Play Development: Necessary evil? Necessary? Evil?

11.30.10 | 34 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, development, dramaturgy, funding and support, new plays, non-profit theatre, playwrights, presenting, producers

I attended an inspiring and provoking event last night, the New York Theatre Experiment’s second “Generations” event, where Michael Mayer, Denis O’Hare, and Annie Baker talked about the future of theater. A lot of juicy topics came up, many of which I think would be fodder for their own panel – one of which was play development. Annie Baker spoke about play development with a kind of sadness, bemoaning all the “weird, messy, interesting” plays that get workshopped into a very clear, very dull final draft. Michael Mayer had a more positive spin on it, saying that sometimes the workshop/play development process has saved the plays he’s worked on, or that he’s sometimes been frustrated by doing a play that was not really “ready for prime time” and needed more work. (He did, however, also mention that he can tell when he sees a play whether it’s been workshopped too much.)

This inspired some conversation after the event about the role and process of play development, and of literary departments. It seems anecdotally like literary managers/departments have much more control over what plays get read and workshopped at their theaters than over what plays get produced, but I could be wrong about that. And if it is the case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – or is it? On the one hand, if you like a play but don’t have the resources to do it, or your seasons for the next 2 years are already planned, or whatever, who does it hurt to get the play heard and in front of an audience and give the playwright a chance to make any revisions ze wants – if the playwright wants to make revisions? On the other hand, I find it fun and exhilarating to see the “weird, messy, interesting” plays fully mounted, even in what may seem to be an early draft. Also, I think you can overwrite a play and end up removing its guts, spine, and moxie.

In the interest of continuing the conversation, I figured I’d throw some questions out into the blogosphere about other playwrights’/theaters’ experiences so that we can figure out a) why we develop plays instead of just doing them, and b) what the function of literary departments actually are. I do NOT mean to imply that play development or literary departments are bad or extraneous – I merely wish to continue a line of inquiry. Please respond with any and all thoughts and answers in the comments – and if your response is sensitive in some way but you’d still like to contribute, feel free to respond anonymously. So without further ado…

1. Playwrights: have you ever had a play produced as a result of submitting it to a theater with an “open submission” policy? (And if you submitted it to Theater A, and Theater A did a reading of it, to which a rep from Theater B came, and Theater B produced the play, that doesn’t count.)

2. Theaters: has your theater ever produced a play that was sent to you unsolicited? How often does that happen?

3. Theaters: if you cut your literary department today, completely, what would happen to your theater and the way it functions? What would change? How would you decide what plays to do, and how is that different than how you decide what plays to do now?

4. Are there any theaters out there that have a purely blind submission policy – not just for one contest, but for all your season, all the time? If so, what are the pros/cons of that policy for you?

5. Playwrights: how vital do you consider readings and workshops to your process? Do you feel it actually improves your play? When it works, why does it work? When it doesn’t, why doesn’t it?

6. Theaters: of the plays of which you’ve done readings and workshops, how many of them have you ended up giving a full production? (Rough percentage.)

7. Playwrights: do you agree with Itamar Moses that it’s more productive to get artistic directors, rather than literary managers, to see your work? Or have literary managers/departments actually been responsible for your work getting produced? Or have both been the case at different times?

8. Theaters: does your literary manager/department contribute significantly toward deciding what plays get produced? Or do those decisions mostly come from the artistic director?

9. Theaters: do you rely on grants that go specifically toward play development, rather than production? Do you receive funding that you can use for readings and workshops but CANNOT use for a fully mounted production?

10. Playwrights: do you find that doing rewrites in rehearsal/preparation for a reading or workshop is preferable/more productive to doing rewrites in rehearsal for a production?

If you have some insight into these questions, or further questions you want to throw out there, please respond liberally in the comments. Thanks!

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  • 1) Nope, definitely not. But I don’t even try any more. It’s a waste of time, I find.

