Theatre companies receive more audience support and more public and private funding than dance companies and yet theatre companies are less bold in taking risks with new artistic endeavors. This is the current state of theatre in the United States and, given that the arts are a low priority for philanthropic dollars, the climate will likely remain less than hospitable for new work.
In spite of being the poorest relation in the performing arts, major dance companies frequently pay homage to older works by master choreographers while also regularly commissioning resident artists and guest choreographers to set new work. In the less-than-major dance companies, performances of new work abound. Choreographers self-produce and dance producers eagerly support new and as yet untested creations by emerging choreographers.
Yet what about the many untested playwrights who conjure new work deserving to see the light of the stage? Why is it that rosters of theatre companies throughout the United States boast so little new work and almost never the work of unknown playwrights? Tony Kushner and Mary Zimmerman enjoy the privilege of seeing their new plays produced, but what about all of the creative and talented though as yet unknown playwrights?
Financial pressures are undoubtedly fierce. Tickets prices pay only a portion of production costs and audiences are fickle. Corporate and foundation funders also impose their tacit or explicit standards. In this environment, even Edward Albee's new play "The Goat or Who is Sylvia" tests boundaries and therefore the loyalty of theatregoers and donors.
In San Francisco there's hope. A loosely knit collaboration among several small theatres and an organization called the Playwrights Foundation makes it possible for audiences to savor the thrill of seeing new work while enabling playwrights to find the support and fellowship crucial to developing their work. The cornerstone project of the Playwrights Foundation is the annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival, a small but action-packed project that incubates and brings to life several new plays each year.
When Brighde Mullins submitted her newly written play "Water Stores from the Mojave Desert" for consideration of the 2005 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, she landed in competition with over five hundred other playwrights. Amy Mueller, Artistic Director of the Playwrights Foundation, says that she is devoted to maintaining high integrity in the selection process. To avoid the temptation of a strong leader picking her or his favorite play, every submission to the Festival is read by at least two people on a selection committee made up of a diverse and rotating group of theatre professionals. Two different readers must agree on the appropriate next step for each play, which is then either returned to the playwright, or it advances to the next stage where it is read again. This process continues until the fate of only about a dozen of the original 500-plus plays remains undecided. The artistic staff of the Festival makes the final decision about inclusion in the Festival based upon artistic, production, and financial considerations.
Ultimately Mullins' was among the seven plays selected for inclusion in the Festival. For those like Mullins who are fortunate enough to be accepted into the Festival, the fun begins. Each play is allocated personnel and financial resources needed to bring the nascent work to the stage for two open-to-the-public staged readings. In the case of Mullins' "Water Stores from the Mojave Desert," the playwright worked for two weeks in close collaboration with director D.W. Jacobs, dramaturg Duca Knezevic, visual artist Timothy Cummings, production assistant Emily Kaplan, and five superb actors: Jason Frazier, Wanda McCaddon, Molly Stickney, Lynne Soffer and John Patrick Moore.
The process is somewhat different for each play but generally the playwright, dramaturg and director collaborate over two weeks to support the development of the play so it will be ready for a full production elsewhere. I asked the Playwright Foundation's literary director and dramaturg Duca Knezevic how the process for Mullins' play was typical or atypical of her experience with others. She responded:
"Dramaturgical work on every play is always different — even if you are dealing with the same artistic team for quite some time. Also, every playwright lives in her/his very own world into which we would rather sneak, than to be rude intruders and ungrateful guests. The goal is always to help the playwrights write their own plays, not what any specific director, actor, or audience member would want them to write. And it's an extremely personal, emotional process, almost like childbirth — and we are all nurses in that process. I immensely enjoyed working with Brighde Mullins who was such an inspiration to both me and director D.W. Jacobs. Some playwrights rewrite the whole play during those two weeks of the festival. Some barely change few lines. Brighde's play went through the process somewhere in between the two — although the cuts and editing were minimal within every particular scene, they were still done throughout the play, and a few new scenes were added. Now the question is whether the playwright will be happy with the changes that we made here and if they will hold in a future production. Given the fact that production is the ultimate goal of every play ever written, I think we moved the play closer to the production-ready script."
Mullins original inspiration for the play was a whimsical thought about an ornithologist becoming obsessed with a showgirl in a feather costume. She created a main character, Harriet, a retired Las Vegas showgirl who is seeking the services of a financial consultant, Phoebe, because her long-time friend and manager has been killed and her hard-earned savings seemed to have vanished with him. Harriet has a penchant for hummingbirds and keeps hundreds of them in her apartment. When she discloses this to Professor Kroodsma, an ornithologist, he asserts that it is impossible to raise hummingbirds in captivity and sets himself the goal of discovering her secret so that he might use her knowledge to gain professional acclaim. Ultimately, the lives of the characters become intertwined and as Harriet's life come to an end, certain facts about Phoebe's life and family come out. In the closing scene, Phoebe's mother appears and delivers a lengthy monologue, accompanied by a faux-gondolier, about life in Las Vegas. The play is at once straightforward in structure and unconventional because of the inclusion of this final scene.
