The Shame of Theater

The other day I sat down to write a grant letter and wound up on the New York Times’s “How would you fix Spider-Man?” site. Here I was, (avoiding) asking for money to produce a new play, while our paper of cultural record was running its 6th feature that week about producers hemorrhaging money to double down on a comic book.

I know it’s impossible to judge commercial and nonprofit theater under the same microscope, but I keep hearing about Spider-Man from friends and colleagues in the non-profit world. The American public seems to have a bottomless appetite for shame (the common-denominator in reality TV, tabloids, Sheen, etc.), and I think the carnage of this production has whetted that. But the real shame about Spider-Man is the shame of most current Broadway fare. Imagine the number of real new plays with something to say that could have been produced for what it cost for this comic book (with previous title recognition) to stall.

Fixing Spider-Man got me thinking about the economics of the nonprofit world and its redheaded stepchild: development. I’ve often felt the economics of nonprofit has begun to resemble the economics of film and television—tempering plays to potential audiences—except plays can’t withstand the same type of development gauntlet that most screenplays have to endure. Play-fixing isn’t solely relegated to the world of commercial theater where the bottom line dictates the narrative; it has long metastasized in some of the larger nonprofit juggernauts under the guise of “development.” I’m not talking about development heaven, I’m talking about development hell.

As I said, there are good development havens out there that serve the playwright and the play—we’re not talking about you. We’re talking about the bullies, the places that have grown to resemble film and television studios, trying too hard not to alienate their subscriber bases, filling their seasons with baked-over fare, custom-ordering commissions, and blanching existing new plays into dramaturgical sudokus. For the last decade we’ve seen more shows open Off-Broadway with bankable names, and gone to more readings. These places are supposed to be not-for-profit but behave commercially. Is it the economy?

I’ve heard stories of readings for artistic directors who “don’t read.” How do foundations that support new work give so much money to an institution lead by someone who does not read plays?

Admittedly, it’s gotten better since the economy crashed and many theaters began focusing their funds on development as production, but there is still a crisis in collaboration between playwrights and nonprofit producers. There are lots of great development havens out there (New Dramatists, the Lark, Sundance) and people like Todd London who are tirelessly devoted to playwrights, but I feel there are many institutions who fill their grant reports with young playwrights and plays they seem to have little intention of producing. I suppose I should be indebted to these institutions, as every full-length play the stageFARM has premiered (Drug Buddy, U.S. Drag, The Gingerbread House, Oliver Parker) had all been through different development mills elsewhere. On more than one occasion, we had to un-develop them: a process of forgoing the latest (most developed) drafts, to trace the voice back to where it wasn’t a chorus. The latest journal of the Dramatists Guild (the Dramatist) is dedicated to development and talks about development havens and heavens, so I thought I’d talk a little to the layperson about development hell. You don’t take your car to the mechanic to see what’s right with it.


Development hell is the worst-case scenario of play fixing without production: the wearing down of plays through cycles of readings and workshops, the muting (or at least mutating) of many young voices. It’s stamping templates into plays and tempering plays to “potential audiences” where audiences remain potential. In short, it’s getting the math right at the cost of the voice. Good, exciting theater comes from impulse, and this type of development is antithetical to impulse. I’ve often thought of playwriting as the only part of theater that isn’t collaborative: it is a celebration of the singular voice and cannot be done by committee. I’m not advocating for a moratorium on development, just development hell. Playwrights need to find people they can trust for constructive criticism. Playwrights (and actors, directors, designers, stage managers, board ops, etc.) learn from productions; they can’t possibly learn as much from readings because a crucial part of the equation is missing: the audience.

If a new play is lucky enough to garner the interest of the literary department of a nonprofit theater there might be a reading (or many) in store for it. The playwright will usually receive lots of well-intended feedback, which they will feel beholden to incorporate in the hopes of garnering a production (or at least earning their plane fare in the case of regional theaters). A play that has endured many readings and been through many different development mills might read like a patchwork quilt of dramaturgy. I’m not saying there aren’t many incredibly smart literary managers and dramaturges out there; they probably want to see these plays produced more than anybody at their companies, but unfortunately they don’t have much real power. They probably know more about good writers and good writing than anybody in theater, and had hoped to be the allies of playwrights, and directors’ right hands, but in practice are swamped with work, underpaid, and underused.