    5) Hearing my work aloud is vital to my process. I arrange informal readings among friends (I’m lucky to have more than my fair share of supremely talented friends), and that’s useful, but even more so is hearing my work in front of an audience, which I’m also generally able to make happen. Workshops are, for the most part, also incredibly useful to me, especially if I believe in the talents of my collaborators and they understand what play I’m trying to make, rather than the play they want me to make. Workshops of that sort can make my work immeasurably stronger. (Side note: try to get Liz Engelman to join your workshop crew. Never fails.)

    7) Somewhat more effective. I’d add directors to the mix, too. They can and do champion my work quite frequently to great effect.

    10) Preferable? Not really. I like doing them both. They both improve the work, albeit in different ways.

  • For what it’s worth:

    We’ve produced three plays that were unsolicited, but in all cases, I knew the playwright beforehand. One of them was a from a reading hosted by the playwright that I attended. We don’t have a blind submissions policy, per se, because there’s only me reading plays, and if I had a stack of 60 plays staring at me every day I’d kill myself. The factors that go into play selection are so complicated that open submissions for us at this point is like trying to find a specific marble in, well, an enormous barrel of other marbles.

    As far as workshops go, we don’t actually workshop anything that we aren’t 90% committed to producing. So we have a 100% workshop to production ratio, but a statistically invalid sample set 🙂

    And I currently have no plans to have a literary department, so can’t speak to that. I have attended workshops hosted by other companies but find doing so often frustrating as the really good work is usually already encumbered by production plans with the hosting company / director / cast / etc., so it hasn’t been that fruitful from a programming perspective for me thus far.

    I would agree that capturing the attention of a director or artistic director is, at least in Chicago, much more of a fast track, but going through a literary department is, in fairness, one way to do that.

  • RVCBard

    Answered at my blog.

  • Guy
  • Barton Booth

    As it has been a good long time since I managed a theater, and nearly as long since I performed on stage, and at neither time had I even heard of a “literary department” or even “play development,” my experience may come from a unique perspective. I suppose my questions about such things would be the following:

    Does this “play development” create a sameness amongst plays? Could a great work such as Oroonoko be written under such a situation, or will this mechanism result in the production of a number of small cast, small scale plays with small ambition?

    As for a literary department… oh to be blessed with an overabundance of good plays that would require such a thing to sort through the submissions!

  • Thanks all for the insight…looks like there are as many ways to skin a cat as there are cats (forgive the grisly metaphor)!

    Barton, in response to your question re: creating sameness…quite possibly, considering how many plays I see seem exactly the same to me. Ideally, in the supposedly “low pressure” environment of a workshop (supposedly “process-oriented” not “product-oriented” by nature), you’d think that crazier, more delicious stuff could come out. Yet this seems not to happen that often. Sad.

  • Secondwind

    Commenting as a playwright:
    1) Yes, I’ve had my play produced in an open submission. Sort of. In one case the AD had a heads up from a friend about my play submission; in another I visited the theatre beforehand and met with the AD and Dramaturg. They rejected my first three submissions (which consequently meant they were very familiar with my work by the fourth).

    5) Workshops and readings are theoretically nice (for me), but not especially helpful or even pleasurable. I used to joke they made my gums bleed (from all the teeth clenching). If the play is complex– and most of us think our plays are– it takes more than a couple of rehearsals to find the rhythms, music, and subtext. I can’t re-write based on a couple of rehearsals; I can finally admit that what’s been bugging me won’t go away just because there are actors.

    7) Generally speaking, yes it’s better to get the AD to read the work. Some companies (like Luna Stage in NJ) use and depend on the dramaturg well, making them one of the primary deciders in whether the work is produced. Others use them strictly as screeners, and as wardens for their play development series. I’ve had the dramaturg from one of the major houses in the company tell me that he knows in advance that none of the plays in his office will be produced, because they didn’t come from the right spot/person.

