The New Play Brain

Monday, July 25, 2011 Leave a Comment

By August Schulenburg

After h/ting through Isaac to David Dower's heartfelt post on the New Play Blog (I'll wait for you to read them), I finally got around to writing a post I've been meaning to put together since the New Play Convening.

For those too busy to link-jump, the gist of both posts is the impossibility of the open play submission. Those at an institution who have time to read plays submitted over the transom (as the folksy saying goes) are exactly the people who have no ability to move a script forward at said institution. Arena got rid of their policy, forgoing a false inclusion for authentic limits.

I'm not sure what it says about the process (or me) that I would never even think of submitting a play to Arena or a similar sized organization; in the past year since I resumed submitting my plays, I've sent them to places that say they're actually looking (for a contest or festival), though both productions of my work this year (Riding the Bull in Seattle and Dream Walker in NYC) came through connections, not submissions.

The issue is bigger than Arena and certainly bigger than me; as Matt Freeman wrote in the comments of an earlier post on the subject, what is at stake is our faith in the idea of our field as a meritocracy. Studies reveal that this is patently false; women and artists of color are underrepresented, class presents barriers throughout a playwright's life, and a Masters from the right school can seemingly provide a faster track to success (such as it is).

This idea of a meritocracy, so fundamental to the American myth, is under assault in far more places than just the new play field. The growing gaps of income inequality, and the persistently corrosive effects of systemic gender and racial inequality, must be considered when we talk about inequality in theatre. One emerges from the other, and then sustains its progenitor by narrowing the stories we share on our stages.

This is an old ragged tune, and I don't need to sing every verse here. What I do believe is that a meritocracy is possible, and closer to achievable than we might think.

In neuroscience, our burgeoning understanding of the brain reveals that there are many divided areas of local activity that sometimes send information via transportation nodes to the brain at large. It is a system of systems, and it depends on vitality of activity at the local level as well as an effective means of sharing that activity across the whole.

The new play structure of these United States resembles a brain with dementia. The links between local activity and brain-wide communication are broken; and so information is lost, connections go unmade, and a great gyre of forgetfulness keeps the whole stumbling system in a fitful dark. Connections are top down: a play gets enough good reviews in a major city, and trickle down to theatres eager for a false legitimacy. This is not how a healthy brain works, and this is not how our new play structure should work, either.

We need a means of connecting local vitality through effective national hubs of communication, and the model for how this might works already exists. The New Play Map, created by Arena, is like a working brain that lacks consciousness. The connections are beginning to form, and now a will needs to emerge from them.

Every time that I read a play and love it, I share it with the rest of Flux; and if I'm particularly inspired by it, I'll advocate for it here on the blog and elsewhere. But without a context for that advocacy, it's difficult to achieve any momentum.

What we need is a Yelp-like database to emerge from the New Play Map that allows for participants to advocate for the new plays they read.

Here's how it could work:

-After reading a play that you feel confident in advocating for, you log-in to the platform (you've created an individual profile already). You ONLY use the platform for advocacy - this is not a reviewing platform. If you don't like something you read, it ends there.

-If someone else has already advocated for the play, you add your thoughts to the entry (each advocated play has a unique entry that links to a playwright's profile). If an entry doesn't exist, you create one, wiki-style.

-As you develop a history of advocating for plays, and others like or follow that advocacy, your opinion carries more weight, so that a regular participant's advocacy will rank higher than someone who is merely shouting out their friend's play.

-As the system develops, connections of affinity would develop as well, so that if you routinely advocated for the same plays as a theatre/producer you'd previously never heard of, that affinity would be revealed, and more possibilities for co-production and extended life would develop.

-Demographics would emerge in real time, so that if plays by women and artists of color were receiving less advocacy, we can see that in clear light of statistics and adapt as those statistics change.

-As trust between participants developed, a communal literary department would emerge, and plays that garnered passionate advocacy would no longer languish in the stacks. An agent's recommendation would only be one way for a playwright to pass through the gates of opportunity.

Of course, for this to work, it would take a large number of theatre practitioners to commit to sharing information that is frequently kept shrouded. Transparency and communal effort has not been a hallmark of our field.

But I do believe the new play field can come closer to a real meritocracy, if we committed to sharing our resources and advocating for the work we love freely.


  • joshcon80 said:  

    "I would never even think of submitting a play to Arena or a similar sized organization.." Me neither. Do I just have a low self-esteem?

    Anyway... Yes! Yes! So much this. I've been beating the "meritocracy is a myth" drum for a while now, but am not so optimistic as you.

    Your model seems really interesting. Are you familiar with Bush Green, the Bush's online literary dept? It goes about half way toward what you're suggesting. Then again, they recently did an Annie Baker play and you KNOW that wasn't submitted by Annie online.

    Maybe in order for your idea to work the online lit dept has to be the only means of receiving a script? Otherwise I'd guess we'd just see the same names getting produced over and over. I don't know.

  • Tom B. said:  

    I like this idea. Similar to the concept of "Like" but no "Dislike"; "+1" but no "-1". It promotes sharing while discouraging negativity.

    The difficulty I see (and I could have totally misread this, so let me know) is that the wiki would include advocacy about the play, but presumably wouldn't display the play itself -- which means that in order to garner more support, the play would still face the challenge of getting in front of more people.

    So I like the idea of crossing the idea with Bushgreen. Why not make the full text of each play available on the system, free for all to read? Of course, I know there are a lot of playwrights who would consider that a Very Bad Idea, and I have my reasons why I think it would be a Surprisingly Good Idea, but that's for a different blog post.

    Anyway, in my mind this would form the foundation for exactly the sort of system you're talking about. Even complete beginners with no connections could post a play for the hive mind's consideration, and join the conversation. People could advocate for plays and share them with their friends (or on Facebook or Twitter). People could lobby their local theater companies to produce them. Hell, a playwright could post a play and ask for feedback. And if you combine enough people using the system with a way to collaboratively tag and classify plays in a dramaturgical, non-judgmental way, you could create a way for the system to recommend new plays based on your preferences -- a "New Play Pandora," if you will.

    The bigger theaters might not use it as a resource -- but then again, if the user base is large enough, I don't think it's unreasonable to think they'd pay attention to a play that's made positive impressions not just on a few readers with specific preferences, but on a wide swath of people.

    Anyway, I think it's a great idea to generate some kind of system like this where great plays can be "discovered" regardless of where they originate.