Thursday, June 4, 2009

An Open Challenge to Playwrights Writing for the Boston Theatre Marathon

I'm a big fan of the Boston Theatre Marathon, and I've been lucky enough to have had six plays chosen to be included over the past eight years or so. It's one of the best ways to a sampling of the best of Boston's theatre scene, all in one day. 50 plays by 50 writers produced by 50 different theatre companies. It's a great way to spend a day. This year I saw 48 out of 50.

This year a variety of strong plays played on the big Wimberly Theatre stage at the Boston Center for the Arts. There's always a mix of really good plays and stinkers, but it seemed there were less stinkers than usual to me. So that's good. And the performances were strong throughout the day.

A couple years ago, the Marathon moved from two small spaces (each less than 100 seats) at the Boston Playwrights Theatre, to the Wimberly. The Wimberly is a big stage--67' wide and 35' deep (the house seats 372). And that's where the Marathon bumps into problems. Most ten-minute plays are written to be performed in intimate spaces. Playwrights know that most short-play festivals are done in tiny little theatres, with almost no resources, so we write plays that can be done in shoeboxes with coffee can lights.

At the Marathon, there are still very limited resources, because the large number of plays by so many different companies requires very fast scene changes, almost no set, simple lights and sound (though they've got a great sound system--which theatres in the Marathon are under-utilizing). And also, the time between announcement of the plays and the actual production is currently too short. All these things cut into the ultimate production, and most can't be helped.

However, the playwrights do have control over the types of work that they're creating and the way it can inhabit the space. We're still submitting plays that can be ideally produced in a 10'x10' space. We're missing out on a unusual opportunity to play with our stories on a much bigger stage than usual. I'm not saying that every play in the marathon should be composed of cross-stage chase scenes, (archery, anyone?) but it wouldn't hurt to see a couple.

I remember one time the Marathon, at the Wimberly, the first play of the day started with three rock climbers hanging from ropes suspended from the fly system. As soon as I saw it, I thought, "Wow, we never could have done this play at BPT." Or even in most other theatres. It was amazing.

This year, very few plays fully inhabited the space or made good use of sound and color on the stage (mine included--mine was originally written to be done in a tiny little space at the Factory Theatre, and takes place on the T). So often, we got a few people sitting or standing around talking. Very little action and movement. Little color. One big exception was in the final hour, Laying the Smack Down in Cambridge by Jonathan Busch (directed by Brett Marks, produced by Lyric Stage), which was able (improbably) to mix poetry and professional wrestling.

Anyway, the challenge I'd like to issue to my fellow New England playwrights is this: let's try writing some ten-minute plays that make full use of the Wimberly's breadth and depth. Let's use the fact that it's has actual wing space and a kick-ass sound system. Let's write plays where people move around the stage, across the stage, and actually do stuff. Let's risk writing plays that can't possibly be produced in on a 20'x10' space, but will jolt the audience awake at the Marathon with a sudden rush of lively energy. (Of course, they still have to be brilliant enough to get past the judges.)

If we do it, and it gets a habit, audiences will thank us, we'll learn a lot about theatre itself, and people will be lined up for seats the way they used to when the Marathon was at BPT.


David Schrag said...

Unlikely to happen, Patrick, for the many reasons you cited. Why would I write a technically challenging short knowing that (a) it's unlikely to get produced anywhere else; (b) it has no guarantee of making it into the BTM; (c) if it did get to the BTM all kinds of technical things could go wrong on the day of performance? Two years ago I saw a play at the BTM that was badly damaged because of the failure of a single sound effect to happen on cue. The only folks who can reasonably be expected to take up your call are those writers whose plays are solicited by the BTM, so I hope the Brusteins, Horovitzes, and Lopezes of the world are reading this.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Hm. Your point (a) makes sense, but that's why this is a challenge. Do it because it's hard and risky and maybe it'll never see the light of day, but if it did, it'd be really cool. You get to submit two scripts anyway, so why not write one safe small-space script, and one that could fully inhabit the Wimberly?

As for point (b)--no play you write has any guarantee of making it into the Marathon, so why not write something special for it (that might increase your odd of getting in).

Point (c)--I'm not saying make it super technical, but, hey, things get messed up when your play gets staged. Actors mess up, costumes rip, lights burn out--it's live, you know. I'm a big fan of writing scripts that are practical, but I don't think that precludes them being fully theatrical.

I don't imagine many folks will take me up on the challenge (or even hear about it), but I know that if they did (and got in), the Marathon would be even more interesting.