    For me (again), even doing re-writes in a production rehearsal feels counter-productive. I expect that I’ve ironed out all the kinks before rehearsal starts; I’ve found that writing mistakes are only visible when the actors are at 100% or close, which is very late to be making changes.

  • Mike

    Okay, okay.

    1. Yes, more than once.

    5. Readings: Essential; workshops: Nice (I guess, but not essential). Readings absolutely help with improving the play. I find readings work best the simpler they are — just actors either sitting in chairs or standing behind music stands reading the play in front of an audience. Not too much rehearsal, no fancy blocking and definitely no props or (horrors!) miming props. Just let the play stand or fall naked with just the words and the commitment/energy of the actors to grab the audience. Probably that’s why I find workshops less effective; they’re more like almost-a-production and a good director will instinctively try to find ways to cover up a play’s blemishes in an elaborate, well-rehearsed workshop. In a production I welcome the director covering up the play’s pimples and scars, because by then (I would hope) I have fixed everything that is fixable on the page — but not in development.

    7. I agree with Itamar, whoever he (or she?) is. Literary managers have been very supportive of me and my plays and I love them for it — but my experience is that most of the time (not always) they don’t have the authority to choose a play for production at a theater. It’s nice to have them on your side. It’s nice to have a drink with one. I have had a literary manager responsible in the sense that she passed the play up to the A.D. with her recommendation, but if the A.D. hadn’t liked it that wouldn’t have mattered.

    10. Well it’s certainly a lot less nerve-wracking. I’ve twice been in the situation where I was doing re-writes every night into the early hours of the morning that went into the preview or touring show that night. It totally sucks, and while I’m usually good under pressure and on deadline, I did not find myself doing my best work in either of those situations. I agree with Larry Gelbart: “If Hitler is still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a new comedy.”

  • I think it was Oskar Eustis who said that “being a dramaturg means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    I’d like to respond as a former institutional Literary Manager. I had, from time to time, internal strum and drang about my role at the theatre, and how I helped/hindered new plays. Was I useful, or simply in the way?

    In hindsight, my conclusions fall into the idea that I was useful to the institution, occasionally to a playwright if we found a simpatico in our relationship, and as an agent to the larger new play producing world.

    -Primarily, my role was to support the institution and what I saw to be its artistic vision. One of the most useful things I had the opportunity to do was to interact with the audience a lot through frequent talkbacks (100+ in the first year). After a year, I knew who was coming to our theatre. With that perspective, I could better recommend plays that would be right for the organization. I did not recommend everything that I loved, and everything I recommended did not get produced. However, many things that I recommended did get produced, and my artistic director took my recommendation seriously. He would read anything I recommended, and from there, it was his call.

    -As a gung-ho young dramaturg, I wanted to work with every playwright that crossed my path. But, then I began to develop a healthy respect for the idea that not every playwright “needed” me, wanted me, or even could get use out of what I said to her/him. I began to get a sense of which playwrights found benefit in working with me on a new play; and backed off the ones who didn’t. That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t produce the ones I didn’t work with – maybe they’ll work out they’re next draft on their own or in consult with someone else. It’s so personal, and I had plenty enough to do without forcing myself or my ideas on a writer.

    -I love a messy play – often I wanted the plays that came across my desk to be messier. I agree that you can spot the poor overworked plays from 100 paces. For that reason, I truly can’t stand audience talkbacks with the playwright. Writing by committee is useless, at best, and painful and destructive at worst. As a dramaturg, some of my worst nights at the theatre have been talkbacks, which have inadvertently set my relationship and process with a writer back exponentially. And heaven help the poor play. It takes a supremely secure and aware writer to be able to let all the useless comments go and find gold in the small handful of useful ones.

    -I think one of the best things an literary manager can do is share, share, share. I don’t only consider myself somehow responsible for the production of plays at my own theatre, but complicit in the production of plays I love at other theatres. The National Play Network is an incredible resource for allowing Literary Managers to advocate for work that they love and, I feel, move plays to production faster. The right play finds the right home, rather than a lot of different theatres trying to “fit” a sort-of-right play into its mold, confusing the process and sterilizing lovely, messy plays.

