Define your terms

02.08.10 | 7 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, development

Isaac Butler at Parabasis asks how we should define “new play”.

In the face of how the phrase has been treated in recent years, and rung like a gong again and again in Outrageous Fortune, and with it being the focus of the Arena Stage convenings it seems fair to ask how we define it.

Oh, you’re saying to yourself, that’s just being pedantic, we all know what a new play is!

I know you are because that’s what I opened this window to say.

I opened this window to say that a new play is one that had never been performed anywhere before, and any other attempted definition was just sales slipping into the art. And to an extent that’s true, but we’re selling to our funders AND our audiences so this matters a little.

Try it.

Try to define it. Really define it, with specificity and limits. Nail it down, I’ll wait.
It’s slippery isn’t it?!

Okay, so begin with  my obvious stab at it:
It is a play that has never been performed anywhere else before.
Straightforward and concise, but how long does it play before it isn’t new anymore? How many scenes can be rewritten in this production before it is new again?
How much needs to be rewritten for it to be considered new for it’s second production?

So obviously that’s too elusive a corner to nail it down in.

Do we simply take the author’s word for it? Even when they are motivated by premiere-itis to keep it new as lnong as possible?

Is it some sort of definitive production? Is it Is it New York?
Are we just waiting for Isherwood on his cross to declare. “It is Finished!” and then the true second comings can happen?

I really am open to any definition you may have, with the caveat that I’m not looking for the term of art for sales.
I want to really get underneath what it is we’re supporting with these convenings and this funding and our conversation.

What are YOU talking about when you’re talking about #newplay?

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Travis Bedard

Travis Bedard

A long time theatre blogger, Travis is the Artistic Director of Cambiare Productions and a contributing writer to 2amTheatre.com. Travis holds a degree in Theatre (Secondary Education) from the University of New Hampshire and is currently posted in scenic St. Paul Minnesota..
Travis Bedard

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  • Tim

    A group of us were trying to do this for a wiki idea I was working on. The ideas was that we would have icons for each of these. I like:

    New – never before produced anywhere
    Fresh – previously produced as reading, workshop or heavily rewritten
    Local Premier – play from somewhere else that has never been performed here
    Rare Revival – play that rarely sees the light of day

    As the categories of what a “new play” would be. I think these sum up what people who are interested in “new” are looking for. You could probably add “New Classic”, “Warhorse”, and “Chesnut” to that list and get pretty much everything in theater today.

  • It’s a good question. If I write a play and produce it, then rewrite it from top to bottom but leave the title alone, is it a new play the next time it’s produced? I ask having done just that last year.

    It was new to Indiana residents in 2006, and it was new to D.C. residents in 2009. But it was a substantially different script and so could well have been new to the same Indiana audience.

    I like the definition of “a play that has never been produced anywhere else before,” and that’s surely the core of the term. And “local premiere” is an important qualifier. By that, Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” would be a new play in my area. (Sad but true.)

    Seems to me we need to rip away some of the qualifiers and ask about scale. Several years ago, “The Drawer Boy” rose up out of nowhere and was The It Play for theatres around the U.S. and Canada. It was a new play to me at the time, and it was promoted as such most every place I saw here in the U.S., but it had a good history in Canada before that.

    I see the same thing happening with Itamar Moses’ work, that suddenly it’s pronounced A New Play and everyone can produce “The Four of Us” now. (Which is a shame, because it really needs, oh, I don’t know, an actual story.) Certain playwrights are at this level where the theatre world is paying close attention, awaiting their next “New Play,” while the rest of us go on about our daily lives, writing new plays. It’s a semantic difference, to be sure, but these days, “New Play” is almost a brand for some theatres, a seal of approval if you will. “It’s okay to produce this, ATL did it at Humana, the Goodman’s doing it next month, go right ahead.”

    Is there maybe a minimum of actual productions before we can call a play “finished,” and then another minimum number during which it can be considered a “New Play?” I’d say running through the mill at the Humana Festival might do it, but even then, I know a lot of plays that have been heavily revised after the festival. So they’re still not finished.

    With our company, I’ve stopped worrying about such distinctions. For our audiences, most everything is new. It’s not an important draw for them. They’re just interested in seeing good stories told well. We try to live up to that.

  • This is an interesting question to me, because I work as an arts journalist, so I often have to figure out what can be defined as a “new” play for the purposes of pitching and writing about it.

    Usually, the expression “new play” comes with some sort of qualifier: “newest play from whatever hot playwright” or “first full production of this company’s latest work” or “new to Toronto” (aka local premiere).

    Instinctively, I think I define “new play” as either “never been seen before” or “written within the past year”. After that, it can be a local premiere, or someone’s latest play.

    But when I hear “new play”, I definitely think new written work, not a new production. In any case, I think David has it right in his last paragraph – everything’s new to someone, the main thing is a good story. Spin is easy.

  • Ooo, I like the idea of “written within the past year.” That allows for tinkering, any kind of workshop or production, etc, but still puts a “freshness date” on the script for those who care. The author has worked on this script within the last year, therefore it is a new play. Works for me.

  • I tend to think of a previously unproduced play when I hear “new work.” But I do like the idea of defining a new play as “written within the past year.”

  • The only problem with either of those definitions (and I rather like “written within the past year”), is that they’d seem to contribute to the syndrome of shows getting only a world premiere and never seen again, because they have neither the aura of “new” nor a proven track record of being a hit.

    For those purposes, I’d define as “within two seasons of the first production, and never before produced in that area.” To pick an example–“In the Next Room” premiered in Berkeley in February of 2009, and was produced on Broadway in November of 2009. If it has its Chicago premiere next season, will it still count as a “new play”? I’d say that it should.

    And even if that categorically counts as just a “local premiere,” (and I can see the argument for that), I’d argue that we need to be supporting those just as much.

  • I started a response here, Travis, but it turned into an essay, so I’ moved it to the New Play Blog…