Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ten Years in Boston, Part 2 (productions)

Okay, so I've written a bunch of work in the ten years I've been in Boston (see Part 1).  How have I been doing in terms of actually reaching an audience?  Has Boston been a good place for me, in terms of writing career?

When I arrived in 2000, I'd spent the previous three years without being part of any specific theatrical community (I was in Kansas City for one year and Champaign, IL, for two years).  I was starting to make some connections to Chicago, but only lightly when we left.  I'd been working pretty hard on getting books published.

Being here didn't seem to be a plus or minus, when it came to getting my books published.  The agent I'd had was unable to sell my pseudo-memoir about race in America.  He wasn't interested in my novel.  I started writing more plays and a screenplay (heaven forbid I should fully make use of an opportunity like having an actual agent) (I might have learned my lesson, by the way).  I did ultimately end up finding a small publisher for my novel, Tornado Siren, in 2006.  It was not a bestseller, and I was not catapulted to fame and fortune.  And now I have just found an agent again, so book-wise, it seems like a reasonably good decade.  With any luck the next one will be even better.  Maybe a lot better.

Theatre-wise, I arrived knowing no one.  I was pretty lucky to find the playwrights group, Write On, where I met some terrific writers, actors, and directors. After a year or two I had my first Boston production of a short play, thanks to CentaStage, Christmas Breaks, which was very well-received .

By 2003, I'd realized how much I missed my Chameleon Stage theatre (that I'd co-founded) in Denver, and helped start a group in Boston, Rhombus, that functioned to develop scripts in much the same way (we're still going strong).  Around the same time, I also started the on-line Playwright Submission Binge (which now has almost 600 members, worldwide) to help make the business-end chores a little more fun, and a lot easier.

In terms of productions of full-length plays, my ten years in Boston have been a bit of a disappointment.  I've only had two full-length plays produced in Boston in that time, both in 2005--Blinders by Out of the Blue and Pieces of Whitey by Rough and Tumble.  I had tremendously good experiences with both productions, but there haven't been others to follow.  I've had readings of three other full-length plays here, Hearing Voices by CentaStage, Constant State of Panic by Boston Playwrights Theatre, and Fire on Earth by the Huntington.

In comparison, in my seven years in Denver, I had full productions of four full-length plays (The Split, The Marmotville Chronicles, Reading the Mind of God, Blinders), plus readings of Armageddon is Late and Never Say Die.

In some ways, this disparity is a result of a shifting theatrical landscape nationally--space was harder to come by everywhere in the 2000s (the real estate boom was deathly for small and mid-sized theatres), as were productions.  And also the result of a contraction in the Boston theatrical landscape for the production of full-length plays.  The ART and Huntington have big budgets, but look more nationally for scripts than to Boston writers, though the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program is offering important support to writers, and I'm very lucky to be part of it this year.  But the odds of a Fellow getting an actual mainstage production are still pretty slim.

CentaStage no longer stages very many full-length plays.  Boston Theatre Works is defunct.  Speakeasy, the Lyric, and New Rep are not exactly presenting scads of new plays by local writers (if any).  Boston Playwrights Theatre does excellent new work (and I'm grateful for my reading there this spring), but at the moment, they're limited to doing full productions by BU grads.  Company One and Central Square Theatre seem to offer the best, mid-size opportunity for Boston playwrights to see their work fully staged (am I missing someone?), but they've only got so many slots.  There are a bunch of very small theatres who are doing some new work, but their resources are very limited.  They lack the ability to sort through submissions from writers.  Some are doing readings of new plays, and some are staging them.  But it helps if you're actually a member of one of these small companies (which is fair enough).  There are lots of nice spaces at the local universities, but I don't see many local, non-affiliated playwrights having productions in them (I hope that can change).

This lack of full-length, full productions is hard on playwrights, because we need a lot more chances to get our work completely on its feet, and for it to have the chance to succeed or fail.  I'd like to be getting a lot more opportunity to fail, but the climate here isn't as supportive of failure as it needs to be.  If a writer wants to grow, he or she needs to not feel so precious about every play that hits the stage.  Staged readings are nice, but it's actual productions that tell you what works and what doesn't.  If I only have two full-length plays fully staged in ten years, I'm going to want them to be well-loved and successful.  If I had five or six performed, I'd have room for more failure (as well as fantastic success).  And that's a good thing.

Despite the shortage of opportunities for full-length plays, there are plenty of places to get short plays on stage.  I've been extremely fortunate in my time in Boston to have had a lot of short plays produced.  I've been in the Boston Theatre Marathon seven times, which has given me the opportunity to work with a bunch of companies, all in a pretty low-risk environment.  (Thanks, Kate!)  Since I've been in Boston, I've worked with at least 18 New England theatre companies.  They are:

Actors Refuge Repertory Theatre
Another Country Productions
Boston Playwrights Theatre
Cotuit Center for the Arts (Cape Cod)
Devanaughn Theatre
Fort Point Theatre Channel
Hit and Run Theatre (Salem)
Huntington Theatre Company
Independent Drama Society
Mill 6 Theatre Collaborative
Out of the Blue
Rough and Tumble
South City Theatre
TYG Productions
Underground Railway Theatre
Wellesley Summer Theatre
Yellow Taxi (New Hampshire)

and I've had a blast.

Some companies I've worked with multiple times, too, which has been great.  For me, and probably for many other playwrights, it's my dream to work with one company and one or two directors, on a long-term basis, so we really get to know each other and can drive the quality of the work to a whole new level.

I think there's lot of room for Boston to grow, in terms of it being a good place for playwrights.  As a board member of StageSource, I'm trying to encourage that to happen.  I think Rhombus is a tool that helps nudge things in the right direction.  

The proper response for any playwright who complains about not getting enough productions is to start a theatre company, but I've already done that in other cities (New York and Denver),and I don't have the time, energy, or money at the moment.  (Not that I'm still not tempted sometimes.)  Whining is not particularly useful as a strategy (despite the frequency with which it's employed).

I feel like after ten years, I've become a part of the Boston theatre community--I know scores and scores of actors and directors and producers and designers and writers, so the years feel well spent.  I hope the next ten years brings lots more local productions, and that I do ultimately find a long-term theatrical home, where I get a chance to play with my friends, on my full-length plays, with ample chances to both succeed and fail.  I'm starting to form some promising relationships with a few directors, and theatres, that could end up being just what I need to improve more as a writer and reach broader audiences.  We'll see.

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