    I know I didn’t really answer your questions, but this is how life in my corner of the office shook itself out.

  • Cristin – amazing feedback! So glad to hear the story from the other side of the desk! Thank you thank you.

    Secondwind and Mike – thanks so much for chiming in!

    • Thanks!
      And, of course, I meant to write “National NEW Play Network.”

  • As a director, neither playwright nor producer, I can’t really answer any of these questions. But thank you for asking them. Every single one I’ve wondered about the answer.

    This is actually a topic my boyfriend and I have argued about on a number of occasions. He contends that workshopping only serves to remove individuality and originality. Only the creator really understands what the work needs, and to bombard it with suggestions from the peanut gallery only removes its teeth.

    I’m of the other camp. As I said before, I’m not a playwright, but I have had the opportunity to have a few stories and poems of mine workshopped and the experience always helped immensely. The group was often able to target weak areas that I knew were weak, but couldn’t put my finger on *why* and I think my work was always strengthened as a result.

    And as a director, I’ve frequently come across a play and thought “wow, this play is kind of a mess, but it could be AMAZING if a, b, and c were reworked.”

    I can see the over-workshopped part of the argument, but if all the “weird, messy, interesting” stuff has been relegated to developmental workshops, is it the workshops themselves to blame? I think an equally appropriate indictment is of the theater companies that only accept clean, gutless plays or the writers themselves who are too receptive to the persuasions of the group.

    I think – and maybe from my non-playwrighting position I’m being presumptuous, and if I am feel free to call me on it – there’s a trick to understanding what suggestions are in line with your original vision (I hate that word, but I have to use it) – something you weren’t able to see, but turns out you wanted for the piece all along – and which are attempts to turn it into a completely different thing.

    Perhaps workshopping is in and of itself a wholly separate art?

    • Thanks Leigh. You bring up a lot of great points. I think it’s important to learn the “trick” you describe in your last paragraph, but it’s far from an easy trick to learn. Theater is for an audience, after all, and if something seems not to work for an audience, it’s probable that something needs to change. If your “original vision” doesn’t work, it’s totally possible that the vision itself might be what needs to change. Then again, it might not. Maybe it was a rainy Wednesday and everyone was low energy. Maybe your lead actor didn’t “get it.” Maybe nothing. Often, different people will blame different factors, and all you can really go on is instinct and self-awareness.

      There are times, of course – plenty of times – where the groupthink is really an asset, where everyone picks up on the same thing which somehow, inside your own head, you couldn’t quite see before. There are times when the monologue you’ve been considering cutting just sings and everyone tells you “I will kill you if you cut that monologue” and your work here is done. I agree that feedback and exposure often help with that. But when the opinions are varied, when the thing that needs work is less obvious, God help you – because everyone will tell you that your problem is something different, and if you believe all of them, you’re probably fucked.

      So I say yes, absolutely, let’s indict the theaters who only produce the clean, gutless plays. And yes, we’d all be much better off if the writers who de-claw their magnificent plays didn’t listen to the peanut gallery, but please, let’s not indict them. They’re the ones who, after countless rejection letters and unpaid hours and submission fees, are being told how to write by dramaturgs and subscribers and God knows who else – who can blame them for being confused? And just because you haven’t yet figured out what feedback to take and what feedback to ignore doesn’t mean your weird, messy, gorgeous play doesn’t deserve a life.

      Anyway, great thoughts.

      • Eeep! “Indict” was maybe too strong a word… awareness would have probably been a better concept than indictment. Like you said, the entire point of theater is its relationship to the audience. The line between making a work audience-accessible and removing innovation altogether is a difficult and dangerous line to walk indeed and any artists taking risks and making choice is bound to fall to one side or the other while figure it out. I can tell you from experience that’s true for ALL theater artists 🙂 Actually, now that I think about it, finding the balance between the accessible and the weird/messy is probably a pretty tough job for the theater companies as well. DAMN. Why can’t art be EASY?

