The Imminent Implosion of 13P

In mid-July, 13P (13 Playwrights’ Inc.), will open its 13th and final production, Melancholy Play, written by the current artistic director, Sarah Ruhl. Then, from a perch of success—the focus of much critical attention and praise, with a cultivated audience, secure in its funding—a success that many comparatively young theater companies surely find enviable…13P will implode.

This may seem like a strange thing for a vibrant, esteemed theater company to do, but according to the language of their website, “13P isn’t really a theater company; it’s a 13-play test of a new producing model.” Or, as Madeleine George, one of the co-founding playwrights (P#10), explains, “It’s a producing mechanism.” 

Every system needs periodic insurrection. Every insurrection needs an expiration date—or at least needs to reinvent itself every so often to remain insurrectionary. 13P announced the end of its road when it announced its beginning back in 2003.

“Our imminent implosion,” explains P#11 Young Jean Lee, “was the reason why we could take such huge risks—we didn’t have to worry about the long term sustainability and growth of the company.”

A number of members, P#12 Erin Courtney among them, raise another practical and humane concern extending from Lee’s point: “It’s not a sustainable model because [it] relies on a mostly volunteer staff. If we wanted to become a permanent company we would need to design it to pay our staff.”

(Actors, designers, crew, and one producer per show are paid for 13P productions. Marketing, development, and administrative staff labor on a volunteer basis).

Founder and fundraiser-in-chief, P#3 Rob Handel, puts it in terms of donor thinking: “Because I’ve been working in non-profit, I’ve put a lot of time into thinking about how non-profits work, and one of the ideas I’ve always wanted to see exercised was forming a non-profit organization with a mission statement that could actually be accomplished and end—the finite model is attractive to fundraisers cause we could tell them ‘we’re going to ask you for money for x years and then never come back.’”

Still, this terminal thinking became entrenched policy before the very impressive catalogue of achievements that now trails 13P wherever she goes (and femininity, the use of feminine pronouns exclusively to refer to Ps and their plays was an early decision of the 11 women and two men who formed the company) began piling up: 12 aesthetically variant plays done all over town; an Obie grant in 2005 after Handel’s Aphrodisiac, the company’s third play; an unprecedented Mellon grant in 2009 (which limited the need for ongoing fundraising efforts); an Obie Award for Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue, the most recent production, to highlight just some of the many.

After these phenomenal successes—back in 2003 few Ps expected to even complete the mission—why not re-up for another 13 plays? If I were a P, I’d sure as hell want to.

“I think we should not implode,” P#2 Winter Miller tells me frankly. “I would prefer it if we did not implode.” Going on, she offers the caveat, “It’s a ton of work and I didn’t do the lion’s share. Being part of an ongoing collective was a life-changing experience…a welcome into a larger community and I’m grateful for that kinship.”

The origin story of this community, this mechanism for producing plays goes something like this: Rob (Handel) and Madeleine (George) go to Connecticut to develop their plays. Julia Jarcho, another eventual P, is there too. So is Maria Goyanes, a producer with radical sensibilities of her own, who will come to captain the business end of this ship full of playwrights, and keep it sailing straight. It is an honor to be at the O’Neill Center, but development is a little sad. Plays are developing and developing, and they are developing and developing, and developing and developing…but wait, are the music stands making them all sound the same? Isn’t there this other thing that’s supposed to happen with plays besides development?

“Production is development,” says Madeleine, reflecting in a West Village coffee shop 10 years and 12 productions later.

Rob had been having this idea about organizing a group of ascendant playwrights to consolidate their name capital, their audience and collaborator networks, and their hunger to see full productions of adventurous plays into a mechanism for seeing through full productions of said adventurous plays, specifically plays in danger of being domesticated by over-development.

He shared the idea with Madeleine, and together they invited writers they knew, writers they liked as people and whose work they admired, to a meeting.  

Nobody was certain the thing could actually be seen all the way through, but the playwrights were encouraged by Rob’s fundraising background, the commonality of their frustrations and drive, and the possibility that when tallied collectively their awards and achievements thus far were impressive enough to attract donor interest. This was not accidental, but rather Rob’s second major idea for non-profit success, “You get a lot of bang for your buck if you have a whole bunch of artists involved.”

They agreed on a few things at the meeting and picked slots for presentation. They each would be the artistic director of their own production. Also, as Madeleine puts it, they “weren’t gonna be chorewheeling [their] way through these productions.” They would be a collective, but would not be “collectively laboring to make shows.” Nobody was going to run a light-board who didn’t have experience running a light-board. 

