as an individual can thrive best when you pull out what made this unique for me as a playwright: I WROTE THE PLAY KNOWING IT WOULD BE DONE. I WROTE THE PLAY FOR A SPECIFIC THEATER COMPANY. I wrote it to be true, to go to new places, but be my voice. I worked with a company that I knew would kept me on track with that YET push me. Each of the plays I’ve mentioned have been written this way and it started back in the day when director/playwright Daniel Talbott and I started working together with Rising Phoenix Rep. He believed in me. He saw that I had the potential to write great things, but he saw me getting frustrated by the machinery of the larger theater machine that was very interested but also very confused by me. That innovation was hard for them – but it also wasn’t strong enough yet to communicate what it wanted to be. Daniel was also the first person who was honest. He was saying that I had the imagination and great ability and unique qualities as a writer BUT that I was relying only on those. Just innovation. The nuts and bolts of playwriting at the time were less interesting to me, so my plays were not making strong enough choices for actors to play (or play well). Over the years it’s a joy that actors now LOVE being in my plays and that I realized I have this gift.

But … to have an opportunity to work with larger theaters and have that conversation, to move forward again, I’ve had to create my first play in a long time that I wrote in the circumstances I found so damaging back in the old days: I have no idea it’s going to be done . My new play Another Kind of Love.

After I got the chance to workshop the play last spring with Overturn Theater Ensemble at IRT with director Gaye Taylor Upchurch and an incredible cast, I saw the writer I was becoming. I was excited. I also came home and CRIED MY EYES OUT. Because this was the new baby and I knew it would take time for it to be adopted. I prayed, and as I worked on the play this year and it just was sent out (that is a first in a LONG time as I’ve been working on commission) I prayed again – like John Adams in musical 1776.

“Does anybody see what I see?”

And it’s not just because I wrote it and I’m attached to it. I honestly think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. A marriage of the innovative, and very real, grounded world. And it scares me – which is always a good sign.

That is the journey of the inventive theater artist. To take that risk and put yourself out there – in production – in consideration – in conversation – in challenging how theater works today – that age old machinery which … has… to … CHANGE.

The truth is? Playwrights can’t become the great writers these theaters want to produce unless they produce them. And that’s just it! THAT is the final ingredient for creating innovative theater – there’s no “easy way” around this. A playwright learns and grows FROM production. You want ‘em young? Produce ‘em. You want them to keep going? Produce ‘em. How you produce them has to be inventive! Site specific, make it an event, commission and develop for a play for three years then produce it (as in the case of Geek). Whatever works. BE INVENTIVE! Budgets are of COURSE a concern, but theaters – we playwrights are looking to you to be inventive. The ones I’ve worked with (Management, Vampire Cowboys, Rising Phoenix Rep, Women’s Project, TerraNovaCollective) are always breaking the rules and therefore getting both the theater community and NEW audience excited. In each case – through working with new writers – not established ones or even “hot” from a list – they see we playwrights have so much to offer! We have given them so much! Help bring in new innovative audience, we helped bring in funds. The buzz goes something like this: “Crystal (or add the playwright you’re into here :) ) wrote a new play? Exciting! Let’s contribute!” and that just energizes the theater scene.

Look at all the articles written about theater that is getting folks excited this year. The names are all ensemble theater companies (Civilians, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, or theaters with inventive producing like Clubbed Thumb, Gideon Productions, Working Theater, New Georges and Rattlestick). I hope theaters of all sizes read this and ask themselves what they are doing to add to this glorious conversation of being innovative theater artists themselves. Oh wait because I forgot a HUGE part of this equation -


Support ‘em. Young, mid and in their stride. The future of the innovative theater artist lies in those hands! While it hasn’t been the case with me, playwrights can produce their own work (and do it damn well!) but I don’t believe they should have to. I believe in this passionately! Other plays they write will inspire different needs. Be there – be there early to start this conversation with them! Be a part of creating worlds – be there from the start of the idea. We’re all in this together – which is the glorious part – it’s a tremendous time in terms of talent – there is too much of it – in a great way. Let no playwright be uncovered. Let no awesome play fall through the cracks. We artists need help with those brilliant enough to keep producing brilliant new structures and ways for our work to grow in, be committed to and be produced ….onward!

Why? Because an innovative audience is waiting … and can grow. New innovative audiences can only be nurtured by giving them something to excite them to come – something new  - new innovative plays, productions and performances.

Next step is higher pay (or in some cases enough pay!) but that’s for another blog post … :)

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN is the author of GEEK, produced this spring by Obie Award Winning Vampire Cowboys, earning a NY Times and TONY Critics Pick. Her other plays include CUT, WILD and BIRTHDAY. Upcoming plays include: DRUNK ART LOVE, ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE, and the musical THE CONCRETE JUNGLE (w/co-bookwriter/composer Bobby Cronin, album available on iTunes). Crystal is represented by Amy Wagner and Ron Gwiazda at the Abrams Artists Agency. She has learned so much from reading American Theatre and reading TCG’s publications. Special Thanks to Caridad and TCG for inviting her to join in on this wonderful conversation. Crystal is a proud teaching artist and is honored to be teaching playwriting with Young Playwrights Inc. and Theatre Development Fund.

  • Macie Rawson

    Savvy article , I am thankful for the facts ! Does someone know where my business could possibly acquire a blank a form form to edit ?