Thursday, April 7, 2011

Playwriting Biz: Lag Times

In the past year, I applied to a whole bunch of new play development programs:  Sundance, the O'Neill, Ashland, New Harmony, Lark, PlayPenn, and maybe even a couple others (no luck so far).  I'm fortunate to have two unproduced full-length scripts that could benefit from some serious workshop time.

However, one thing I noticed was that for some of the programs, the lag time between the submission deadline and actual workshop of the play can be very long.  Here is the timing:
  • Sundance Theatre Lab--deadline Oct. 1, announcement Feb 1, workshop March 27.  Lag: 6 months (the shortest!)
  • O'Neill-- deadline--October 22, announcement ??, workshop July.  Lag: ~9 months.
  • Ashland New Plays Festival--deadline January 15, announcement June 15, workshop October 19.  Lag: 10 months
  • New Harmony--deadline Oct. 1 , announcement March, workshop May 22, Lag: ~8 months
  • Lark Playwrights Week--deadline Nov. 15, announcement ??, workshop October.  Lag: 11 months.
  • PlayPenn Conference--deadline Sept. 30, announcement ?? , conference: July 5-25.  Lag: 9 months.
Now I understand that it takes a while to get scripts read and to organize a conference and get people lined up, and all of that.  I don't think anyone expects overnight turnaround.

But there can be a big difference between six months in the life of a script in progress and 11 months.  If I understand correctly, programs like these ideally want a script brimming with possibility, that's in solid shape and ready to have a professional reading and maybe a week of rehearsal.  With long lead times, though, do we end up with scripts that get sort of a developmental whiplash, with odd starts and stops in the process?  How much value is there in momentum, when it comes to breathing life into a new play?

In six months, without additional development, one of my scripts might not change that much.  But in 9-12 months, if I'm smart, I might take a break, but I should also have gotten at least a reading or two in that time period.  If a writer is taking these steps and gets into a high profile developmental program like one of these, he or she wants to participate, of course.  (If Lark calls and asks me to participate, I'm there.)  And might be willing to actually backpedal a step or two in the development process, in order to have the script function in this environment.

For some of these applications, the writer is supposed to write an essay on what he wants to work on in the script at the workshop.  But that essay always seems a bit forced because, to be honest, in 9 months, if I've been diligent on my play, I won't be working on the same things that I am when I apply.  Is the essay merely a test, to make sure the writer can talk coherently about the play and the development process?  A hurdle to cut down the number of applications?  Or does the program really expect that the script (and the writer) won't change much between the time of application and the time of the workshop?

These are all great opportunities for writers and for their material, but I wonder if very long lag times end up being not only less than ideal for a script, but possibly even harmful.  One of the great potential advantages of theatre as an artform, over film and books, is its immediacy, not just in terms of its relationship to the audience, but also in the length of time development can occur, if the right tools are in place.  Right now, the development pathway for most plays that hit professional stages is very long. Some of that is necessary, but are there ways to speed things along that might be especially useful.  I'm not sure.


Crystal said...

I received my "no" from PlayPenn last week. And I thought the same thing - I've been working on that play since I submitted it - grew from 55 pages at submission to a current 77 pages. If I'd been chosen, would those additional 22 pages have been welcome? Who knows. Ended up not being an issue, sadly.

Claudia said...

Having only done one (intense) development workshop (Bonderman) which was intense, incisive - I think it not only can be done well but done efficiently as this was does. Yes, you are toast after a week - you're also energized.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Claudia, I'm a big fan of intensive workshops like these. My main concern is around the timing of the process leading up to the workshop--is it possible and desirable (and important?) to shorten the time between submission to workshop, to make the most of whatever juice is flowing in the script.

Ian Thal said...

I think I've mentioned this before, but I'm a big fan of having a process in which one produced one's own staged readings and continuing to revise simultaneously with waiting for people to get back to you. That way if you score a solicitation, you can always say, "well here's my latest version."

Ian Thal said...

Ug. Change of tense mid-sentence. I really need to proofread before I click "publish your comment."