play development

Over at the 2amtheatre.com blog, Mariah MacCarthy shares her experience with the New York Theatre Experiment’s Generations event. There was debate on the development of plays – over or under development (or none at all) – and Mariah offered the debate to the people, asking ten questions to playwrights and theatres. Most of the responses (so far) have been from the playwrights’ POV, and one was a very insightful response from the literary manager’s office.

Here’s my response to her questions as both a playwright and associate director of terraNOVA Collective, a theatre company that not only develops but produces new plays:

1. Playwrights: have you ever had a play produced as a result of submitting it to a theater with an “open submission” policy? (And if you submitted it to Theater A, and Theater A did a reading of it, to which a rep from Theater B came, and Theater B produced the play, that doesn’t count.)

No, I haven’t, but I know many playwrights who have.

2. Theaters: has your theater ever produced a play that was sent to you unsolicited? How often does that happen?

Yes, we have produced unsolicited plays; however, over the past two years our play submission and development process underwent a drastic overhaul. We shifted how we accept play submissions. Namely, we only accept submissions to our Groundbreakers Playwrights Group, a program that develops not only plays but playwrights.

3. Theaters: if you cut your literary department today, completely, what would happen to your theater and the way it functions? What would change? How would you decide what plays to do, and how is that different than how you decide what plays to do now?

We did cut our literary department. Two seasons ago, we realized that our Groundbreakers Play Development Program was stagnant. We put out calls for open submissions, and we had a rolling submissions policy on our website. If someone sent in a play and we liked it, we asked the playwright if she or he would like to bring in the play in to be read in our weekly round table. Most of the time, the playwright was more than happy to have the play read, for it probably felt like a carrot at the end of a string – “A possibility to have my play produced!”

We had a “literary manager” who read the scripts and acted as a gatekeeper. Initially, that person was myself, and then we brought on Jessi D. Hill to comb through the plays. Sometimes, playwrights would come in, have the play read, and we would take it through the three tiers of Groundbreakers – table readings, staged readings/workshops & full main stage production. This is how we found and cultivated plays we produced. It worked in theory, but more often than not playwrights would do a table read and never return.

Happily, we produced several of these plays, and many have gone on to production. I just received an email from a playwright getting a production of a play that came through Groundbreakers a couple years ago. That excites me. We had a hand in that! Still, something wasn’t working.

When Jessi came on board, we took a long hard look at what was working and what wasn’t. The overwhelming realization was that we were developing plays, but the playwright wasn’t getting the attention she or he deserved. Our mission for the program shifted drastically. We opened submissions for the first annual Groundbreakers Playwrights Group. Last season, we invited seven early career playwrights (our criteria for that can be found here), and we found that the experience was very fulfilling – both for the playwrights and us. We learned tons – mostly, that we needed to make the group smaller – and this year we invited five playwrights to join this group.

The new structure rolls out in three tiers:

TIER 1 – Five playwrights each bring in one early draft play. Over the course of 15 weeks, each playwright hears her or his play three times. We match actors to the play, often casting people who might not be traditionally right for the roles. Always, the actors have experience in play development and feedback. The intention with these round table readings is to grow these first or second drafts into workshop ready scripts.

TIER 2 – The scripts go into a 12 hour rehearsal process as per the Equity Staged Reading Guidelines, and each playwright receives a public presentation of her or his play. This gets plays on their feet. Play development can never happen solely around a table. We solicit audience feedback through written forms with questions about each specific play.

TIER 3 – From these five fully developed plays, terraNOVA selects one play annually to be our main stage production. Obviously, we cannot produce all five plays developed each season, but our aim is to send the playwrights out into the world with fully developed plays she or he can share with other companies and get produced. Additionally, we actively invite companies to attend Tier 2 readings in hopes of finding productions for each of the plays.

This new framework in which we develop and produce plays is unique and exciting, for it doesn’t leave the playwrights out in a lurch if they don’t receive a production. Yet, it sticks to our mission of producing the plays we develop. If we continue the momentum terraNOVA currently has, in the next five years we will be producing two main stage productions annually from this fast evolving program.

4. Are there any theaters out there that have a purely blind submission policy – not just for one contest, but for all your season, all the time? If so, what are the pros/cons of that policy for you?

I do not know of any theatres that have a blind submission policy. I’m sure there are some. Groundbreakers cannot have such a policy, for we assemble a group that works well not only with terraNOVA’s dynamic but with each other. Every year, it’s a challenge, for we are constantly faced with the desire to be “diverse”. I’ve quoted diverse, mainly because I hate the word. If ever I use the word seriously, it’s discussing the diversity of styles and forms in plays or artists. This is the true road to “diversification” of race, sexuality and gender. Choose the best plays, and you’ll discover your pool of artists is “diverse.” We apply the same philosophy when selecting performers for our soloNOVA Arts Festival. One year, we had 11 women artists and one man. Other years, we had an even mix. Consistently, we strive for excellence, and typically that means reflecting all walks of life.

This season we have three women and two men in Groundbreakers. Two are gay. Two are Jewish. One is African. One bi-racial. All are dynamic, challenging and cutting edge. They feed each other in extraordinary ways, and friendships are budding from their interplay. It delights me to watch writers from different backgrounds clash with and enjoy each other.

Do I understand the value of blind submissions? Of course I do – especially in the case of contests and grant funding; however, that process won’t work for Groundbreakers.

5. Playwrights: how vital do you consider readings and workshops to your process? Do you feel it actually improves your play? When it works, why does it work? When it doesn’t, why doesn’t it?