        Thanks for the great discussion!

        • Wow. Really should have re-read before posting. *Any artist taking risks and making choices is bound to fall to one side or the other while figuring it out.* Ignore the grammatical atrocity above.

      • Keith Enrique Beck

        “your weird, messy, gorgeous play doesn’t deserve a life.”

        Not sure an audience will pay to see the above. Which would beg the question does the artist produce work for themselves or for paying audience?

        • I would TOTALLY pay to see that, but I’m weird. Then again, people pay to see Angels in America.

          • jean louis

            This is where these forums start to lose interest for me, because we are all talking at cross purposes. What is a “gutless” play? What is a “safe” or “overly workshopped” play? “Red?” Or maybe something like “Over the River and Through the Woods?” Is “Angels in America” not weird and gorgeous? Or do you mean something like “That Pretty Pretty?” Or perhaps something weirder than that? If we can’t reference actual titles and authors and production companies, all this talk is semi-useless.

          • That’s exactly what I mean: ANGELS IN AMERICA is weird, messy and gorgeous. And people pay to see it. Including me. THAT PRETTY PRETTY is another good example of “weirdness,” and that play sold out and was reprinted in American Theatre Magazine.

            For selfish reasons, I’ll hold off on naming actual “gutless” plays because many of them are written by people I like very much – which I know doesn’t help my case, but in this case I’d rather have a weaker case and keep those relationships than be “right” and piss people off.

            If you want more actual titles of “weird/messy/gorgeous,” see my comment to Kari below – or I’ll just copy and paste it for you here:

            Look at Taylor Mac’s THE LILY’S REVENGE. Look at Lucy Thurber’s MONSTROSITY. Look at GATZ. All three events were totally sold out and, in 2/3 of the cases (MONSTROSITY had too short of a run to get reviewed I think), critical darlings. I couldn’t see GATZ because of its expense and sold-out-ness, but LILY’S REVENGE and MONSTROSITY were two of the most exciting evenings at the theater I’ve attended. (Incidentally, I kind of do think Angels in America could be cut in half and still be amazing – potentially more amazing – but I’m also glad that it wasn’t.) Look at The Amoralists – PIED PIPERS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE, while having the smallest cast of any show of theirs I’ve seen, was 3 acts, and catapulted them into their status as the newest downtown rock stars. (EDITED TO ADD: Another show of theirs, HAPPY IN THE POORHOUSE, had an enormous cast and also-enormous dramaturgical problems – and was some of the most fun I’ve had at a play.)

            “Messy” also doesn’t always have to do with size. I saw a play at Theater for the New City called “Keep Your Baggage With You At All Times.” 4 characters, 90 minutes. In many ways it felt like a second draft of a play that would eventually go through six or seven drafts. It didn’t really resolve in a satisfying way, whole character arcs were dropped, one scene took place in the future for no reason that I could discern, but it was still such a pleasure to watch because there was so much in it that was so good. Many of the scenes were just stellar. I LOVE seeing something with that kind of energy even when it feels incomplete – maybe I’m in the minority on that, but that play ended up getting a lot of positive buzz and I think it’s coming back soon. So maybe other people saw what I saw.

        • jean louis

          “Beg the question” does not mean “raise the question” or “lead to the following question.” It means to presume the truth of the very idea being questioned.

          • Keith Enrique Beck

            Low Down Lies, Jeff Kramer, Boys of Winter, Kaner, Small and Vlaming, Safety Date, Tim Burns – Race, Mamet. Steady Rain, Huff. all are plays that are less messy and have a traditional play structure etc. Guess maybe the effort to tell a story that can be re-told in the tradition of Williams, Miller, Mamet, Simon etc. Should that be the goal? Is the question.

