As part of our exploration of new play development in the Bay Area, Laura Brueckner has designed and curated this blog salon series, where the artistic directors of four prominent Bay Area new play festivals discuss, dissect, and debate issues in new play development today.
Over the next few weeks, Jessica Holt (artistic director of Three Wise Monkeys Theatre and the Bay One Acts (BOA) festival), Jim Kleinmann (artistic director of PlayGround and the Best of PlayGround festival), Amy Mueller (artistic director of the Playwrights Foundation and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival) and M. Graham Smith (producer of the Global Age Project at the Aurora Theatre) will join forces to address questions they find crucial in developing new work using the festival model.
Part One: Jessica Holt starts the ball rolling! Her opening salvo is followed by the responses of the other blog salon participants. Read on - and feel free to leave your own comments at the end!
Jessica Holt (Bay One Acts festival - runs through May 12)
We talk about value a lot in the new work field. We say: “New work is valuable, it’s vital to the future of the theater.” Clearly, it’s important for us, as theatre artists that make our living in the new work field to advocate for its importance and significance. And yet, I am not convinced new work is inherently valuable just because it’s new.
It seems important to me that new works incubators provide playwrights with homes to create, to try, to fail. A short play festival, in particular, is a kind of gym for the playwright where they get to build imaginative muscle and define and hone their craft. Playwrights are encouraged to try out risky, adventurous ideas that could succeed or fail. Many new works programs are set up is to enable the playwright to build plays in a relatively risk-free environment so they can exercise big ideas.
And yet, many of these companies also produce these new plays for an immediate audience. At the end of the day, an artistic director of a new work festival has a show to present and an audience to please. In the next month, I will present 10 new plays to an audience. As a producer, I have certain immediate producing priorities in order to create an evening and to serve the immediate audience of the festival. And I am sure I am not alone in the need to create an evening that is well-rounded, balanced in style, tone, genre and that entertains immediate audiences.
I am interested in the balance we need to find between the short-term, immediate producing needs of our respective festivals and the long-term goals we have in the creation of lasting, viable new work. We, as artistic directors, need to create spaces where exciting, boundary-pushing work can thrive. That is clear. We need to support work that shocks the conscience of our audience and that has lasting value over time.
I would like to think that festival formats encourage this kind of attention, as I think producing work in front of an audience provides playwrights with a fantastic gauge of what has currency and what does not. However, I wonder if a lot of the work that new works director’s produce, as a collective whole, is focused more on short-term, rather than long-term goals. How do we prioritize the creation of new work that will continue to be of value, as it transforms from new work to the work of yesterday’s trendy moment?
First Response: Jim Kleinmann (Best of PlayGround festival - runs through May 22)
I would say that new work IS inherently valuable BECAUSE it is new. The writer takes us on a journey we may never have been on before. It may resemble a past or remembered journey but…wait…it (hopefully) veers in a new and different direction and, in so doing, surprises, engages or entertains. Our shared stories and history are important to our understanding of who we were and are, but the new work helps us to understand who we might become. We meet new characters, experience new stories and engage in new discussions about what it is to be human, how we live, love, survive. We open ourselves up to the possibility of change. The “new” stimulates us in a way that the old, familiar works may not. And, for that, they are truly vital.
As to finding the balance between risk taking and creating material that engages and entertains, I think that is the ongoing challenge not just for us as producers/curators, but for all artists. Our writers write not just for themselves but for an audience. They don’t necessarily need to know how the audience will connect with the material when they write it but they certainly have to believe that an audience can connect with it. And, then, as curators, I see our job as helping these writers to find their audience and helping audiences to find “their” writers. The immediacy of what we do in producing these new works festivals (the short time from creation to production) is, I think, the big pay-off, for our writers and audiences.
Second Response: Amy Mueller (Bay Area Playwrights Festival - runs July 20-29)
All Boats Rise. For me the value inherent in providing playwrights with consistent, long term support is the constant re-imagining of the art form – as well as insuring the relevancy of the work to contemporary life. Without these ingredients: innovation and relevancy – our art, our theater, will fossilize, become museum like artifact, and cease to be a living and immediate response to the lives we lead today.
The inherent value in searching for and discovering new and unheard voices, in supporting untried and untested tested ideas is that they speak to new audiences in ways we cannot yet imagine.
I trust that the energy, time and fierce passionate advocacy we provide for contemporary playwrights will shape our cultural legacy. For me it’s not about each and every project, but about the effort as a whole community to support the writers among us.
Final Response: M. Graham Smith (Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project - runs next February)
I DO think that all new plays are valuable. I'm a big believer in Paula Vogel's wish that every person in the world write a play at some point in their life. We need more plays. We need an expanding variety of voices and forms. But not all plays are for all audiences. Each audience has its needs and expectations, and each play comes with its own set of terms and conditions. So, in a way, it’s about matchmaking.
The two competing agendas most organizations choose between (or attempt to balance) is whether the primary mission is to support and serve the playwright, or to serve an audience. Development organizations who serve the needs of the playwright rightly take a backseat while the playwright drives the process in shaping the play. In essence, they protect an artist's process and defend the artist's right- and need- to fail sometimes. On the other hand, organizations who see their prime responsibility as serving an audience find it hard to accept the paradigm of protecting an artist's need to fail. They can't risk losing their audience and feel enormous pressure to deliver hit play after hit play to keep the seats filled with enthusiastic audiences.
Every playwright wants and needs to eventually find an audience for her play, which is, in itself an act of artistry, and in a way where the rubber meets the road creatively. What compromises get made, what new ideas enter the room, and how does the play grow when it finds its best audience? The meeting between a play and audience is almost never a blind date. Jim makes an interesting point, that playwrights should write not just for themselves, but for an audience. The more specific they can be about knowing that audience, the better. I also think organizations need to rally their audiences around risky material and demonstrate the value in supporting artistic risks that may fail, instead of assuming an audience simply wants a string of hits each season. Plays need audiences, and audiences, when it comes to new plays, enjoy the thrill of attending a world premiere if the right groundwork is in place. Producing organizations that effectively communicate the value of presenting risky new premieres, find their audience excited to be a participant in a crucial stage of a new play's development.
Now it's your turn! Feel free to add your own responses below.
Laura Brueckner is associate editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also the director of new work for Crowded Fire Theater and a Ph.D. candidate in dramaturgy at UCSD.