As a playwright, readings and workshops are essential. Any playwright who says differently probably isn’t produced often. The only time one hears the play is when one hears the play. It’s magical. The first time actors utter my written words is very emotional for me. Not because it’s so good. Often, it’s not, and that’s the point. You dig through dirt to find gems. Good actors infuse a reading with purpose, showing what works and what doesn’t. They help discover gems and polish them for the audience.

Readings and workshops do something most people don’t consider: They introduce actors to playwrights. Often, characters are only flat black on white pages. This process yanks the writers out from in front of their computers and plops them into rehearsal halls – where they should be.

Finally, audience reaction is extraordinarily important. It’s ultimately who you have to please. I don’t mean pandering to the audience, but if they don’t understand the play or find it severely boring, there’s no chance anyone else will come and see it. In the end, that’s what we all want, right? People to see our work?

6. Theaters: of the plays of which you’ve done readings and workshops, how many of them have you ended up giving a full production? (Rough percentage.)

100%. Since 2003, we’ve been producing and developing new plays, and of the plays we’ve produced, all have gone through the three tier development process, landing on the main stage.

Another big consideration in making Groundbreakers into a group was pulling playwrights out of development purgatory. We all know good plays that are workshopped to death. We all have seen plays that should have spent more time around the table, too. To remove this stigma, we create a time line with deadlines. Playwrights get three readings around the table with four weeks between readings, and that’s it. If it’s not ready to get on it’s feet by the end of Tier 1, it’s not ready. We intend to work fast, furious and raise the bar for playwrights. This is the pros, and there’s no room for missed deadlines or half-assed re-writes. Real writers only. Posers will not be tolerated. This year’s crop Groundbreakers are intent on seeing their work performed, and we’re rewarding hard work with public readings in February 2011.

7. Playwrights: do you agree with Itamar Moses that it’s more productive to get artistic directors, rather than literary managers, to see your work? Or have literary managers/departments actually been responsible for your work getting produced? Or have both been the case at different times?

I do agree. In the end, artistic directors and directors of programs like Groundbreakers are the people to whom you want to be speaking. Certainly literary managers are gatekeepers, and those gatekeepers can get you to these artistic directors. Literary managers are like agents – they can only do so much for you. You must do the rest of the work yourself. Send letters to the artistic directors, invite them to readings, go to events where you know you’ll meet them, and at lower levels, email them and invite them to coffee or dinner. You’ll be surprised how approachable some are. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

8. Theaters: does your literary manager/department contribute significantly toward deciding what plays get produced? Or do those decisions mostly come from the artistic director?

We’re a small company. Artistic Director Jennifer Conley Darling, Jessi D. Hill and I review submissions for Groundbreakers, we interview finalists together (when we can), and we collectively agree on the group participants.

I believe most writers groups work this way. In the end, there are very few artistic directors worth their salt who act like Moses on a mountaintop passing down stone tablets from God. The companies I love, including The Public Theater, an enormous machine of an institution, make these decisions collectively. An artistic director may have the final say in the matter, but it’s rarely without careful consideration by committee. The process is much more complex than just some literary manager (or intern, for that matter) holed up in her office sifting through scripts or some artistic director on high playing with playwrights futures.

Again, I know there are exceptions to this statement, but generally, I see successful organizations working collaboratively.

9. Theaters: do you rely on grants that go specifically toward play development, rather than production? Do you receive funding that you can use for readings and workshops but CANNOT use for a fully mounted production?

This is a conundrum. Groundbreakers does not charge participation fees, we do not charge admission to our readings (but donations are happily accepted!), and the only time we charge an admission is for our main stage. The income for this program is based on grants and fundraisers.

Because we develop every play that arrives on our main stage, we consider it intrinsic to the fully mounted production; therefore, we include Tier 3 – our main stage – in our grant applications. Sometimes, we apply for grants that do not support production, and when we apply for those, we only include Tiers 1 & 2. However, typically, we can include production because the development of the play still occurs during rehearsals. We are not just producing plays. We are a developmental company that fiercely believes we play…in front of people. Our productions run under a Seasonal Showcase Code, and that doesn’t allow for an open ended or extended run. Plus, we don’t make money on these runs. They rely on donation, foundation and corporate support. These productions do exactly what the code says it should do: it showcases a playwright’s (and other artists) work so the play might see another future, either in NYC or elsewhere.

10. Playwrights: do you find that doing rewrites in rehearsal/preparation for a reading or workshop is preferable/more productive to doing rewrites in rehearsal for a production?

Production is part of the development process. Our productions offer playwrights the opportunity to finalize this process. It’s all valuable and essential, in my opinion as a playwright. Tony Kushner re-writes Angels in America for each new major production. It’s never over, and most people only have a three week run in a tiny space way off Broadway to achieve perfection. An impossible task, really. Productions with playwrights’ involvement always offer opportunity to fine tune a script.

Final note:

terraNOVA Collective truly believes in the playwright’s process, and though playwrights too often feel lost in a literary manager’s (or agent’s) pile of papers, there are great companies developing and producing work by discovering writers who are on the cusp of something great. This conversation is still churning, and there’s obviously many things wrong with the system; however, we hope we’re contributing to the annihilation of playwright purgatory and resurgence of producing playwrights.

If you wish to support the Groundbreakers Playwrights Group, we are having a fundraiser for our Tier 2 readings. This coming Monday, December 6th, the playwrights present Bug Out! – five 10 minute plays infused with the word “bug.” It’ll be loads of fun, you’ll get to meet the playwrights, themselves, and we’ll have some great raffle prizes.

Support play development. It’s the future of theatre.

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