Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Daddy Where Do New Plays Come From? (New Play Ecology, part 1, Boston)

That's an excellent question, Virginia: where do new plays come from?  Well, now that the upcoming seasons have been announced, we can actually start to answer that question.  Since we live in Boston, let's take a look at which theatres are doing new plays here in Boston.  And by new plays, I mean either world premieres or fairly new plays by Boston writers.  (Recent Off Broadway hits do not count as new plays.)

In particular, let's talk about large and medium-sized Boston theatres who putting on professional productions.  There are smaller theatres doing new work, which is important, too, but we'll hit those another day.

Huntington Theatre Company:  2 world premieres:  Vengeance is the Lord's by Bob Glaudini, and Son of the Prophet by Stephen Karam (though the fine print says "Commissioned and produced by special arrangement with Roundabout Theatre Company, and I'm not exactly sure what that means.)

American Repertory Theatre:  1 world premiere (though Ajax is a new translation...), Prometheus Bound by Steven Sater.

Those are the big guys.  How about some of the mid-sized and bigger small theatres in Boston:

Lyric Stage:  none

Speakeasy:  none

New Rep:  1 world premiere, afterlife: a ghost story by Steve Yockey (this is a "rolling world premiere" with the National New Play Network, which means the play will be premiered by several NNPN members this year).

Boston Playwrights Theatre:  (these guys always win) 3 world premieres:  Five Down One Across by Michael Towers, Two Wives in India by (my pal) Leslie Harrell Dillen, and Waking the Volcano by Jon Lipsky.  Two of these are Boston writers, too (Leslie abandoned us for New Mexico).  I'll just highlight all the Boston writers receiving premieres (or even productions of full-length plays)  (Theresa Rebeck is not a Boston writer anymore, sorry.)

Company One:  1 world premiere, on their Second Stage (you know they're getting bigger when they have a second stage), Cartoon Confessions by John Kunz and Rick Park.

Actors Shakespeare Project:  2 world premieres (both by Boston writers).  Okay, I didn't expect to see them doing as many new plays by Boston writers as BPT, but they are.  Their Winter Festival will feature two-week runs of The Hotel Nepenthe by John Kuntz and Living in Exile by Jon Lipsky.  Both these guys seem to be about to have a pretty good season.

Central Square Theatre:  1 world premiere (though they had a good year of new plays last year), Silver Spoon by Amy Merrill and Si Kahn.

Zeitgeist Stage:  none.

So, in the seasons of ten Boston theaters, we have 11 world premieres (out of more than 50 productions), though BPT skews the average a little.  Of those 11 world premieres, 6 are by Boston writers (only 4 out of 10 theatres are producing work by local writers).  If you take BPT out of the mix, since they exclusively produce new work by BU alums, that leaves us with 4 full-length plays written by Boston writers getting professional productions in town. 

Given those numbers, you wouldn't know that we have a wealth of playwrights living in or near Boston, whose work has been widely produced.  There are no full-length plays on Boston stages this season from Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia Diamond, Ronan Noone, Ken Urban, or Melinda Lopez.  (or that Gabridge guy)   And there are more, too.  I can't list everyone, but some of these come to mind: Joyce Van Dyke, Peter Snoad, John Shea, Jacqui Parker, Kate Snodgrass, Bill Donnelley, Janet Kenney, Monica Raymond, my fellow Rhombus members--Joe Byers, Carl Danielson, Ginger Lazarus, Alexa Mavromatis.  And there are scores more (who I hope will forgive me if I haven't included them in this list, including the new HPF members, whose names aren't public yet).

So what does all this mean?  I'm not sure.  To me, the numbers of new plays by Boston writers seem very, very low.  (Imagine if only four out of ten professional theatres hired ANY local actors or directors.  It's not the same, but...)   Most Boston playwrights aren't getting the chances here at home to fully develop their work, and to learn by seeing how those plays succeed or fail in front of audiences. 

It also shows that while Boston audiences are getting plenty of exciting imports, they're not seeing plays produced by people who live and work in their communities.  And audiences are not developing relationships with local playwrights (though they do with local actors and directors)--this creation of an audience for a certain writer's plays can play an important role in the growth of a playwright, because it helps level out the hit/flop mentality that can come with the production of only a single show or two by a writer--audiences (and critics) start to follow a writer, and a two-way relationship forms and actually helps shape the work.  Audiences might not love every show by that writer, but they want to see what's going to come next.

The numbers might to point to gaps in the market that could potentially be filled by new companies who have a stronger focus on new work and work by local writers.  For now, Boston remains a town where exciting new work can be imported (just look at ArtsEmerson), but very little new work written by Boston writers and produced by Boston theatres gets exported to other cities.  I'd sure like to see that change.