After each of the two staged readings of "Water Stories from the Mojave Desert," Knezevic led the audience through a discussion based upon a three-part process designed by choreographer Liz Lerman. The first part of the discussion is devoted to affirmations. The audience is asked to call out any words, phrases, images or ideas that stayed with them. It was quite fun and exciting to hear what people said, like hearing a found poem based on the play. Next, the playwright asks the audience a question. Mullins asked the audience to describe what they learned in the play about Phoebe's relationship with her the family. Finally, in the third section of the discussion, the audience is allowed to ask the playwright questions. Knezevic moderated the entire conversation and she sternly warned the audience not to try to disguise their opinions in the form of a question. She also said that Mullins had the right to refuse to answer any of the questions posed. The audience failed to heed her warning and snuck their opinions in anyway but Mullins was gracious and answered all of the questions about her original motivation for the play, her ideas about character development, and especially questions about the unusual inclusion of a musical coda.
It was an exciting evening of theatre because one sensed the tension inherent in the early development of a play. The audience participation added another dimension to the process, somewhat like a structured improvisation.
In addition to seven staged readings presented this year, as an adjunct the Festival, San Francisco's Crowded Fire Theatre Company produced "Slow Falling Bird" which was originally developed as part of the 2003 Playwrights Festival.
Amy Mueller feels that "Slow Falling Bird" received its world premiere as a direct result of its inclusion in the 2003 Playwrights Festival. Doors have opened for Australian playwright Christine Evans and her play "Slow Falling Bird" throughout the San Francisco theatre community because of the connections made during the early development process. Beyond presenting the two staged readings of a play, the Playwrights Foundation seeks to build bridges that will lead each play to eventual full production.
"Slow Falling Bird" is a complex and multi-tiered exploration of refugee detention camps in Australia, an issue that resonates with relevance about detention and treatment of prisoners in current times. The narrative unfolds though a series of vignettes detailing the point-of-view of the prison guards, the prisoners, and through the imaginative and evocative storytelling of an unborn child and two ghosts hovering between life and death who serve as a spectral chorus.
Juliet Tanner and
Anil Margsahayam in
"Slow Falling Bird"
Crowded Fire Theatre's artistic director Rebecca Novick directed "Slow Falling Bird." She made bold use of a very small stage and minimal set to build a breathless pace toward the play's multiple violent climaxes and ultimate resolution. On the evening I attended, the theatre was packed with an enthusiastic audience made up of many participants in the 2005 Playwrights Festival. A true feeling of fellowship permeated the atmosphere. Indeed Crowded Fire looks to the Playwrights Festival as a source for new work as do several other San Francisco and Bay Area-based theatre groups. Novick particularly appreciates the ability to work with playwrights who are emerging writers yet not complete novices, such as those who typically receive recognition through the Playwrights Festival.
Getting a new play produced in the United States is a mysterious and often difficult endeavor. Even though San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and other regions in the country enjoy thriving theatre scenes, the production of new work is scarce. Fortunately, there are a few creative safe havens where new plays, even sometimes raw and unfinished, can receive development support that leads to production. Devoted not to their own artistic vision, but to nourishing the vision of individual playwrights, the Playwrights Foundation's impetus is not to find the next product, but to give space, fellowship and support to playwrights so they are in a stronger position to find production support elsewhere.
Sadly, this vision is not widely shared. In a distressing and much discussed move, Michael Ritchie, the new artistic director of Los Angeles-based Center Theater Group cut four programs devoted to play development. These programs, created in the 1980s and 90s had been devoted to playwrights who are sorely underrepresented in theatre: people with disabilities, Latino, Asian and African American playwrights. Ritchie was quoted in the New York Times saying that projects devoted to play development are 'a luxury we can no longer afford.'
As the clock ticks relentlessly into the twenty-first century, most major theatre companies are still looking back to the twentieth and earlier for inspiration. Enlightened artistic direction is needed so that precious resources can be devoted not just to honoring the past but to also expressing the present and exploring the future. If small theatre companies can muster the resources to present new work, why can't the larger ones?
Opening photo – Michael Storm in
Christine Evan's "Slow Falling Bird"
Catherine Conway Honig is a writer and critic
©2005 Catherine Conway Honig
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine