Why New Plays?
Published by St. Mary's College
in the journal
In*Tense

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New plays are the life blood of theatre, the place where people go to watch people, instead of representations of people on a screen. They go to be entertained, first and foremost, and at the best of times enriched and educated. New plays inject the energy, magic, wit, and life.

I exclusively work with new plays, and I prefer that the playwright be present for rehearsals. Why? Plays merely ten years old often have dated and distanced themselves, and those protest plays from the sixties? Seeing those plays is like going to a museum: interesting from a historical perspective, but very distant from my experience. I want to hold theatre's mirror up to the reality that we are all experiencing together in the present.

This doesn't invalidate the work. For me, much of the best theatre should be outdated quickly. It should be responding passionately to events of the day, events that will become history, which will become foreign to the young.

On an personal, ego-driven level, it seems that theatre history is made by the innovators. And like so many people who go into entertainment, I want to leave my mark. I would love to write the next great play, and short of that, I'd like to be the one who finds it and recognizes it.

There's a certain dichotomy to this, I realize. I want to find the next play that will be produced and revered long past its relevance. What I really want is a theatre that reflects me, and I find that reflection most clearly in new plays.

There's a temptation to stop writing there, because it seems self-explanatory. Take some high minded goals, throw in a dash of ego, why NOT do new plays?

But a majority of the plays done are revivals. It's pretty much always been this way. I saw David Mamet's "Speed the Plow" twice last year. Mamet's a much better playwright than most, but it's like choosing to watch MASH reruns. "So what if I've seen it? At least I know it's good!"

The reasons revivals are so popular is clear and understandable. Doing the plays by major writers like Lanford Wilson, August Wilson, Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, and Mamet (to name a few) is very important. They are our finest story tellers, worthy of the praise and productions they receive. They consistently write the strongest scripts available.

Add on top of that they're a much safer financial risk. People hear their names and think "Oh, that's a good writer," and are more inclined to risk their theatre budget on seeing these shows. A small company needs audiences, and a new play by an unknown is less of a draw at the box office.

Add on top of that that the most neurotic person in all of the theatre, the playwright, won't be constantly looking over the director's shoulder. They won't be there to make the director obey their stage instructions and keep him from cutting lines to make the first act quicker. Some of the things I've directed onto John Guare's one-act plays would make him roll over in his bed (he's not even dead and I'm changing things!).

My personal thrill, though, is looking for the great undiscovered writers. I feel like the above-mentioned heavy hitters are going to be just fine without my personal support. But I know of many fine writers (Jeffrey Sweet, Brenda Krantz, Michael Mace, again leaving off many talented people) who to varying degrees stay beneath the national radar despite their spectacular writing. They need people to support them and help their plays find their way to the stage.

This quest drives me. In addition to working as literary manager of San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, I work on the board of the Playwrights' Center of San Francisco as Membership Outreach Director (a position I share with Katy Brown, another unknown talented playwright).

The two organizations are very different. Eureka Theatre is a 200-seat Equity house that can't afford to make huge financial gambles. We look for new work by writers that already have a track record and reputation, or plays that are definite crowd pleasers. We look for the best scripts out there to carry on the Eureka's tradition of excellence.

The Playwrights' Center has been around for twenty years, and its goals are much different. We work with any writer who wants to join us, regardless of experience or, for that matter, talent. We stage weekly readings, have a scene study class, and bring in guest lecturers. We cultivate and nurture new playwrights in an intelligent, creative environment.

Between the two companies I find creative outlets for all sorts of writers. I also pass scripts along to other theatre companies, hoping that good new work can find a place on the Bay Area stage. It's often just a matter of connecting the right people to get new plays produced.

WORKING WITH PLAYWRIGHTS

I want to talk about the practical elements that are unique to working with a living, breathing, kicking playwright. It's certainly a process marked by good and bad experiences.

Lord knows that dead playwrights are easier to work with. They don't care if you change a line or two. They aren't worried that you'll fuck up their play. And I've never had a dead playwright tell me "It's in the stage instructions that she takes a drag off her cigarette there!" Living playwrights care very deeply about what they've written and how it's presented. I wouldn't want to work with a playwright who didn't care.

It is their right to be picky. As a playwright, I don't want people to put something up on the stage that misrepresents my intent. My name's still on it, I really have deliberated over every comma, period, ellipsis, to say nothing of the language, which I've been over many, many times. I wrote the play specifically, and want you to honor what I've written.

At the same time, a sense of collaboration is needed. We're not creating widgets on an assembly line. There is nothing but shades of gray in our profession. Everyone involved in the production has the amorphous job of interpreting life. So of course there will be differences of opinion and interpretation.

Well, everyone involved "interprets life" except the front-of-house staff… their job is more to "facilitate life."

I am grateful when someone chooses to put on one of my plays. To take the time to analyze it, hire designers to create my world, cast actors (who invariably want the playwright's approval even more than their director's)… It's a great gift. An honor.

It is being given by creative people who will want to place their own individual stamp on the play. I think playwrights have a lot to learn about working with this attitude.

