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University R&D

05.09.12 | 1 Comment


CATEGORIES #stealthisidea, academia, artistic home, collaboration, ideas, new play development, new plays, partnerships, playwrights, social profit, theatrical ecosystem

Somewhat by accident, I stumbled into a weekly twitter conversation about new play development (hashtag #newplay) despite the fact that I am not a playwright. What I am is a university professor who for six of the ten years I spent in academic administration led a large theatre/film school whose mission includes the development of new work. Most of that new work is developed by students, some by faculty, and once during my tenure, by commission. I provide this brief biographical excerpt to give some weight to the following statement: the field can do a better of job of using universities as laboratories for new play development.

There are several university programs that, in similar fashion to mine, nurture young playwrights enrolled in MFA programs. There are also several programs that have deep connections with LORT theatres that sit resident on their campuses (LaJolla Playhouse, The Huntington, for example). There are several large LORT theatres that develop and present new plays (Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arena Stage, to name two). What we’re not seeing, but which would exist in my utopian view of better connections between academic and professional theatre, is a systematic effort to engage universities in the research enterprise that is new play development.

My university, like any research intensive university, has an infrastructure devoted to contracted research. These offices exist primarily to facilitate research by faculty in university labs sponsored by an outside organization. This could be a pharmaceutical company sponsoring drug research, a municipal government contracting with the university to undertake policy research, or the department of education contracting with the university on curriculum development. What if a theatre that is interested in a playwright contracts with a university to develop their work through the sponsored research mechanism?

In such a scheme, LORT Theatre X says, “we’re really interested in the work of playwright Jane Doe, but can’t devote the staff time or space or even the actors to see her new play through the early phases of development.” So, LORT Theatre X approaches Research University Y and says, “we would like to enter into a sponsored project contract with you to develop Jane Doe’s next play. We will pay an amount of money to the university [say, enough to cover a reasonable stipend for the playwright] and your faculty dramaturg and his graduate students work with the playwright; your graduate acting students take part in readings and a workshop, and then at the end, if we like the play, we’ll put it on our season next year. Further, if there is commercial interest in the play, Research University Y gets to retain Z percentage of any commercial production.”

It seems that in such a scheme, everybody wins. The theatre reduces its play development costs because it is not shouldering any of the infrastructure of the development process. The playwright gets a stipend, development time, and, potentially a full production, the faculty and students benefit from the research/teaching/learning experience, and, ultimately, the field benefits from having a new play in the world and a class full of MFA students skilled at developing new work.

This structure has advantages to a university commissioning the piece outright because it includes an organizational partnership with the LORT Theatre that is mutually beneficial; it has advantages for the playwright because there is more infrastructure available. Emerson College recently recruited David Dower and Polly Carl away from Arena Stage’s new play development center. The field is watching the developments there, but that scenario is somewhat the reverse of that described here. Universities have been investing in the recruitment of theatre professionals for 25 years or more. The structure described here is the reverse; it involves the theatres shifting their perspective on universities away from a pipeline for new talent and toward viewing universities as potential laboratories, as research and development units with which they can contract for new play developments. Because universities have indeed been recruiting faculty from the professions, the talent is there and the facilities are there. What is needed is a vision and a structure for organizational partnership that is symbiotic, the kind of partnership between research universities and the private sector that has fueled innovation in almost every other sector.

Perhaps such a scheme already exists. If so, it needs better PR.

Visit Linda at Creative Infrastructure for more.

Linda Essig

Linda Essig heads ASU’s arts entrepreneurship program, p.a.v.e, which has helped launch 27 arts-based ventures into the Phoenix area and beyond since its inception in 2005.She was Founding Director of the School of Theatre and Film in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts where she also served as Artistic Director of the school's MainStage Season from 2004–2010. A professional lighting designer, Essig's design for the ASU production of Suzan–Lori Parks's "Venus" was part of the USA National Exhibit of theatrical design at the Prague Quadrennial in 2007. Essig has designed lighting for theatres throughout the country including Cleveland Playhouse, Milwaukee Rep, Missouri Rep, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Skylight Opera, La Mama ETC, Pioneer Theatre, Madison Repertory Theatre and others. She currently has funding from the Kauffman Foundation for her work on the p.a.v.e. program and has previously been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Tempe, and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She is the author of articles and book chapters on both arts entrepreneurship and lighting design as well as two books: Lighting and the Design Idea (to be published in a third edition January 2012) and The Speed of Light: Dialogues on Lighting Design and Technological Change. She is a member of the boards of directors of the Phoenix Fringe Festival and the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.Her blog, http://creativeinfrastructure.wordpress.com covers arts entrepreneurship, arts policy, higher education in the arts and, occasionally, cooking. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix

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  • Julie Felise Dubiner

    I’ve been involved in a couple of university partnerships like the one described – and I very much hope to be involved with more or other types of partnerships. Some of the challenges encountered have involved university expectations from the artists – teaching, doing a public reading or allowing students to attend/observe all work sessions, using their students as performers, stage managers, etc. And, the expectations of the theater – using their own dramaturg, director, professional actors, etc. We’ve been trying very hard here at American Revolutions to launch a real partnership with a university – not just for the economic benefits, but also to build relationships. So far, we have not had luck matching one of our writers with a school. Even our writers who have a great interest and love for teaching may not have a schedule that works with a school calendar, and the universities haven’t had the flexibility of time and funding to work out another paradigm that feels fulfilling. We can fly-by and do a talk, but it’s not the same as being in residence and being involved with the students and professors, and them with us. The bigger challenge is when we have writers who are not teachers, who have felt in the past that they are singing for their supper, so to speak, and also those who are uncomfortable being observed as they work.

    I’d love to continue this conversation and help build a model that works happily and productively for universities and theaters. There is a great untapped energy in these kinds of partnerships, and it would be a great service to the field if we could find ways to break apart our calendars and funding and work together.

    Thank you, Linda.


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