What if Playwrights Directed Their Own Development?

What if playwrights were in charge of the development of their own plays?

What if, instead of independent development companies which invite competitive submissions from playwrights, to pick and choose who “gets” to receive the opportunity of having their play developed by that company – what if instead of that, playwrights put their play out there, and invited competitive submissions from small theatre companies and such, to pick and choose who “gets” to receive the honor of developing their play?

(Or, really, change “instead of” to “in addition to” – there’s no reason both types couldn’t coexist.)

(Such an organization would essentially be like 13P, I realize, although it’s not quite the same.)

I’m putting this out there just as a provocative thought exercise – Why Are Things The Way They Are?

What would it look like if the playwrights had more of the power, instead of grovelling and competing for the attentions of producers and developers?  Why isn’t it that way?

Is it just a numbers game?  There are almost definitely more playwrights – and certainly more individual new plays, several from each of those playwrights – than there are producers/developers.   There is not enough time for every new play – not even every good new play – to be developed or produced or even stage-read.  (Isn’t that true?)  Therefore the scarcity in the system is on the producers’ side – therefore the playwrights are the ones who have to compete.  It’s a buyer’s market, so to speak.

Would a seller’s market-style, bottom-up, playwright-directed acquisition process be possible for the more elite playwrights if not the nobodies and novices?  Could it be possible for, here in D.C. for instance, for our most successful local playwrights to band together and put their current work out there on the web – to say, here is Jane Doe’s current play she is working on, who out there wants the privilege of taking the reins on developing it?  Here is John Doe’s current play he has finished and he’s looking for its first production, who out there gets to have it?

Things to think about.

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15 comments

  1. I really dig this idea. I, for one, believe that both systems can exist simultaneously and not destroy one another, but perhaps could learn better tactics and processes from the existence of each other. One of the the things that it could truly help in doing, which you touch on here and from your comments of “Who gets to choose” and “competitive submissions”, is to break the mindset of theatre being a zero sum game. The opportunity to create and pose another system of development will open up the possibilities and show that there are other methods to create and develop.

    The only thing that I might mention is that even if something like this happens quickly is that the goals and expectations should be long term. If a playwrighting group or playwright themselves wants to try this system out the expectation can’t be that in a year they will have theaters fighting over their plays or clambering to develop their works. It can’t just be if this doesn’t work within the first year, throw it away…it would have to be looked at, curated, developed, and adapted to fit the needs that it creates.

    The other part is that one of the thing that makes creating a new system difficult is that the old system has such a stranglehold on the mindset of the community. We are so ingrained in the mindset of “this is how you do something, so everything must be done this way” that it becomes hard to break that…again it takes time, effort, and a willingness to fight for it and against those that would work to keep the system we have in place.

    The thing it reminds me of, not exactly but in a way, is Charles Mee’s way of creating a developing. Of putting his stuff up for people to use and if they want to do exactly his play they must contact him for rights. Now he also allows you to adapt and change anything of his because his goal is a free exchange of art and ideas, but the process feels similar to me enough to mention as a system to look at and see what could be taken from, adapted and lost.

    So your question of could it be possible, yes. In my mind it would take a great effort, time, and a desire not to go back to the old system when this new one gets too tough.

    Interesting thoughts man.

    1. Thank you, sir, and thank you for your thoughtful comment. My general reaction is, “totally! yeah! yeah!” but I want to give a more thoughtful response than just that. :)

      I really wasn’t thinking of this in terms of something to be actualized when I wrote it – I was just hypothesizing – but your comment makes me think it might be doable and something worth trying, particularly because you point out that it would be something to curate, adapt and grow. It certainly doesn’t have to change the system and work perfectly from the get-go.

      Hmm… hmmmmm… ::plotting::

      A random thought: I think one of the hardest things (in the community at large) is separating our internalized prejudices from external prejudices. In other words, what are the actual rules of the system that the people in power enforce, vs. what are the things that we think are rules, but are really just in our head? I think, like you suggest, that “theatre is a zero sum game” is just in our heads. But the “the producers make the selections and decisions” is an actual rule – and one worth reconsidering, I hope.

