Some Thoughts on Playwrighting Groups

David Johnston - Brilliant Playwright

David Johnston - Brilliant Playwright

by David Johnston, guest playwright

There are many, many 'new play development’ units in nonprofit theatres. Frankly, they're like assholes - everyone's got one.  They start with the best of intentions.  But frequently they turn into the graveyard of good plays.

The nonprofit regional theatres have become very timid in their programming- the bigger the subscriber base, the more funding they receive, the more timid they are likely to be in their programming. 

Take a look at the TCG guide – most regional theatre seasons can be broken down into 1.) the moneymaker - Dracula/Steel Magnolias/Nunsense, 2.) the 'issue' play - this year it's Iraq, 3.) the minority play -  either August Wilson, Suzan Lori Parks or maybe Lynn Nottage if they’re really out there and 4.) the Christmas show – Christmas Carol/Child's Christmas in Wales/Peter Pan.

If there's a slot for a new American play, it'll be Mamet, McNally or the Pulitzer winner.   There is no room - or stomach - for a new play by an unknown.

"New Play Dev't" programs have become a funding source for theatres.  "Here's what we're doing for those poor new, emerging American playwrights, give us money," but the plays never make it into the season.  They are read, commented on, and dissected.  There is the dreaded ‘workshop’ reading with ‘feedback.’  Then the grant paperwork is filed for another year, and the playwright is sent away, his purpose complete.  

There is little tangible value for the playwright in being endlessly developed, unless it is a dev't program that comes connotes a certain 'Good Housekeeping' seal of approval which can lead to other productions.  (The O'Neill, or other established groups like New Harmony.)  And even that is highly uncertain.

August Wilson was once asked how producers and theatres can best support new writers.  He said, “Produce their first five plays.”  Actors become seasoned by working.  Playwrights learn through being produced. 

You should think about involving outside directors in the residency week. If it's a week of sitting in a room with abunch of other writers, that's not going to be asvaluable as adding directors and some competent professional actors.  Work is always more productive than talk. 

It might also be nice to tie the whole thing in to the history of the Cape.  Both O’Neill & Williams had some of their most creative fertile times while living in Provincetown.  The two great experimenters of form in the American theatre.  O’Neill brought the techniques of the avant garde into the commercial theatre.  Williams introduced poetic lyricism and shocking content and themes.  Both were the great mold-breakers and both have strong ties to the Cape.  I think it would be advantageous to claim that history as your own.

What would the playwrights get out of it?  Development time working with professional collaborators. What if potential commissions were considered for the future?  It could be a 'home base' for the writers, and that is of value.

Now what does the theatre get out of it?  The opportunity to cultivate these relationships with up and coming playwrights.  Strengthen their roots in that community by working with the community. Opportunities for worldpremieres. The theatre gets the chance to get their brand out there – crediting on these productions, crediting in future publications, etc.

Do you place your bets on writers who you think are going to be produced and have professional careers?  Or place your bets on work you respond to?  I think a lot of this program will depend on how you answer this question.  I'm partial to the second.

I think it’s perfectly acceptable for the theatre to ask for crediting and acknowledgment in future productions and publications. But under no circumstances should a theatre demand participation in a playwright’s future profits from these development efforts.  The program cannot honestly serve new playwrights if the program is looking to the writers as a potential revenue stream. It’s the servant of two masters, baby – it can’t serve both.