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Outrageous Fortune, Chapter 1

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 Leave a Comment

So I'm going to be blogging about TDF's new publication, Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, as part of Isaac Butler at Parabasis' posse of bloggers. Today, all of us will be addressing Chapter 1: Dialogue in the Dark, Playwrights & Theatres. In the days to follow we'll be focusing on individual chapters, and I'm thrilled to say that I'll be joining with Scott Walters next Tuesday to talk about Chapter 5: Whose Audience Is It, Anyway?

But for now...Chapter 1: Dialogue in the Dark, Playwrights & Theatres.

First things first: the most important thing to note about this study is the limit of its scope. 94 theatres and 250 playwrights were surveyed, with an additional 31 playwrights and 67 artistic leaders/educators/agents/producers rounding out the survey results over a series of roundtable discussions.

When you consider the IRS reports 1,982 theatres with a budget over $75,000, and the latest New York Innovative Theatre demographic study lists 900 playwrights responding to their last survey; you begin to understand how small a slice of new play activity the report is actually covering.

In some ways, this isn't significant, as the study is specifically looking at playwrights who are "successful", a term defined loosely in the book, but understood to mean playwrights who are regularly being produced at a regional and Off-Broadway level. The survey focuses on a sample of those playwrights, and the theatres that are able to financially produce at that level.

In other ways, it is very significant, because the invisibility of the theatres and artists not covered in the study obscures one of the most powerful solutions to the problems addressed in the book. We'll get back to that. It is simply important to remember that the book addresses a statistically significant slice of new play development, but a slice all the same.

Still with me?

Because of the above, the other important thing to note about the book is the data is primarily self-reported. Most of the data concerns what playwrights and theatre leaders are saying and thinking about themselves and each other. In that light, it is extremely interesting.

But, with all of the controversy surrounding new play production, the primary take away of this book is our desperate need for a real time mechanism to report the true demographic breadth of play production in this company. Maybe that road runs through the play publishers, who would have information on rights and therefore the most representative data. Or maybe that road runs through organizations like nytheatre.com, who could work with other regional organizations to give monthly snap shots of local and national break-downs of percentages of plays written by women, people of color, new plays vs classics, etc.

In the end, we will need to have some accurate, comprehensive, and timely mechanism to measure those demographics, or we will continue to be uncertain of where exactly we are, where exactly we're trying to get to, and what actual progress is being made.

Still with me?

Good. All that aside, the book is a triumph, and a real asset to move the conversation of new play development forward.

It starts with the divide between theatre leaders and playwrights. From the playwright perspective, the pressures of declining audiences, corporate boards, and communities of aesthetically conservative tastes force artistic directors to take avoid taking risks with new plays. From the artistic director perspectives, playwrights are either writing plays of lower quality; or plays of high quality but formal difficulty that do not speak to their audience.

In other words, each side believes a large measure of blame rests with the other, though both this chapter and the book itself feature anecdotes of relationships that are working.

Underwriting both opinions are stark financial realities detailed in later chapters. Most new plays don't make money. Most playwrights don't make a living writing plays. Whatever lack of communication driving the distance between playwrights and theatres is fueled by this dire economic reality.

The equation of this distance seems to be something like this:
1. Most new plays don't make money, so...
2. Theatres cannot afford to keep playwrights permanently on staff, which means...
3. Playwrights cannot stay in a local community, so...
4. Playwrights move to cities where they form communities with other playwrights, and...
5. End up writing plays that will be seen primarily by an audience of their peers, which is...
6. A small audience, so smaller theatres are chosen, which leads to...
7. Smaller plays being written for a specialist audience, which then...
8. Make artistic directors hesitant to program these plays that don't speak to their audience, and so...
9. The artistic directors program the few plays that are hits, which...
10. Still don't necessarily speak to their specific community, and so...
11. They don't make money even on the hit plays they program, which means...
12. They can only afford to do hit plays with small casts, which gives us...
13. The current system of new play production, wherein a small number of small cast plays with a traditional narrative that are anointed as hits receive many productions, and so...
14. To change this dynamic, the funding community gives to new play development, focusing on premieres, which leads to...
15. The much bemoaned development hell and premieritis, which ends up...
16. Perpetuating a system where most new plays don't make money, and most playwrights don't make a living.

One potential solution is ironically present in the very first paragraph of the very first page:

Think about the relationship between playwrights and theatres, and images will spring to mind: Chekhov, surrounded by the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre, reads his play to them. Moliere, starring in his own work, gets carried from stage to deathbed by his company - his literal and figurative family - for whom he writes and with whom he brings his comedies to life. A wharf in Provincetown, fog sifting in and water lapping at the floorboards - Eugene O'Neill's first sea play is being performed by the band of passionate amateurs who discovered him. Or think about Brecht directing his own play with the Berliner Ensemble; Caryl Churchill discovering hers through research and improvisation with the Joint Stiock Theatre; or August Wilson traversing a country in step with not one theatre, but many partners in ambition, vision, song. And then there's Shakespeare, looming over all of them, a player among players on the banks of the Thames, at home in his Globe.
Shakespeare, Moliere, and Brecht were not separate from the financial decisions that brought their work to life, but directly responsible for it. They were shareholders in the life of their company. They brought their own strawberries to market. And they did so with a particular community of artists that, like the Provincetown Players and Moscow Arts Theatre, had made a commitment to long term collaboration with each other under an artist/producer model.

Flux Theatre Ensemble functions under this artist/producer, long term collaborative model. I believe that artists can and should be responsible for the consequences of their plays in a community; and I believe a producer should have their hands dirty with the theatre they're making. The silos of our specialist corporate culture may no longer be the ideal for making theatre. But whether you are a traditionally structured company or one of Travis Bedard's bands, all roads to recovery lead one way: to the audience.