Writing about 13P in these pages in April 2004, just before the opening of their first production (Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist), Brooke Stowe captured the exciting mix of idealism, impatience, and that tight fist of pride, confrontational defiance, and posturing that the kids these days are calling “swag,” emanating from the nascent Ps: he noted that a “lack of compromise and aggressive, take-no-dramaturgs stance fairly reverberates from 13P’s initial group publicity releases with statements such as, ‘We don’t develop plays. We do them.’”

Stowe asks: “Is this confidence, hubris, or just a new and different way of looking at the role of playwrights in contemporary theater?”*

From our vantage, it’s pretty clear that the answer is yes. Yes. All of the above. And the confidence, hubris, and centering of the playwright have conspired to instigate change in the American theater over the past 10 years in ways that are not all completely clear just yet, and probably won’t be entirely so for some time. 

One change some of the Ps have pointed to, and immediately evident to me, is the opening of second stages above 42nd street, at bigger institutional theaters that previously provided only development opportunities for emerging playwrights. Places like LCT3, a new 112-seat theater at Lincoln Center, committed to producing the work of new playwrights, demonstrate a kind of growing institutional awareness that playwrights’ needs were not being served by ongoing and endless development.

P#4 Gary Winter calls it “trickle up theory…I think that when artists take control and show how things can be done more effectively, then institutions pay attention. And perhaps because we didn’t whine—we just did it—the influence of 13P and like-minded artists will be more durable. I hope this will steer institutions towards a more flexible way of working for the institution and the artist.”

Plays aren’t junior Olympian figure skaters needing to work daily and forever under expert coaching towards what they just might have the potential to become. Essentially, they are what they are, and of course they can be sharpened, chiseled, improved, but this happens best—happens most, happens most articulately—through rehearsal and error, through performance and error. Which also allows playwrights to move on to their next projects.

When the Ps came together in 2003, they all essentially knew this: if given control of the means of production, the plays they had on the page were ready for the stage. But, now, with the artistic directorship of the company having circulated to each playwright at the time of her production, and finally reaching Sarah Ruhl, the last one (P#13), they all experientially know it.

“What strikes me as different from other productions I’ve had recently is how dirty the playwright’s hands get in 13P, in a wonderful way,” reflects brilliant lyric playwright and burgeoning artistic director, Ruhl, “we stick our fingers in all the pies—we talk about the marketing, the calendar, the actors, the design.”

Ruhl continues: “It’s striking how much goodwill and generosity there is on the part of artistic collaborators who want to work on the project even though there is little or no economic incentive, and it reminds me of why we choose to do theater in the first place, because we want to be in a room with six to 12 people who might be just the same kind of crazy as we are, for long periods of time, and mostly in the dark. It is a degree of freedom and intimacy and contact with the means of production that playwrights rarely get to have, and I am so grateful to be part of the last production.”

Go see Sarah Ruhl’s The Melancholy Play, the final 13P production. Enjoy it. The chances taken. Love something about it. Hate something about it. Talk about it with your friends. Let it move you into conversation about something else.

Also, take a moment to marvel at the machine that made it. A “structure of form and means evacuated of aesthetic intent,” to use Madeleine’s language again. It is singular and impressive. Whatever you end up thinking of The Melancholy Play, know that it is wholly Sarah Ruhl’s play—in ways that few plays staged by companies with names other than the playwright’s own, belong to their authors.

Then try this at home. Or your own version of it.

To Madeleine again: “13P is a producing mechanism because producing is what we cared about. And whatever the next thing is gonna be that’s gonna take over when this implosion leaves a big beautiful crater full of glitter, it has to be a machine to address whatever is lacking in the world at this point.”

But, aspetta, aspirant engineers, if just for a moment, for 13P wants to help you build.

To that end, before the glitter settles, there will be an anthology of all 13 plays published, there will be a big ole party, but most vitally for theater-makers who have watched them and their plays with awe, A People’s History of 13P will go live in September. This interactive web-based archive will be there in perpetuity for curious makers of things and curious aspirant makers of things to draw from—not only inspiration and the breadth of possibility, but nitty-gritty practical insight on how to channel theatrical frustrations into altering theatrical destiny. Gather your P’s and get plotting.



* Stowe, Brook. “Power To The Playwright: 13P.” The Brooklyn Rail: April, 2004.

Sarah Ruhl’s the Melancholy Play, directed by Davis McCallum with music by Todd Almond, will be performed July 18 – 27 at the Invisible Dog, 51 Bergen Street, Brooklyn. For further info about the show and 13P, or to purchase tickets, please visit www.13P.org.

Contributor

Ben Gassman

BEN GASSMAN is a playwright from Queens.

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