Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The playwright gap

Local playwright Patrick Gabridge (of whom I'm a fan) has been bemoaning the lack of world premieres by our local theatre companies - particularly world premieres of local playwrights. Particularly local playwrights whose last names begin with "G" and end with "-abridge." (Naw, just kidding about that last part.)

Gabridge doesn't really crunch many numbers, but he does list quite a few; he discovers that locally, we can expect about a dozen world premieres this season (depending on how you count new translations and operas), showcasing six local playwrights (John Kuntz and Jon Lipsky get two premieres apiece).

To Patrick, this seems like small potatoes. To me - well, not necessarily.  Gabridge doesn't note that most of the theatres on his lists, though perhaps not doing many world premieres, are still doing plenty of regional premieres - indeed, some of these seasons are devoted entirely to the latest from people like Annie Baker, Neil Labute and Alan Ayckbourn.  I wish Gabridge had explained why we should hear from Boston playwrights over these people, but he doesn't really go into that.  Instead he laments the fact that we aren't hearing anything from  "Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia Diamond, Ronan Noone, Ken Urban, or Melinda Lopez."  But actually, we just heard from Lopez and Diamond (twice) last spring, and we heard from Noone last fall.  And I saw a one-act by Kirsten Greenidge in August.  The only one of those playwrights I haven't seen recently is Ken Urban.  True, as Gabridge says, many more local playwrights have been ignored over the last year or two by the large- and medium-sized houses - but actually, several of the ones in that list I've heard from recently on the fringe.

So as I look at it, we're hearing quite a bit from Boston playwrights.  And of course we're hearing a LOT from living playwrights in general.  As I've noted before, it's the classics that are in short supply these days, not new plays.  Indeed, many of our local theatres (SpeakEasy, Zeitgeist, Merrimack) aren't doing any classics at all, while others (Huntington, New Rep, Lyric) are only doing "light" classics, or new adaptations.

And, of course, most of these new plays turn out to be - well, somewhat mediocre.  Indeed, my perspective on the scene - of which I perforce see far more than Gabridge - tells me that the "new normal" in Boston is a fine production of a play that's not quite up to the level of its presentation.  In other words, our actors and designers, and some of our directors, are top-notch; the gap in the local scene lies at the playwrights' door. [Note: the great exception to this general rule was Diamond's Stickfly - and maybe one great play a year is all the city's scene can hope for!]

Gabridge seems to believe that more productions of the locals could change all that.  But I'm not so sure; it might make things slightly worse instead. I have to note (harsh as it may sound) that the handful of local playwrights who have seen major productions in Boston (and elsewhere) haven't exactly blown through some sort of artistic ceiling as a result.  In fact, all of them are writing at precisely the level at which they wrote before.

Indeed, one gets the impression the theatre industry is almost riding new playwrights for more work these days - and once a talent sends off a few sparks, and develops a few relationships, he or she is quickly over-exposed.  Writers like Noah Haidle get pulled into the development network and wind up churning out a play or more a year, sometimes teasing out one-acts or short-story ideas to full-length status just to meet the demand - with an almost inevitable decline in quality.  Gabridge seems confident that with more productions comes better plays, but I have to contradict him based on the evidence.  Trust me, it doesn't always work out that way - so should we continue to throw resources at scripts that aren't really ready?

And in the meantime, there are great plays - and even whole bodies of work - with which we're still unfamiliar in Boston.  I frankly would rather see Blasted by Sarah Kane, or almost anything by Caryl Churchill, before a new play by anyone on Gabridge's list.  And I'm not sure how one "develops" those kinds of plays.  But something tells me they're not developed - they're discovered instead. 

Still, we need new playwrights, of course.  So how can a new playwright get discovered?  Well, while the fringe is doing a wonderful job with various festivals and readings, we don't yet have a high-profile series of new play readings that is well known to the public.  That's always seemed like a big gap to me in the Huntington's Breaking Ground program - why isn't Rehearsal Room A at the Calderwood devoted every Sunday night to a play reading - one listed on the company's website?  Or why doesn't Gabridge's "Rhombus" group, or the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston, organize such an event themselves?  I think such an effort would be even more helpful to local writers if the "development" community were not involved - because I think, in a way, our literary managers and consultants are helping to homogenize new play production in a way that's, well, not optimal.  Just leave it to the playwrights and the audiences, I say.  And I think, sooner or later, a new Sarah Kane or Caryl Churchill just might emerge.


  1. Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful response.

    I just wanted to clarify a few points:

    1) We should definitely have more plays produced by people named Gabridge.