  2. Very interesting stuff here–thank you for this post.

    I tried this on an independent level back in 2011. Going along the lines of a commercial workshop, I hired a team and produced a two-day, private reading of a script of mine. I invited a bunch of DC artistic directors & lit people to attend in the hopes they’d be interested in the script and/or me. The experience was really lovely–lots of friendly faces came out and I was really proud of everything–but precious few of the ADs actually came or even responded (email and paper invitations were sent).

    I say this because I think you’re onto something by calling for an ORGANIZATION to take on this task. I think this is a great concept, and my question is always, “Who will do it? Who has the desire and community standing to be able to draw an audience of decision-makers?” ADs and Lit Managers are busy people. They probably won’t spend their free time coming to workshops for playwrights they don’t know (or don’t wish to know), but they might if someone/some org they respect asks them to! If no one steps up into that role, perhaps, like you suggest, a group of playwrights could achieve enough force to interest them. If you make enough noise…

    Again, interesting stuff! There are many thoughts buzzing around in my mind…

    1. Oh, that’s awesome you took that initiative! It’s too bad it didn’t work, but it seems like we can all of us learn from it… I think the lack of time and attention on ADs’ and Lit Managers’ side is part of the buyer’s market thing. They are, themselves, scarce and therefore valuable.

      So that’s a good point… an organization that has a reputation can help make their time seem worthwhile. Plus, if a bunch of playwrights can be checked out all at once, that makes it more likely that they can find something.

      I’m curious – did you invite ADs and Lit Managers of bigger theatres? I feel like this kind of initiative might work better, initially, if it played to smaller theatres – the kind that are hungry for new work and a chance to prove themselves. The Pinky Swears and Grain of Sands and Flying Vs and No Ruleses etc, as opposed to the Theater Js and Woolly Mammoths.

      Buzz, buzz, buzz…

    2. It was a wide range of small and big, but they were all places at which either I or my partners had relationships. It’s worth noting, though, that at the time I wasn’t aware of several small theaters I know about now, so it was limited in that way.

      1. Just a random thought I had… what if readings could be toured? Offer to ADs to bring actors and scripts to their theatre office and give them a reading right then and there. Saves them time.

        I’m really curious to know more about your experience with that whole thing. I can only imagine it was frustrating to put in all the work, to have a play you were proud of and that you felt could attract people to producing it as soon as they witness it in action, and to have the only barrier to it getting accepted being… that ‘they’ wouldn’t come to witness it.

  3. Good Evening: I would take Lee Liebeskind’s idea a little further and argue that both systems *need* to coexist and nurture each other. One question though; how would a playwright manage to convince theaters and production companies to visit the works-in-progress that the writer has posted on the web? It is almost impossible to attract them to a reading, as Liz Maestri observes, but even though producers can surf the web at any time, they still have a ziliion and a half other items on their To-Do List.

    Still, I see a lot of potential good from such a “sellers market,” and can think of no reason not to give it a try. Might take a decade or so to become effective, but could be worth the work.

    1. Perhaps it would be one of those things where marketing and confidence have a lot to do with it. If a snazzy looking website for a “seller’s market” collective were put together, with a bold manifesto, and then some press and bloggers were attracted to it to see what’s going on, then maybe some producers would jump on board.

      Alternately, it might work in a bottom-up fashion, first attracting newborn theatre companies looking to make a name for themselves; and if/when they have some hits with plays acquired in this way, progressively bigger companies will want in.

      1. babelwright: Your second idea sounds plausible and has the added advantage of bringing up-and-coming writers and up-and-coming companies to work together as allies instead of the current buyer-seller market which has the potential to turn adversarial.

