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TBA Online: News & Features: May 2015

By Any Other Name: When Is a World Premiere Not a World Premiere?

Monday, May 18, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Nirmala Nataraj

The vision of a theatre marquee plastered with title and credits below the official-sounding moniker of “world premiere” summons up all kinds of assumptions about first rights, prestige and authority—but in the realm of world premieres, things are not as straightforward as they may seem. In fact, many theatre companies in the Bay Area and across the country end up being the first producers of work for which they haven’t procured the rights to call the play a world premiere. Various factors impact whether or not a play will receive this designation; these range from playwrights desiring a more visible world premiere for their work to the challenges a theatre company may face in negotiating with literary agents. 

Of course, the advantage of calling a play a world premiere comes with obvious benefits. “The thrill of birthing something brand new comes with a greater risk,” says San Francisco Playhouse artistic director Bill English. Theatre leaders generally expect to be credited for taking that risk. Consequently, licenses for world premieres usually come up with options for future productions, a percentage of future royalties and program credit for originating theatres, among other perks.


Jessica Bates and Greg Ayers in San Francisco Playhouse's 2015 premiere of Lauren Yee's in a word.
Photo: Fei Cai


Playwright Lauren Yee concurs that, for many companies, the idea of doing a world premiere is “sexy.” “It also implies a sense of risk for that theatre,” she says. This is the first time that it’s ever been done; the theatre needs to support the new play as the playwright is working out all the kinks. Funders want to support new, ambitious projects, and the ‘world premiere’ is sometimes shorthand for that.”

According to Impact Theatre’s artistic director, Melissa Hillman, theatres also like to obtain world premieres because conventional wisdom dictates that it can be challenging for companies to interest granting organizations in shows that have already premiered. “What’s going on financially dictates a larger percentage of the national theatre trends than we like to admit,” she says.

Hillman notes that Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, which Impact produced in 2008, was a unique situation for the company. The production began with a staged reading, and when Impact requested the production rights, it discovered that Mu Productions in Minneapolis had already secured the world premiere rights for an opening that was much later than the one that Impact desired to do. 

“We went to Mu and said that we really wanted to do this play, that we were part of its development process, and we wouldn’t take away their world premiere. We’d just open the show without calling it anything, and then we’d later call it the ‘West Coast’ premiere,” explains Hillman. She notes that Mu was gracious in allowing Impact to do so, and the artistic director of Mu even flew out to see the show.


Arthur Keng and Cindy Im in the first production of Lauren Yee's Ching Chong Chinaman at Impact Theatre, 2008. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs


Impact will face a similar situation with Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail, which opens this May. After asking for the rights for the play, Impact discovered that a company called Flying V in Washington, DC, had already secured the world premiere—again, for a later date than Impact’s opening date. At this point, Impact offered to do the show as a workshop production, a prospect to which Flying V was amenable. “We just wanted to do the play, and we’re mission-driven to support new work by emerging writers, so that seemed like a perfect solution, especially since we’ve done several workshop productions that were technically world premieres in similar circumstances,” says Hillman. In fact, Hillman, like many other playwrights and artistic directors, believes that the best workshop is the kind in which an artist gets to see “how your work flies in front of an audience and critics in a small venue before opening in a higher-profile way elsewhere.” 

One of the more difficult aspects of obtaining world premiere rights is negotiating with a playwright’s agent. “There are many agents out there who are wonderful—great to work with, truly caring about their clients,” says Hillman. “I see their name on the cover of a play and I think, ‘Yes!’ But there are some plays I pass on because I see the agent’s name on the cover page and know it’s not even worth asking for the rights.” From past experience, Hillman believes that small companies often experience difficulty in obtaining rights for world premieres. In fact, some agents will sit on a play indefinitely rather than allow a smaller company to produce the play, even as a workshop production.

“We’ve been in many situations where an agent wouldn’t release performance rights because they were hoping for a larger company to take the world premiere, and then the play sat on a shelf unproduced for years,” says Hillman. “Some of those plays have never been produced to this day.” Moreover, almost all of these plays were sent to Impact by the playwrights themselves.

Hillman has experienced at least a dozen situations in which an agent didn’t want to release the rights, but a playwright went to bat for Impact all the same. “I think sometimes playwrights understand that this or that quirky or subversive little play isn’t going to fly at big theatres, which tend to be much more risk-averse, and would rather see an indie theatre produce it rather than have it gather dust.” In fact, many playwrights are supportive of the smaller independent scene, perhaps because they have directly experienced the support and collaborative ethos that is often cultivated in intimate creative environments. 

Although the outside observer might assume that producers have significant power in gaining performance rights, Hillman notes that many people who aren’t familiar with theatre administration are unaware of how often rights are denied to companies. “Once we’re down to the few plays that fit our mission, our audience, our idiosyncratic space, our aesthetic, our technical capabilities, our budget, and our resident actors, we have a handful of plays, and we’ll be denied the rights to half of them.”

While agent negotiations can be tricky, Hillman says, everything fell into place with The Oregon Trail in the end. 

Impact Theatre has also been on the other side of the equation, in that they once worked on a world premiere production that a company in Los Angeles wanted to produce. Hillman offered a win-win proposition: a rolling world premiere, which offers a playwright the opportunity to develop a new work with multiple companies, which all premiere the finished piece. 


