What happens when playwrights and their collaborators get together? What the officers and staff of Dramatists Guild the Dramatists Guild of America hoped for "Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation," their very first conference, was that attendees would talk to each and that value would be added on all fronts, be it the craft, business or future of playwriting and that the Guild itself would learn how to better serve its more than 6,000 members.
PLAYWRIGHTS CONVENE IN VIRGINIA
The Conference hosted by Theater of the First Amendment ran from June 9 through June 12, 2011 at the new George Mason University Inn and its Center for the Arts. This writer attended June 10th hoping to catch a glimpse of Edward Albee (best known for his play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who was unable to travel to the Washington, DC area at the last minute and therefore missed his opportunity to speak at the conference. That substantial lack, however, took nothing away from what was scheduled and executed. What follows is what this writer experienced among the many choices offered during a portion of the second day's schedule.
In information provided to this writer by the Guilds' Executive Director of Creative Affairs, Gary Garrison and Tari Stratton, the Guild's Director of Education, Events & Outreach, it was determined that over 350 people coming from all 21 regions of the Guild's membership attended the panels, workshops and talks. While age skewed more to the mature members, there were many student including volunteers who accompanied the staff from headquarters in New York City to the conference in Fairfax, Virginia.
Garrison gave a talk on the 10-minute play, which was so popular that a bigger space had to be used then the one scheduled. A full account of "Demystifying the 10-Minute Play" can be seen in the Scene4 arts blog The Dresser.
THE RIGOR OF PUBLISHING & LICENSING PLAYS
Tari Stratton moderated "Publisher's Forum," a panel on publishing. Speaking to issues of print and electronic publishing as well as licensing for plays and music theater were representatives from Samuel French, Play Publishers and Authors' Representatives; Music Theatre International; and Focus Publishing. Playwrights were able to ask questions about getting their plays published. (Right now at Samuel French acquisitions of new works are modest and Focus Publishing does not publish plays.) Playwrights also heard stories about copyright infringement. (Apparently snitches often come forward to the legal department of Music Theatre International to report on theater companies producing a play without the license to do so.) On the cutting edge of this rarified corner of the American publishing market, the discussion also included the interest in going to electronic books for plays (a market in its infancy at this time) and affordable licensing for schools which included "Junior" licenses for musicals (shortened versions of the original score).
YOUTH THEATRE BRINGS NEW MONEY/BIG TALENT
Dovetailing with some of the material presented in "Publisher's Forum," Michael Bobbitt, Producing Artistic Director of Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, MD and Kim Peter Kovac, Producing Director of Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences, created a conversation on "Theatre for Young Audiences." One of their handouts listed publishing/licensing houses specifically for young audiences, including Dramatic Publishing, Plays for Young Audiences, Playscripts Inc., and iTheatrics. According to Bobbitt and Kovac, the youth theater market is getting a lot of attention and money and therefore is attracting top talents. Ever since Disney went to Broadway, the market has opened up for theater for kids. Bobbitt was also quite excited about baby theater (i.e., infants and toddlers) where he said sound, visual stimulus, and active audience interaction counts.
"Collaborations in Musical Theatre" featured Greg Kotis (wrote book and co-wrote lyrics for Urinetown, the Musical), Mark Hollmann (wrote the music for Urinetown, the Musical), Carol Hall (wrote music and lyrics for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), and Kirsten Childs (wrote music and lyrics for The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin). This panel discussion got into the hard-core dynamics of working with creative partners. Among the things said was spend time in the same room with your collaborator, every day if possible. Carol Hall said she liked working alone but finally was convinced that meeting Monday through Friday was important to the process. What was remarkable about the session was that these high profile panelists were very receptive to hearing individuals in the audience talk about their collaboration experiences and issues.
TODD LONDON: A LOVER OF PLAYWRIGHTS
Overall the general experience this writer had at the conference was that conversation flowed freely and respectfully among the presenters and the participants. Friday's keynote speaker Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists and co-author with Ben Pesner of the book Outrageous Fortune, the Life and Times of the New American Play urged playwrights to release themselves from envy and bitterness. He said passivity and blame squander the playwright's gifts. This is an extremely hard time financially to be writing plays, but he said it is up to the playwright to make his/her way. Outrageous Fortuneis the culmination of the Theatre Development Fund's research project that documents the lives and livelihoods of American playwrights today and the issues between the people who write plays and those who produce them. Outrageous Fortune advocates for new conversations and practices if the American play is to flourish.
While Garrison doesn't know which city will host the next conference, the plan is to have a conference every two years. He said he was pleased with the first conference and surprised "Honestly, how well it all went. We had very, very few unexpected problems – most notably, Edward Albee not being able to attend at the last moment and switches in programming. Other than that, it all felt like it went according to planned. That's, of course, because of our dynamic staff here and at George Mason/Theater for the First Amendment." As to lessons learned, he emphasized, "There's not a single person – participant, guest speaker, shuttle driver, room scheduler, etc. – that doesn't want to feel important and a part of the whole experience. Your job, as a conference host, is to make sure everyone feels just that."