So last week, thanks to Seth Rozin (the fabulous Artistic Director of InterAct who directed the terrific world premiere of "Feast" there) I sat on a panel at the Interact/NNPN Anniversary/Playwrights Weekend entitled "What's Next?"
Suddenly I find myself sitting on stage with Morgan Jenness, Howard Shalwitz, Liz Engelman, S J Dietz, Nan Barnett, Michael Lew and Seth holding forth on the future of new plays in the American Theater. A few weeks before the panel, Seth assigned each of us the task of coming up with at least one practical, actionable idea on how to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of new work on stage. He - very wisely - wanted to ensure that it didn't just turn into a bitch-fest.
I actually came up with 2 ideas (okay, I came up with 3, but I shared 2) - and in the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd share them here as well. I'm also going into more detail here - because I can.
Before I get into the ideas, I should let you know that both of my ideas arose from a single premise: that we have sufficient quality, quantity and diversity of work out there. In other words, we don't have a supply problem. Do we have a problem getting those plays to the stage? Yes. But that's not a supply problem, that's a DEMAND PROBLEM.
Here's the thing, we can't correct the problem in the supply chain because we haven't figured out what demand we're trying to fill. This is just sort of basic economics if you think about it. We tendency to see demand as a marketing problem; we try to create demand or impose - even at times insist on - relevance, but you can't impose a demand to meet your supply. It just doesn't work that way.
IDEA NUMBER ONE - Be a Better Listener
I tend to think of theater as that boyfriend who brings you bucket after bucket of beautiful flowers, but never really does what you need him to do - listen to you when you talk, do the dishes and stop telling you how to feel. This first idea is an effort to overcome this tendency. WARNING: this is not a marketing idea! It will be very tempting to use it as such but trust me, your girl (the audience) can smell that shit a mile away. It will back fire.
You take new plays and playwrights out into the the world - you do readings - lots of them! Not readings of plays you're thinking of doing. Not plays you're trying to sell. In fact you might want to bring shorter plays, or plays still in development. You do them in bars, in parks, at Rec Centers, in offices and lobbies during lunch, in factories, libraries - anywhere you can do them. You do them for free. You bring the playwright and the director too so everyone can say hi to them.
After the reading you get the audience talking. But not about the play - you just get them talking about what they're thinking about after having heard it. And you LISTEN. You don't correct them, or explain things - you just say thank you. This is not for them to learn about the play; this is for you to learn about your audience.
AND BONUS - when you get the audience members talking, they get to experience the thing we want them to experience when they go to the theater - the opportunity to think and engage in a public forum, to laugh together, cry together, to share their experiences with each other. You make space for them to discover why theater is something worth demanding.
IDEA NUMBER TWO - Create a Path to Citizenship
This second idea arises out of what I feel I've learned over the years from listening to audiences (chiefly the incredible audiences I've had the privilege of serving in McCall, Idaho for the past 13 years).
I noticed, looking at the NNPN website, that the majority of playwright programs were open to MFA students from "qualifying" programs. This isn't to be hard on NNPN in particular, we seem to have a fascination with certain MFA programs, and certainly I count among many of my favorite playwrights graduates from those programs. BUT I also adore many non-MFA playwrights, and I'm concerned that our inability to offer those playwrights a "path to citizenship" is keeping some wonderful playwrights - and their plays - out of the supply chain.
So this is a program specifically for those playwrights. And it's about as simple as it can get: offer local playwrights (those who feel disenfranchised from the machines of power) the opportunity to observe the rehearsal process of a new play from start to finish. That's it.
Here's my question: how can we expect playwrights that don't have access to MFA-quality support, who have been working essentially with others who - like them - are looking for support to know the things that you can only learn from actually being in the room? It's crazy. Even if you've worked on dozens of plays with your wonderful supportive friends or in your terrific community theater, there is not way to really know what is different when you're in a professional process. We have to stop blaming those playwrights for not having something that we've out-right refused to offer them: a place at the table.
AND BONUS... giving local, disenfranchised playwrights a place at the table empowers them to make better theater on their own and this can only service to expand the theater community and the demand for new work!