Especially in a script's first production it is vital for the playwright to see what they've written on the page… what else could possibly motivate one to write it? We certainly don't play with our demons for hours on end hoping that "someone does something sort of like what I'm writing."

But at the same time, the basic building block of theatre is the actor. Why would a writer be so foolish as to limit the actors' creativity when bringing the play to life? Actors aren't always right, by any stretch. They're biased toward their own needs and the character's needs. But there is always something for the writer to learn someone with that perspective.

A recent experience at the Eureka Theatre taught me a lot. I was lucky enough to get Kelvin Han Yee to direct the reading of my play "LibidOff." He's a driven artist, and he found a personal affinity for the play's story and themes. He interpreted elements and thematic undercurrents that I hadn't consciously written.

He was consistently right, and brought a lot of depth to the play. Writers have to be careful of directors who claim to have their best interests at heart. Oftentimes they just wish they'd written the play (because it would, of course, be better if written by them) and want to make your play theirs. Directors (& yes, I do this, too) often an inner control freak who surfaces in strange ways. Weak writers can end up in a very abusive writer-director relationship.

Knowing Kelvin's skill and his faith in the text, I put my trust in him. One actor he brought in seemed wrong to me, but I didn't mention it. Not my job in a reading. Production rules are different, since the writer is usually involved in the casting. In a two day rehearsal process, you have to trust your director implicitly, or you shouldn't have let him direct your play.

He was right. The actor ended up being an absolute high light in a protagonists role that normally people like but don't remember . He brought a level of sympathy to the character that explained what was missing from him in the text. Playwrights should more greatly appreciate the triumphs of collaboration that are achieved through NOT talking about your worries. They can be tremendous.

Trust and clear, appropriate communication are equally essential from the get-go. And initiating this is the responsibility of the director, unless the production is lucky enough to have an professional dramaturg. Most new scripts are not this fortunate, especially in staged reading programs.

The director must open the doorway to the playwright because he is the master of the rehearsal. If the director doesn't make the playwright feel welcome, the playwright doesn't know how to behave because the lord of the house hasn't posted his rules. Even if the rapport is truly strong, based on respect and admiration, it can fall apart if the writer feels excluded. I believe that they should be nurtured and encouraged in the same way that actors should be.

Again, Kelvin was a master. He rarely deferred to me, but always said things in a way that made me feel included. He asked the occasional question, and asked to change a few lines (all of which I approved of). He said nice things about me and the text.

So while I had next to no actual work to do with the actors, I felt like they knew & respected me. In return, I let them know that I appreciated them. As director, Kelvin got what he wanted: a supportive playwright who the actors liked.

When I direct, I now request that a writer be present at 75% or more of the rehearsals, or that they accept that I operate with a lot of creative freedom. Don't get me wrong. I want to put their play up as written. But I also want to take a new work and stretch it a little; to try to find its truest form. The writer should be there. This is best. If they don't want to be, that also is their right. But keeping me as a director means letting me be creative, either with or without the playwright's involvement.

Some directors don't allow playwrights in rehearsals as a way of avoiding the many possible problems that arise with writers. It certainly cuts down on potential stress, but it wastes the most valuable resource available. Text analysis can be quick and to the point, straight from the point of origination.

Another funny benefit to playwright-involvement is that often actors can steal mannerisms from the writer. In more than one production of my plays, an actor has grabbed on to some of my mannerisms and found their truth in the script.

Communication. Everyone knows its value on principle, but the amount of neglect the actual practical applications get is incredible. Once I worked on a show for twelve months as a director/dramaturg before we actually began casting, and still problems arose that shouldn't have. Things that could have been addressed months before.

Questions like:
"How do you see your involvement with the rehearsal process?"
"How many jobs are you doing on the production end of this?"
"How open are you to creating new staging during rehearsals?"

And it was my mistake for not broaching these questions early on. I owed him that, even if I ended up disagreeing with his answers.

WHY NEW PLAYS, AGAIN?

Why write them? Because despite the hardship, the cost, the embarrassment, you have to see people on stage saying your words, spreading whatever your message is. Maybe you're a laughter junkie, for whom hearing your jokes brings you joy. Write new plays because you have to.

Why produce them? For the chance to be a part of something important, something fresh, something yours. To take your shot at saying "I made it so that people knew who Sam So'n'So is." Produce new plays because you love them and they speak to you.

Why direct them? Because nowhere are you more needed than by the new playwright. They need your faith, your analysis, your honesty. Your love. Direct new plays because it is the pinnacle of your craft.

Why act in them? To create something no one before you has touched. To be a role's originator. To see the text later and see yourself reflected in it. Act in new plays to leave your mark.

And the most important question: Why go see new work? You're more likely to get something you like seeing "As You Like It" for the eightieth time. It's a great play, a lovely way to spend an afternoon. You've never heard of Roland Tec's "Bodily Function," how can you know if it'll be any good? What if it's long and boring and completely masturbatory?

And what if it's not? Attend new plays to challenge yourself. Attend new plays to risk educating yourself in a new way. Attend new plays. Participate in the theatre of your own time.


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