New Plays: The Coddling Can Be Constraining

Sarah Ruhl, above, and Sheila Callaghan are part of 13P, a group of playwrights who produce their own works rather than have them stuck indefinitely in development.
Sarah Ruhl, above, and Sheila Callaghan are part of 13P, a group of playwrights who produce their own works rather than have them stuck indefinitely in development. (Macarthur Foundation)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Does the American theater treat its playwrights like babies? You might think so, considering the elaborate midwifing infrastructure that has been erected around play development in recent years.

The names often have an infantilizing quality: PlayPenn in Philadelphia, or the relatively new Inkubator series here. Then there's that $125 million reconstruction at Arena Stage's longtime home in Southwest that will yield a significant new addition: a new-play venue called the Cradle.

Playwright Richard Nelson took issue with all this complicated, sometimes condescending and frequently enforced support of new plays -- which involves readings and workshops and loads of advice heaped on playwrights, with no guarantee of production -- in a speech last year to the Laura Pels Foundation.

"The play will always not be right," said Nelson, then the head of Yale's playwriting program. "Will always need 'help.' In other words, writing a play is too big of a job for just the playwright to achieve. This, I believe, is now a prevalent attitude in the American theater. And this mind-set is devastating."

Ari Roth, artistic director of Washington's Theater J (and a playwright himself), counters: "These institutions that treat new plays with kid gloves -- why are they doing it? Nobody wants to see a new play unless it's terrific. New plays are nobody's best friend until they've got some heat behind them. So we're protecting them."

This internal disconnect springs from the grand upside of the American theater: a massive generational boom in professionalism as companies have continued to expand and evolve over the past generation. See, for instance, the rash of expensive new stages built around Washington over the past decade, and note how the Dramatist Guild's executive director for creative affairs, Gary Garrison, describes his job as "the care and feeding of 6,000 playwrights." The number and quality of academic programs that train playwrights continue to increase, as well.

That's partly why David Dower, producing artistic associate at Arena, describes this as a period of abundance for new plays. "There are many more playwrights having access to the field than ever before," Dower said last week from Minneapolis, where he was participating in (naturally) a new-play workshop called PlayLabs 2008.

It's high season for the development factories, in fact, whether it's the long-established O'Neill National Theater Institute or the influential Sundance Institute Theater Lab. This month, Garrison led the Kennedy Center's Summer Playwriting Intensive, where 40 emerging writers were in contact with such established playwrights as Marsha Norman and Quiara Alegría Hudes (of this year's Tony-winning musical "In the Heights," and an alumna of the Intensive). From there, he went to Philadelphia for the PlayPenn workshop.

There is much, of course, to be gained from these tightly focused, rigorously organized retreats and boot camps. Jessica Burgess, artistic director of the Inkwell (home of the Inkubator series), says: "Young writers don't know how much can go unwritten, and how much they can ask of their collaborators. A director can create a picture worth a thousand words, and you don't know you can leave those words out until you see the picture."

Yet as the now-common development models became institutionalized, feelings sometimes hardened as playwrights began to feel they were stuck in utero -- more commonly known by the Hollywood term "development hell." Writers have been known to bounce around the country from reading to workshop, never quite landing a full production for the play getting all that attention and help.

The result has been a slow-building backlash epitomized by Nelson's speech. Jeremy Skidmore, producer of the recent Source Festival, says, "I find that playwrights are less interested in just doing workshops or readings unless they're at the very, very beginning of the process or the very, very beginnings of their careers."

So playwrights are saying a polite "no, thanks" to the process that's not aimed squarely at full production?

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