In her brilliant Theater Communications Group article for last March’s American Theatre entitled “Not There Yet,” Marsha Norman points out the limbo of the literary manager:

Worst of all, they have been put in charge of development, which means they supervise the readings and re-readings of new plays, the endless process by which those plays are worn down until they are no longer produceable. Instead of protecting and championing bold new work, literary managers are encouraged to tame it. Imagine if in art galleries, the curators went around handing out brushes to the patrons suggesting they go up and “fix” the paintings that don’t look right to them. More green here? Cropped here? OK. Now will you buy it?

More times than not, these plays do not get produced, and in many cases wind up eroded and discarded. Does anybody really enjoy going to all these readings anyway? There are fewer than there used to be even two years ago, but I have so many friends (actors, directors, and playwrights) who have developed crazy chops for the purgatory of the reading room-developing their skills in a very specific way that isn’t really that applicable in production. I’ve often thought of the reading circuit as Off-Broadway’s version of the La Brea Tarpits, filled with writers, directors, and actors who couldn’t get out : deemed good enough for the reading, but not good enough for the mainstage.

One playwright, when asked, responded,

 The reading with audience is something the theater is doing for their own reasons that don’t have anything really to do with me. I can appreciate that they need to do it, but it irks me that they say it is for my benefit. 

—from The Gates of Opportunity by David Dower

If I sound like a conspiracy theorist, I don’t mean to. I am passionate about new plays, and think they should be served hot and not cut into unless they’re actually going to be served. As the Artistic Director of a young Off-Broadway company that really is committed to producing new work, it can be frustrating to compete for funding with larger more established non-profits who say they are “artist-focused” and yet fill their new work or outreach initiative with a reading. In his groundbreaking Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded study, The Gates of Opportunity, David Dower found that one of the first issues he confronted was the fungible nature of language regarding development, funding, and programming. He cited “a glut of imprecise buzzwords, largely invoked to demonstrate value to the funding community, trustees, and other colleagues in the field.” Everyone wants to be perceived as an “artist-focused home for the development of new works by emerging voices,” but to what extent they really are varies wildly. Imprecise language peppers guidelines, proposals, and program activities, but more importantly, it is bewildering to artists and leads to real confusion in all interactions around developing new work.

Dower calls “emerging artists” fungible term #2, and said most artists bristled at the challenge of defining the term:

It’s a constant process—I feel like I emerge with one project when it’s produced, [then] submerge between projects, if I’m lucky re-emerge with the next project—but I don’t see a time when I’m going to be able to say, “I’ve emerged."

Dower found that the most common theme of artists’ conversation was a perceived lack of authenticity in most development programs—in both the development and commissioning process. One playwright asked had this to say:

Commissions are the money theaters pay playwrights to go away. “We know you are a playwright. We want your name in our grant reports. We’re never going to produce you. Here’s some money.”

Many playwrights in Dower’s report felt that both development and commissions were not so much about the play as they were a means of showing funders they were committed to new work or new voices, or appeasing the Artistic Director’s desire to be cutting edge.

 These are the issues that the funders and boards of these theaters need to be made aware of if we are to stem the loss of our best playwrights to television before they have really learned their craft and earned their theater cred. A playwright friend said to me after reading this draft: “Why wouldn’t I go to television? I can make a living and see my work within a few months.”

 In Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, Todd London and Ben Pesner describe the need for production (and multiple productions) as the principle goal of new play development. They also divulge the startling fact that most of the artistic directors they interviewed across the country admitted going after the same 10 playwrights to produce, which is largely about getting prestige in their field. Theater should not be a “me too” industry. That’s not leadership. What if there were blind submissions for artistic directors so that their selection will be based on vision rather than branding?

 Again, I don’t mean to sound negative or disparage all the good work being done in the field of development and production. I’d just like to raise awareness about what so many of my playwright friends complain about. The machinery that came into being after the new play gold rush of the ’80s needs to be examined. Funders and boards need to ask their artistic directors: How many new plays are in our season? How many by women? How many by writers of color? Where is that money for new work actually going? If we don’t examine the machine, and the big funders don’t investigate the authenticity of the institutions they fund, development hell could erode the divide between commercial and nonprofit and in 20 years we might be able to examine them under the same microscope.



You can read a version of David Dower’s Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation-funded study The Gates of Opportunity at www.tinyurl.com/4z6mquz

Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play is available for purchase at www.tdf.org/outrageousfortune.

Contributor

Alex Kilgore

ALEX KILGORE is the Artistic Director of the stageFARM, the president of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and plays in the band CLAW. He is an actor, writer, and director.