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  5. Tom Jones/Thomas Cadwaleder Jones · · Reply

    I like this blog a lot, although I just stumbled onto it. Having spent fifty plus years in the theatre trade, I’ve come to believe that something resembling Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor theatre” notion is the way to go in the 21st Century. The playwriting trade has changed drastically over the course of my career. Although I have largely turned to fiction writing in order to avoid the hassle of development/production/the self-titled “gatekeepers,” or whatever you want to call the apparatus, I still pen the occasionally play. Frankly, at my advanced age, I get as much pleasure working with a small group of friends who have professional theatre backgrounds, as I received from working with professional theater groups. This is not to denigrate professional theaters in any way, but merely to note that the playwriting world, like the publishing world, has changed greatly. I recently read the following in the DG Journal. “Writing for an art form, that is in decline, is a thankless job. But someone has to do it. Why? Because art matters.” An “act of theatre” is not a difficult thing to create. We do so by “implication” every time we, as playwrights, create a play script. We do so in reality every time those words are spoken. I think we should become willing to settle for less, rather than asking for more. Do it ourselves, in the least expensive manner possible. Why? Because our art matters. Thomas Cadwaleder Jones at thomascadwalederjones.com

    1. Thank you, and I’m glad you like my blog!
      While I and my generation were obviously not around in previous times, it’s clear to anyone who reads about ‘the way things were’ that things have changed and are continuing to change drastically, as you said. I think we’re well on the cusp now of a total sea change that will bring us to something much like the “poor theatre,” do-it-ourselves theatre, theatre-because-it-matters theatre that you’re talking about. We’re just at a strange place at the moment, where the old apparatus is still in power and for the most part still doing things in an old way.
      I think once we make the foundational change, then the art form will cease to be in decline, and there may even be thanks in it again. As you suggest, it shouldn’t matter – lower our expectations, art because it matters – but it would be nice.

  6. The only important variables are the cost of producing plays and the size of the market. I think there are enough good plays coming through the pipeline such that all theater companies have enough to produce at the current cost of production and market size. The result is that its hard to get even very good plays produced or even read.

    So, if your objective is to make it easier for playwrights to get their plays reviewed and produced, then you have two choices: you can either increase demand for new plays among the public or you can reduce the cost of producing plays. Of the two choices, reducing the cost of producing plays seems to be the most tractable, but still very hard. Plays being cheaper to produce could result in a wider variety of plays that could attract more theater goers. The audience for niche productions when summed up might even be many times greater than the combined audience for “popular” plays. This is what marketing people call “the long tails” of the probability distribution.

    So, as I see it, the central problem of theater is reducing the costs of production. The print industry has done this and the results have been phenomenal for authors and readers.

    1. I think the tricky thing there is that most of the costs of production, especially at the big theatres, are not really *production* costs… they’re the costs of major marketing, of paying all the regular staff and administration, of keeping massive buildings open. The actual cost of salaries for cast and crew, set and prop material, electricity, etc. is still pretty big, but not the biggest portion. A lot of playwrights nowadays are knowingly writing cheap plays – small casts, single sets, no wild stage magic called for – in order to be more palatable to budget-constricting big theatres, even while those big theatres throw large wads of cash at their head honchos and assorted extraneous programs. The big theatres also feel like they, themselves, have to spend oodles on sets and costumes; it’s not the playwright’s choice. I could write a two-character show that calls for modern dress and nothing but a desk and a computer, and the big theatre would spend hundreds on a newly-made leather jacket and thousands on some flying symbolic roof for no good reason, pumping up their own costs just because it’s expected of them.

      It would be hard, I think, for these reasons, for playwrights to have much effect on reducing the costs, unless we all start writing nothing but one-man shows that insist on zero set and costume. The only way to reduce costs while still having some freedom in writing is to abandon the big theatres. If we want more new plays at the big theatres, then reducing the cost of plays isn’t the solution; reducing the running cost of those big theatres is.

  7. Anonymous · · Reply

    That would be something.

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