Lauren English in San Francisco Playhouse's 2013 premiere of Grounded. Photo: Sebastian Gutierrez 


Sometimes, world premiere designations are obfuscated altogether by unexpected mix-ups. When San Francisco Playhouse featured George Brant’s play Grounded in 2013, its license listed the play as a National New Play Network (NNPN) rolling world premiere. During the rolling world premiere, three theatres shared this status, and SF Playhouse was technically the first of the three theatres. However, unbeknownst to the companies, a license had been granted to someone at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to do a production there, which ended up opening a week or two before the one at SF Playhouse. “We didn’t find out about the Edinburgh production until we were in previews,” explains SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English. 

Yee says that the theatre community has gradually begun to understand that world premieres aren’t the alpha and omega of a play’s life; in fact, plays require second and third productions in order to enjoy a robust life, so organizations such as the NNPN, which focus on creating partnerships among theatres who band together to produce the same play over a period of time, are integral to the process. “Rolling world premieres help to create excitement about the play and dialogue among these theatres,” says Yee.

Yee’s play in a word, which SF Playhouse opened this April, was part of a rolling world premiere in association with Cleveland Public Theatre, Mo’olelo in San Diego and Straw Dog in Chicago. “I’m able to see vastly different productions of my work over the next year, which is such a treat for me,” she says. “Also, I know that with each production, this won’t be the last time I ever see it produced, which takes some pressure off each individual production to ‘get it right.’”

Of course, when theatre companies work extensively with playwrights throughout the development process, they often feel a sense of connection to the work that results from this relationship, but that doesn’t always result in the actual desire to call the piece a “world premiere.” In the case of AlterTheater, a company with a yearlong playwright residency program known as AlterLab, the company has the right of first refusal for the world premiere of a resident playwright’s play. Marisela Treviño Orta’s play The River Bride, which premiered at AlterTheater in 2013, was the second play developed through the residency program—and it was two years in the making. “We found that we had so much to talk about with the play that we weren’t even mentioning the ‘world premiere’ aspect of it,” says AlterTheater executive director Jeanette Harrison. The company was too busy promoting it as the co-winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award. When Orta asked if she could retain the “world premiere” designation, the company agreed—in the hopes that it would be picked up by a larger theatre company. 

According to Harrison, the “world premiere” label tends to be especially vital for larger theatres, as it makes the difference between them producing the play or not. The River Bride’s world premiere rights ultimately went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Harrison says that AlterTheater couldn’t be more thrilled. “OSF has been gracious and quick to acknowledge AlterTheater’s part in this play’s life,” she says. “And you know, it’s always nice when the artistic director of one of the West Coast’s largest theatres tells you that it’s your beautiful production that brought the play to his attention in the first place.”


Adam Roy and Matt Kizer in AlterTheater's 2014 production of The River Bride. Photo: Benjamin Privitt 


Because AlterTheater is specifically known for producing new plays, as well as classic plays one wouldn’t normally see elsewhere in the Bay Area, Harrison says that its audiences “get the ‘new play’ without our having to say ‘world premiere.’” The company has also produced “first look” productions of plays by Bob Ernst, and its experiences with Orta have made it receptive to deciding what is best for the company and the play’s continued life on a case-by-case basis.

“Contractually, AlterTheater’s development and production of The River Bride is recognized in subsequent productions and in the publication of the play,” says Harrison. “That was important to us: receiving credit for all the work that our amazing artists did in helping to bring this play to life.”

Much like Orta, many playwrights wish to hold on to the world premiere designation until the production can be featured in a more visible way. Playwright Octavio Solis notes that his play Santos & Santos was originally a commission for the Eureka Theatre; when the company ran aground a year after it commissioned the play, Tony Kelly, then the literary manager at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, attempted to get the work produced there. When it became clear that Berkeley Rep would pass on it, Kelly suggested that his own company, the now-defunct Thick Description, could produce the play. “We worked in good faith with what remained of the Eureka Theatre to coproduce the play at Theatre Artaud,” remembers Solis. 

When Solis discovered that the play would only receive eight performances over two weeks, he told Kelly that he needed a much more visible and longer premiere for the work, as he’d put so much time into it. “So that I might be able to reserve the world premiere for another interested theatre, I insisted we name it a ‘workshop production,’ but Tony thought that would kill audience attendance, as it would keep critics away, and we needed critics there.” They were at a loss for a while, until Kelly came up with the brilliant idea of calling the show “the first performances of...,” to which Solis heartily agreed.

In the end, it came down to nomenclature. The designation that Solis and Kelly settled on ensured that audiences and critics would come to see a fine, finished production without calling it a world premiere (which the Dallas Theater Center would eventually produce two years later), and the play won a Glickman Award for the best play to premiere in the Bay Area in 1993. In a sense, although it wasn’t billed as such when Thick Description produced it, Santos & Santos amounted to a rolling world premiere, “something that the NNPN has instituted to resolve just this kind of issue with new work,” says Solis.

Despite the clout that the “world premiere” designation may hold, it isn’t necessarily true that the company that originally produced the show gets short shrift if they don’t ultimately obtain the rights. In the case of Santos & Santos, “everyone was happy, and I was able to further work on the play in the time between both productions,” says Solis. 

Although a “world premiere” may not always be technically possible, artistic directors and playwrights alike have found that there are many ways to get around the appellation—and to even ensure that collaborators feel that their work has been integral in contributing to the continuing life of a play.

Nirmala Nataraj is an arts writer based in the Bay Area.