The theater company 13P (for 13 Playwrights, Inc.) launched in 2003 with a slogan that was designed to grab attention. "We don't develop plays. We do them" was a dig at the way big theaters tend to approach new work: by sponsoring readings or workshops that only in rare cases lead to a production.
Many young playwrights have horror stories about play development. A member of 13P and a 2006 MacArthur Fellow, Sarah Ruhl, said that her play "Eurydice" had 13 or 14 staged readings before it was produced. "Dramaturgs kept asking me: ‘Sarah, what did you learn from this reading?'" she recalled in an email. "And I would silently think: ‘I learned that if I keep re-writing this play for chairs, it will die a slow death before ever being what it was meant to be.'"
Because it is so hard to get a play produced — and so easy to get trapped on the reading treadmill — many people in the theater are worried about whether the next generation of playwrights is getting the production experience necessary to reach their artistic potential. The good news is, efforts are afoot nationally to change the landscape for new plays.
Theatre Development Fund, a service organization that, among other things, runs the TKTS booths in Times Square and the South Street Seaport, is trying first to understand the problem. It is currently finishing a two-year study of new play production around the country; this summer, it will publish a report with ideas for how both theaters and funders — in theory, including TDF itself — can support new plays.
In the meantime, individual theaters and artistic directors are coming up with their own ideas and putting them into action. The National New Play Network, an alliance of 21 nonprofit theaters around the country, has implemented a successful program to fund multiple productions of new plays. And, in New York, where new work by young writers is usually encountered in tiny downtown theaters, one major company is looking to get into the new-play game. The artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, Andre Bishop, has said he wants to build a 99-seat theater at Lincoln Center specifically for new writers, directors, and designers.
The goal of the TDF study is "to find ways to support the opening of opportunities for playwrights, and specifically to get plays to stages — so it's not a study of new play development," the director of New Dramatists, Todd London, who led the study, said. "The question is: How do we create more productions? The times when the theater has fertilized itself have been the times when productions happened easily and more readily."
In the first stage of its study, TDF surveyed 350 playwrights, about every aspect of their careers and production history, and 100 theaters, about how much new work they produce and what the obstacles are. After collecting the results, TDF convened a dozen meetings around the country, some with artistic directors and some with playwrights, and asked the groups to interpret the findings. In its final report, TDF hopes to present ideas for how theaters can best serve new plays, and how funders, including TDF, can stimulate new play production.
One issue that arose in the survey and meetings, TDF's executive director, Victoria Bailey, said, is how hard it can be for a play to get a second production. People in the theater call this problem "premiere-itis": theaters' preference for doing world premieres, rather than the second or third production, even though it's often in that later production that a play really finds its voice.
As an example, "The Typographers Dream," by Adam Bock, had three early productions — one in New York with the company Clubbed Thumb, one at the Edinburgh Festival, and one in San Francisco. The play changed radically from the first production to the third, Mr. Bock said.
"The first time, you're just meeting the play," he said. "Then you sit with an audience through an entire run and you realize, ‘Oh, this area never has worked.' You need an audience to learn what lands, what doesn't, am I getting my point across."
The National New Play Network's primary initiative, the Continued Life of New Plays Fund, is specifically directed at solving the premiereitis problem. NNPN — whose members include Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, and Actor's Express Theatre in Atlanta — formed to create "a way for new plays to bubble up through the regional theater system, as opposed to coming down to us from New York," NNPN's president, and the managing director of Florida Stage, Nancy Barnett, said.
The Continued Life Fund provides $5,000 each to three theaters, two of which must be NNPN members, that agree to do successive productions of a new play. Part of the goal is to protect new plays against early negative reviews. If a play has its premiere in a city with one major newspaper and one theater critic, Ms. Barnett said, that one bad review could smother it in the cradle — but not if two other theaters have already offered the playwright a chance to work out the kinks on their stages. Since it was established in 2003, the fund has supported multiple productions of six plays.
Some playwrights find it's easier to start out in the regional theater than in New York. Mr. Bock spent the first five years of his writing career in San Francisco, where he found two theaters to produce his plays and a very responsive audience. "People would ask, ‘When's your next play going to come out?'" he said. "It made me feel like, I'm part of a community that I'm working for, as opposed to just writing for the business."
It's harder for young playwrights to find that audience and institutional support here, although Mr. Bishop wants to change that, at least at Lincoln Center. Mr. Bishop, who before becoming the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater ran Playwrights Horizons, said recently that he wants to get back to his roots of finding and fostering new talent. Because Lincoln Center's existing theaters are not wellsuited to new plays — the smaller, the Mitzi Newhouse, has 299 seats, while the Vivian Beaumont has over 1,000 —Mr. Bishop wants to build a third, much smaller theater, to be devoted to new writers.
"There would be very inexpensive tickets, no memberships, and we could do a lot of plays quite economically," Mr. Bishop said. "I know from my Playwrights Horizons days the joy of seeing an artist grow and mature under your own auspices. I'm determined, as is the board, to make this happen."
13P formed with the mission to produce one play by each of its members; its sixth production is scheduled for this year. The managing director, Rob Handel, said he thinks that large theater companies should drop their unwieldy reading series and replace them with nimbler, production-oriented programs.
At the TDF discussion he was invited to, he recalled, "One person said: ‘Take this money that you're spending on reading a hundred scripts, and instead find some hungry young director right out of school whom you can pay $5 and he'll go crazy and read a bunch of plays. Give him your second stage on Monday nights, and let him find shows and put them up quick and dirty' — just the way 13P does," Mr. Handel continued. "It seems like that would be a better and more exciting way for a big institution to spend its money than by having a series of readings."
Playwrights say that what they need is to see a new play onstage, learn from it, and move on — rather than have it tweaked to death in readings and workshops. "Even if the play is imperfect, you need to see it up," a playwright and member of 13P, Anne Washburn, said. "You need to see it in front of an audience, and then you need to write the next one."