We'll talk about that on Tuesday. And make sure to check out Isaac's blog for links to the other bloggers covering the book!

6 comments »

  • Martin-nytheatre.com said:  

    Gus,
    Interesting piece--I need to read it again to really soak up all your thoughts.
    But I wanted to comment immediately apropos your mention of nytheatre.com. Interestingly, we just put up a small feature that begins to address some of what you're talking about. (Literally "just"--this went up on Monday night.)
    Take a look at our new "Plays by Women" listing. At the bottom there's a new section that shows the number of plays we've listed so far this year written by men and women.
    I hope you and your readers will let me know if this kind of information is useful and what other related information they'd like to see on nytheatre.com.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Martin,

    That is great news. That information is SO useful. Without a real time snapshot of that percentage it's hard to measure progress, and the inclusiveness of nytheatre.com makes me trust those numbers represent the full breadth of the NYC field.

    If possible, it would be great to add the gender breakdown of directors, as well. Knowing that you are also featuring a playwrights of color feed, I'm wondering how difficult it would be to create a similar page and breakdown (directors, too).

    Further down the line, the more specific the real time data, the better - for example, knowing how those breakdowns change based on the size of the theatre would be fascinating...thank you again for providing this important service!

  • Isaiah Tanenbaum said:  

    All this talk of specific databases has gotten me thinking. You know what would be really cool? A Pandora for plays, based on a Play Genome Project just as Pandora is based on the Music GP.

    Is that play you just saw at the Fringe written by a black woman in her 20's, and it deals with racism and the American Dream? Maybe you'd like A Raisin in the Sun. Does another play have an element of the fantastic confronting the mundane, with a mixture of rapid-fire conversation and long monologues? Maybe you'd like Angels in America. Or Cloud Techtonics.

    This strikes me as incredibly more complicated than the MGP -- heck, I could spend a lifetime just figuring out the CATEGORIES -- but also infinitely valuable.

  • Zak Berkman said:  

    Hi all -

    I'm about to my two boys to bed, so I don't have time to respond in full, but a couple quick hoorahs:

    Gus, hoorah for your focus on the playwright-as-strawberry-shareholder model. My company (Epic Theatre Ensemble) carries that torch to some degree as well (more on that another time). Steven Dietz has written a version of this manifesto for regional theatres that I'll have to find.

    Martin, hoorah for your Plays by Women feature. Very eager to read it.

    And Isaiah, hoorah for your Pandora suggestion. I know Diane Ragsdale at Mellon Foundation (as well at ART/NY) are looking into ways of developing exactly this concept and technologiy - be it Pandora style, Apple, or Amazon, we do need to address collectively this a la carte culture that has taken over. My only concern is whether this will ultimately perpetuate the increasing polarization of our society rather than offer greater opportunity. That said, I think that'll be up to us. If the theatre community defies competition and uses our skills at collaboration, we should be able to create a tide that lifts us all up rather than drowns us.

  • Christine Evans said:  

    Gus--Thank you for this thoughtful and informative piece, and hurray indeed for nytheatre.com for starting to include those stats. As a playwright without a company, I really concur on the need to build collaborations over time & have figured out (finally) that building relationships with directors I love is far more productive (creatively and production-wise) than sending out those endless packets. So, good for you re. Flux!

    Just want to add one note along the strawberries-to-market model regarding publishing: some of us (Women's Project, No Passport) are looking seriously into DIY, print-on-demand publishing. As Diana Taylor has argued in THE ARCHIVE AND THE REPERTOIRE, what gets written down has a chance of making it into the historical record (not to mention the present record!); the ephemeral arts and practices just disappear.

    No Passport Press runs a series and has published perhaps 6 playwrights in anthology so far, including Anne Garcia Romero and Alexandro Morales.) There are great packages out there now (lulu.com, dog ear press) that can publish nice-looking books. The devil in self-publishing (aside from the odium of the "vanity press" tag) has always been distribution along with up-front printing costs, but both those problems have shrunk dramatically.

    Firstly, there's now print-on-demand technology (so low up-front costs); and secondly, these self-publishing packages allow an ISBN and show up on Amazon and such sites looking indistinguishable from commercial publications. Again, it's all about the audience; but a company that's worked to build its following could presumably sell books through the same networks it already uses to sell tickets and promote shows.

    It's a lot of work (you do all the editing and layout yourself) but that's no more daunting than writing the thing in the first place or putting up a show!

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Christine,

    I love that idea! Right now, Flux has been lucky in that 5 of the 6 new plays we've produced have gone on to be published, and more that we've developed have done so as well (Trying, Sleeper, Volleygirls); but as we continue to move towards a model of playwrights generating material directly for Flux, we'll want to ensure that work has a life beyond our own shores. I'd be especially interested in compiling the short plays created for our Fore:Play series into a book - there's boon some amazing work that's come out of that series.

    Martin, I was singing your praises at the Arena Stage convening this weekend, and there was both excitement over the women playwrights breakdown, and hunger for a similar page for playwrights of color.

    Zak and Isaiah, I have a feeling that the Audience Engagement Platform, of which there is a Beta version rolling out in March, might be able to move to a Pandora and/or Yelp model for bringing like-minded audience and artists together, though as you say, Zak, I'm especially interested in expanding beyond niche audiences to finding the spark of civic difference in a more diverse audience (something I think Epic does really well, by the way).

    Onward! My next post on Outrageous Fortune is due tomorrow...