    • Keith Enrique Beck

      My perspective is the workshop IS a separate art. We call the place where you take all of the ingredients and determine if the cake should be baked. Unique talents are required to create a workshop where the scripts disappear. Leaving the audience with the financial desire to help with funding a full production of the work. That is how you can create a Black Swan. Which is why the name of our company is Black Swan Theater Company

  • Thank you so much for asking these questions and initiating a dialogue! The responses are fascinating. Here’s mine (answering as a playwright…hopefully in a manner that is as interesting as everyone else’s…)

    1. Yes, but they were all short plays – 10 minute or one-acts, which don’t usually end up going through a whole development route. I’m currently in the process of submitting my first 2 full-length plays. I’ve gotten a small bit of interest from major theaters, but I’ve also tried to be smart about where I submit my work, making sure that the play matches the mission and production history. There also seems to be a bit of a number-game element going on. If you submit sample dialogue to 100 theaters, and if the script is intriguing, maybe 2 will ask to see a full script.

    4. When you say “purely blind submission policy”, do you mean that someone can submit a full script, or are you including samples? If you include samples, I’ve found over 150 around the country that do. If not, I’d say it’s probably about 15.

    5. Extremely vital. I tend to write in a very pared-down and lean style. I always know that the story needs to be bigger, that there are questions that I know the answers to but which the audience may not. Readings and workshops, particularly ones that feature audience-feedback, help me to figure out what’s missing. And also what the audience, as a whole, is excited about, is not excited about or finds confusing. Then I get to process and respond to the feedback through my writing, which I find to be invigorating, challenging and sometimes frustrating – but I’m ok with that.

    7. and 10. – I wish I could answer, but I am just starting out in the world of writing and developing full-length plays. That said, all of the positive responses I’ve received to my play submissions have come from literary managers, not artistic directors.

    • Thanks for chiming in Jenny! I’m a very lazy submitter so it’s good to hear from someone who takes the time that I don’t.

  • 1. HAHHA. No. Snark aside – I still mail it out anyway. You never know.

    4. Readings are vital to my process. I always need to hear a play out loud, even if its just a table read. Public readings are great because you can get initial audience response. I do think, however, you can have too many readings. It becomes an exercise in futility until you see it on its feet. I cant’ really speak to workshops – though my FringeNYC show in 2008 sure felt like one. I learned more seeing that play on its feet than I ever did in readings.

    7. My two biggest champions right now are AD’s – but don’t really have enough experience to comment.

    10. As I mentioned before, I think there’s only so much you can do in pre-production. You can read and workshop something to death and still not know how it’s going to do. I agree with Annie Baker that weird, amazing plays can get wrecked in development when in the wrong hands. I have to fight my own instinct to smooth all my rough edges and remind myself that I’m making theater, not building Ikea furniture. We talked about Angels in America the other day, Mariah, and you compared it to a big messy burger, which was such an apt comparison. How many big, messy burgers do we get in theater now? That play would never get produced now. Someone would be like “cut it down by about three and a half hours and we’ll talk”. I think theater needs to have a messiness and an edge about it. Sure, there are very neat crisp plays going on out there and there’s room for that, but I think development houses need to be careful not to beat the quirk out of everything. My favorite plays have always been ones that had rough edges.

  • Kari – agreed. And I do love me a big messy burger. The big theater is still happening, it’s just not happening in the form of straight plays on Broadway. But look at Taylor Mac’s THE LILY’S REVENGE. Look at Lucy Thurber’s MONSTROSITY. Look at GATZ. All three events were totally sold out and, in 2/3 of the cases (MONSTROSITY had too short of a run to get reviewed I think), critical darlings. I couldn’t see GATZ because of its expense and sold-out-ness, but LILY’S REVENGE and MONSTROSITY were two of the most exciting evenings at the theater I’ve attended. (Incidentally, I kind of do think Angels in America could be cut in half and still be amazing – potentially more amazing – but I’m also glad that it wasn’t.) Look at The Amoralists – PIED PIPERS OF THE LOWER EAST SIDE, while having the smallest cast of any show of theirs I’ve seen, was 3 acts, and catapulted them into their status as the newest downtown rock stars.