Coming next:  New Play Ecology, part 2, the rest of New England)


Thomas Garvey said...

Just btw, "Living in Exile" is not a world premiere - I saw it years ago. And at the same time, I think you might count the Tod Machover opera at the ART as some kind of premiere; he's a local composer, and we haven't seen his show before. I have to think about your post a bit longer, but I'm not sure how far your argument reaches beyond its self-interest (which of course is a legitimate stance for you, personally!). I note you don't even try to make an artistic claim - you don't say, "There's great work by Boston writers that isn't being done!" You merely make a geographic claim - the local theatre scene owes you more productions, because you're local. Or are you saying that local work is at least as good as work coming out of Chicago and New York (I don't think you can say it's better), but that the dispositions of various local artistic directors - who want to work in New York, say, or revive shows they've done before - are cutting down unfairly on the number of local playwrights' productions?

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Tom. I tried to check on all the plays, but missed Living in Exile. The ART shows were kind of hard to figure--good to know about Tod's opera.

I think there are some very strong writers in Boston, some as good as any in New York or Chicago (and whose work is being done in those cities and elsewhere), whose work is not being done in Boston. Though, I suppose that's kind of hard to prove.

It's a fair question--does the local scene "owe" local playwrights more productions? At the very least, I'm trying to compile data as to exactly how many new plays and plays by Boston writers are being staged, and put that data out there. That way when playwrights complain (as we are wont to do), we have an idea of what's actually happening on stages in Boston.

Some people might think the numbers that I found seem like plenty of new plays. They might not care whether local writers are being produced or not.

For me, I think theatres create art in the context of their communities, artistic and otherwise. There's a desire within the theatre community for Boston to be a top-notch theatre town, but I think for that to happen, we need to produce exciting, original work. And I think (and I'm a plawyright, so it makes sense that I'd think this way), that the way to do that is to do work by local writers. And also that the only way we get more excellent Boston writers is for their work to get more stage time. Those writers need long-term relationships with other theatre artists as well as audiences, for their work to continue to grow. I don't think playwrights create brilliant work just out of the blue, but after working with talented collaborators and also building relationships with audiences.

Thomas Garvey said...

I think your argument would be more compelling if there was a distinctive Boston dramatic "voice." Or if Boston playwrights seemed particularly interested in limning the life of the city they live in (that's kind of the hook of the "T Plays," for instance). But neither of these things seems to be true; there's no distinctive Boston voice, and Boston playwrights don't grapple consistently with local issues. The rest of your argument seems to me to be a restatement of the "chicken-or-the-egg" question. The theatres, I imagine, would be happy to produce a local playwright if he or she wrote a great play; you say that won't happen until the playwright is ALREADY produced. Hmmm.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Good points, Tom. But I think it's hard to know if there is a distinctly Boston dramatic "voice" if there aren't that many Boston playwrights being produced. The sample size is too small. (We're back to chicken/egg again.)

As for Boston writers not writing about Boston issues, again, with so few being produced, it's hard to know what's actually being written (rather than just produced). Kirsten Greenidge (whose play Milk Like Sugar will premiere at LaJolla Playhouse in 2011, but deals with a Boston-area inspired subject, and was partially developed with Rhombus) and John Shea are just two examples of writers who are writing plays that definitely come from our region.

The T Plays are a great example of work directly focusing on Boston. But I also think if you look at the Boston Theatre Marathon, there's a lot of variety, but also a strong flavor of Boston.

The chicken-egg analogy relating to which comes first: productions or excellent plays, is apt. But, of course, evolutionary biologists are clear about what came first: the egg. Some big collection of proto-chickens were laying egg after egg, until one day, out popped a chicken. I'd argue that excellent plays evolve, and that evolution doesn't occur unless there are a bunch of theatres laying eggs and seeing what hatches. We can choose to import our chickens from elsewhere, or we can grow our own, that's up to the Boston theatre community.

(Can you tell I'm getting ready for the next StageSource Boston Theatre Conference, with its emphasis/comparison to slow food movement/local food movement?)

Ian Thal said...

I confess that I might feel better about an evening of mediocre to slightly better than average playwriting if the script was by a local rather than an import from New York or Chicago. After all, as much as a prefer a great new play, it's easier to feel solidarity with the author of a not-so-great work if he or she is part of my community than if he or she is from elsewhere.

After all, there are plenty of New York companies that explicitly state that they will only work with NYC based playwrights-- and I'm not certain that they're churning out great work.