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!