    “Messy” also doesn’t always have to do with size. I saw a play at Theater for the New City called “Keep Your Baggage With You At All Times.” 4 characters, 90 minutes. In many ways it felt like a second draft of a play that would eventually go through six or seven drafts. It didn’t really resolve in a satisfying way, whole character arcs were dropped, one scene took place in the future for no reason that I could discern, but it was still such a pleasure to watch because there was so much in it that was so good. Many of the scenes were just stellar. I LOVE seeing something with that kind of energy even when it feels incomplete – maybe I’m in the minority on that, but that play ended up getting a lot of positive buzz and I think it’s coming back soon. So maybe other people saw what I saw.

  • Mariah – oh, totally. It’s definitely not about size as much as it is roughness. I’d rather see something that needs more work than something that has been sanitized and is dull. That’s more what I meant. Take for instance THAT PRETTY PRETTY by Sheila Callaghan. That play was fucking insane and rocked my world, and despite there being parts I didn’t love I’m glad the whole thing happened. I know there’s a lot of big messy work out there and I love that it has a home, I just wish that were the norm rather than the exception.

    I know a bunch of people who saw GATZ and loved it, but between you and me, the whole idea of that show sounded unappealing to me in a pretty extreme way (guess it’s not between you and me because here it is on the internets! hahha). I am, however, super glad something that epic did well.

    • Oh I loooove THAT PRETTY PRETTY. Great example. I have no idea whether I would have liked GATZ – sounds like I could have been either enthralled or bored – but like you said, I love that it existed and succeeded.

  • James Carter

    I wrote way too much. Thanks, Mariah, for asking the questions. Good to continue dialogue about this. I’ve answered all questions here: http://one-muse.blogspot.com/2010/12/play-development.html

  • Just a perspective from somebody trying to promote productions and bring in ticket buyers to see them… if a play is structurally messy, or has flaws, then the critics in this market will spend a lot of time dissecting them. There is so much damn theater in this town that if you don’t get stellar reviews, and you are not a well-established theater, then you will be facing a deficit and a last minute desperate appeal to your donors. In other words, if you are a small theater living year-to-year, still struggling to find that loyal audience, it can be an existential dilemma to produce a “messy” play. Dull ones don’t work either. Only near-perfection leads to good reviews which leads to butts in seats which leads away from bankruptcy.

    Blech! I’m either too tired or too cynical.

    • Keith Enrique Beck

      well said.

    • James Carter

      I think the definition of “messy” is subjective. A play can be messy but not underdeveloped. Messiness can be raw, sprawling, provocative, and not traditional. Taylor Mac is a great example of a messy artist. At the same time, Taylor is very specific and structured. His work can feel as though he’s vomiting up what’s in his mind or it can feel nuanced, subtle and perfect. His play “The Lily’s Revenge” received tons of great reviews last year, was on several “10 best” lists, and I dare to say it was one of the messiest plays of last season. It is receiving “rolling world premiers” at several venues, including The Magic in San Fransisco:


      Play development can often take the wild abandon out of art. When one considers commercial theater, yes, a “perfect play” is often desired; however, theatre *artists* can be confined by this definition. Do these artists often see major success in their lifetimes? No, not often. However, there are few developmental companies that cater to creating plays that have breathing room to not be perfect.

  • Pablo Halpern

    Just to provide a different perspective. I come from the Latin American tradition where lengthy development does not exist. Playwrites write a script, find a director that likes the play, the latter goes into rehearsal and rewrites, if any, take place during the rehearsal period. Dramaturgs do not exist. However, rehearsals last three months plus previews, and not four weeks like in the US. Needless to say, Latin America produces wonderful plays although most of them touch into the region´s reality and sometimes might lack universal appeal. It seems that there are different ways to get to a “finished play”.