A Simple Plan
On the other hand, maybe it's simple.
The IRS reports 1,982 not-for-profit theatres with a budget over $75,000.
AACT lists 1,034 community theatre members.
A rough count lists 265 theatre on Indie Theater.org (that's in NYC alone).
TCG has 88 theatre programs as University Affiliates, and Twitter peeps tell me the number of programs is around 200-300.
*01/29/10: Adam hooked me up with a search engine for colleges - searching for theatre specific programs yielded 1,118 results - so the numbers that follow are actually potentially higher.
So let's say there are roughly 3,500 current theatre producing entities in this country (probably a conservative count, but there may be some cross over above as many community theatres have a sizable budget, and for the purposes of the thought exercise of this post, the exact number is not critical).
What if these 3,500 organizations each committed to produce 1 play a year from 1 unique playwright for the next 3 years?
You would have 3,500 different playwrights each developing a unique relationship with a company and community over 3 years.
Those playwrights would have the opportunity to see 3 of their plays fully staged, which, as J. at 99 Seats so rightfully points out, is the only way good playwrights learn how to write great plays.
And in 3 years time, 10,500 new plays would see the light of stage.
Some of the relationships developed at these theatres might turn long term, some wouldn't. But all of the communities served by all of these theatres would see a nationwide commitment to new plays and living playwrights being treated as essential.
What would this do to the national profile of new plays and playwrights?
Of theatre in general?
Some might prefer to leave community theatres off this list, but to me, our national decline in straight new play attendance demands as inclusive an approach as possible. If playwrights don't want to be produced by a partner organization, that is their prerogative. And they can certainly continue to have their work produced elsewhere, they'll just (for 3 years) be able to count on a home for their work.
Impossible logistically? Not at all. London's Bush Theatre created a website for producers to find plays, and a similar model, properly administered, could be used to play matchmaker-matchmaker between participating theatres and playwrights. The 365 Plays/Days, Lysistrata, Free Night of Theater, and The Laramie Project all serve as examples of successful national collaboration between theatres.
Some playwrights would be besieged with offers, and others would still be left out. Some theatres will protest having to work with their second or third choice, but if they don't have a list 20 playwrights deep they'd like to work with (I do), they're not reading enough (or the right) plays. And this proposal doesn't mean they can't also produce Proof, Doubt, and Twelfth Night; they just also need to produce, once a year for 3 years, a truly unique voice.
Even if only a 1/4 of the hypothetical 3,500 participated, you are still looking at 875 theatres and playwrights working together over 3 years in a program that is local in impact and national in scope. You are still looking at 2,625 deserving new plays (and yes, I think there are that many out there) seeing the light of stage.
Imagine it like a creative stimulus package for new play development. And just like the stimulus, there will be waste and mistakes. But there will also be a clear message to audiences and artists that new plays matter. And maybe, the connection between a theatre and playwright will kindle into the long term relationships idealized at the start of Outrageous Fortune; our Chekhov will find his Moscow Arts Theatre, our O'Neill will find her Provincetown Players, and our national theatre will find its way (or at least its mojo) again.
Crazy, right? Right. Though it may be crazier to continue to make small fixes to big problems.
I don't know. But, what if instead of just talking about supporting playwrights and doing new plays, we all agreed to do it. Not a huge change individually, but a sea change together.