    2) I think there are actually lots of opportunities in Boston for early-stage development of plays. The Huntington and Boston Playwrights Theatre both have reading series, as do a bunch of the smaller companies (I've been fortunate to have readings from the Huntington and BPT this year already). New Rep is doing some readings. Rhombus has staged two festivals featuring readings of new plays. And there are lots of new things happening at the small-theatre level--Boston playwrights have plenty of opportunities to have their short plays staged in various festivals. But it's professional productions of full-length plays that seem to be lacking (in my opinion).

    3) I'm excited about all the regional premieres, and glad that Boston audiences are getting to see plays by Annie Baker and Alan Ayckbourn and Neil Labute, but those plays all were developed somewhere, through readings, and workshops, and productions. That's the key thing to keep in mind, that even Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill's plays grew and developed and transformed in rehearsal and production. New plays don't just get sucked off the page and mounted as is. All the classics you see were extensively rewritten in rehearsal, over and over again. If the Boston theatre community wants to have some importance nationally, and I think it does, it has do become a place where plays get that chance to grow in rehearsal, where writers have the chance to work with the top-notch professional actors, directors, and designers that you mention in your post. I think one can reasonably argue whether the modern "development" process of multiple readings and workshops ends up helping or hurting new plays, but I don't think you can avoid the central nature of how plays are ultimately made and refined, and that's in rehearsal for full-staged production and then in response to what happens in that production. One of my plays, Blinders, received five productions in various cities, and from each one, I was able to make improvements and learn more about the play and playwriting in general.

    Clearly what we need to satisfy us both is more theatres--a few who focus on new work and local writers, and a few who focus on classics and rarely staged work. (A guy can dream, can't he?)

  2. Right, what we need is more theatres - although I literally have no time left to go to any more shows - I go to one almost every night as it is; so if more theatres opened, I might never know it.

    I think one problem with your argument is its implicit assumption that folks who have completed training as playwrights are, perforce, entitled to theatrical resources. To be blunt, this is a new wrinkle on the well-known problem of master's programs churning out more arts graduates than the market can accommodate. A few years ago we had zero Calderwood Fellows - now we've got, what, 16 or so? Soon we'll have 32. I'm not sure whether we can add theatres fast enough!

    And while it's true that even Shakespeare revised his plays (as we know from differences between the quartos and the Folio) - is that revision process what made him Shakespeare? Somehow I'm not so sure.

  3. Hm, I certainly didn't mention training programs or graduate degrees or anything like that, or mean to imply anything about them or along those lines (for the record, I don't have any graduate degrees, in playwriting or otherwise). I certainly don't mean that anyone with an MFA is entitled to have his or her shows professionally produced. If anything, the numbers that I pointed out show that you'd have to be crazy to enroll in such a program--there isn't anyone who's going to produce your work.

    (to clarify: the HPF Calderwood program is a way for the Huntington to get to know playwrights better (basically an in-house writer's group, with some good support), but not a training program.)

    I did say that there are a lot of very talented writers in Boston (you and I may disagree on how many), and I think it'd be good, for several reasons, to see more of their work developed and produced here.

  4. Yeah, maybe you've got me on the details, but I think I've still got you on the principle. There's a growing crowd of folks who have been kind of anointed, only there's nowhere for the anointed to go . . . Of course at the same time, I'm realistic about the reasons we're seeing three plays by Annie Baker this season (I think it may have something to do with somebody somewhere wanting to direct her next script in New York). But that's the way it has always been, Patrick. The bottom line is still that a few Boston playwrights were given some chances, and their scripts didn't generate enough heat, so it's going to take a really great script - not one in development - to turn that around. And you know, even David Mamet founded a theatre company. I'm just sayin'.

  5. What hasn't been followed up in this conversation, is the suggestion you make in your closing paragraph, Tom: That there needs to be an alternative means of discovering and presenting the new playwrights and new plays, because the institutions you cite aren't necessarily cutting the mustard. Obviously neither the institutional approach nor the "indy" approach need be mutually exclusive.

    I will note that the new regime at the Huntington is definitely making the effort "to playwrights better" (as Patrick puts it.) Even a presumingly off-the-radar guy like me was invited for coffee and a one-on-one conversation about my writing. I figure that if I'm getting invited to coffee, a lot of other writers are.

  6. Actually, I've been thinking about this more and more. Maybe not more and more deeply, but more and more. Patrick doesn't really say this explicitly, but you COULD make the case that any nonprofit theatre that accepts public money in Massachusetts should be presenting a Massachusetts playwright on its mainstage every season. No public money without at least one premiere. That would be rather draconian - but perhaps Mr. Gabridge and other playwrights are willing to make that case. Or you could lobby for a public fund for such premieres. OR these playwrights could form such an organization and seek such grants. Perhaps what's needed is for local playwrights to organize in a way that could put public pressure on either the theatres or their funders.