Thursday, January 14, 2010

Outrageous Fortune

We had an event earlier this week around OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE, the new book by Todd London and Ben Pesner about “the life and times of the new American play.” It was attended by a lot of folks, artistic directors, managers, playwrights, and funders. I don’t usually talk about artistic matters, but this was really interesting. According to the authors there is a fundamental misunderstanding between playwrights and theatres about what the wants and needs are of each. Huh. Why? According to the authors it’s because we lie to each other. Huh. For example, the theatre says we really love your work but it’s not right for our audience. The playwright reasonably takes that to mean that the theatres number one concern is audience reaction to a play. Pesky audiences. I can’t presume to understand what that might mean but, according to the authors, when theatres are asked, audience reaction is most definitely not their top concern when considering a new play.

There was a discussion after the presentation of the findings of the book that I actually found a little disappointing; I guess I was hoping for some fireworks. Maybe it was hard for people to digest all of that information. Many playwrights spoke and many of them had very positive things to say about the work they were doing. Maybe it’s different in Chicago – maybe playwrights and theatres feel like they have excellent relationships.

I offered at the meeting that if people wanted to continue this conversation I would be happy to facilitate that. So, if you are interested, shoot me an email.



Unknown said...

I would throw out there that a lot of issues that exist nationally are relatively minor in Chicago: accessibility is easier, even at larger theatres; opportunities for development abound; many small companies focus on new work. I was hoping for more discussion on the business side (which is where I primarily work). How do you build audiences for new work? Movies do this very successfully, admittedly with much larger budgets than even the largest LORT theatre, but there must be something they're doing we could adapt. What are the limitations of large literary offices and how do you combat them? For instance, in a small theatre, you might only need to impress one person with your play. At a larger one, you might need to impress five or six or more. And that generally leads to safe, accessible choices. Where, in that system, does a truly original voice find their niche? And how do we deal with the fact that large theatres receive a lot of money for new play development, while the opportunities available to small and midsize theatres are practically nonexistent? Certainly there are large theatres that do play development well, but small theatres can do things large ones can't and vice versa. Can you have a healthy new play development landscape where only one major model is being funded?

I thought the study (and I have yet to read the book, so this is based on the presentations), was weighted towards the large-theatre model, which is an inherent weakness. There's plenty to learn about and nurture on the small theatre side, and every Rebecca Gilman, Keith Huff or Tracy Letts has at least part of their roots in small Chicago theatre.

Finally, where were the critics in this discussion? I know theatre people have a love/hate relationship with the critical establishment, but there's no doubt that, for those of us without the budgets to major advertising, critical praise is the number one way to drive audiences to our work. How can we talk about new work in this country without looking at the ways in which critics write about it and how that might help or hinder the state of the theatre?

I would have loved to make all these points, but only got called on once to advocate my pet theory that large theatres and small should be somehow affiliating themselves with each other. Thereafter, I listened to a lot of fairly polite conversation that didn't surprise me. Unfortunate, since we don't often get playwrights and administrators in a room together to talk about something we both care about and want to improve.

Tony Adams said...

As far as critics, Kris Vire was there. Chris Jones was not thrilled whit the study . . .

It was very much geared to the larger institutions, and I think that was intentional due to looking at the lively-hoods of writers.

I think one thing that is better and worse in Chicago is it is easier to get new work done in smaller theatres than most places. Small theatres don't pay people much though.

Couple that with premiere-itis, and I know it gives me pause from time to time. If I do this new work it may never be done again.

Unknown said...

Of course when they broke out the average amounts these playwrights were making in royalty, it worked out to about what I paid playwrights at Stage Left. So I'm guessing the playwrights interviewed were mostly not working at the big theatres, but were instead getting an occasional production at small ones (on average of course - I'm sure individual experiences varied). Which suggests that the playwrights interviewed were mostly not working, or were not working much, at the theatres interviewed. Which still leaves this gap in the study.

Clearly small theatres aren't paying playwrights a wage they could live off of (and mostly they're not paying *anyone* a wage they can live off of, including the staff). But they're part of the equation, both on the positive (a great opportunity for a playwright to work closely with key decision-making artists; a place where experimentation can happen with less total pressure) and the negative (apparently they can take a play out of circulation anywhere forever by producing it; no one gets paid what they're worth, possibly contributing to industry-wide downward pressure). But they were largely left out of a discussion of the ecosystem.

As for critics, I was commenting more on the fact that they weren't part of the study. Perhaps they're far enough outside the practitioner realm (agents seem to be at the outer limit of individuals who were interviewed), that the study didn't choose to include them. And that's understandable. But if we're going to ever have a real conversation about audience for new work, we have to take the critics into account. How do their comments impact ticket sales and is that different from the impact they have on classical theatre, established scripts or second/third productions? Is their tone of coverage different? That's going to vary from city to city, but they're important questions.

Tom Arvetis said...

I want to comment on Deb's statement about playwrights being rejected because their work isn't right for the theatre's audience. While that statement may at first appear to give the audience's reaction a great deal of consideration, I think that's a little misleading. That response could simply be a reflection of mission. For example, I am constantly letting playwrights know that their submissions aren't right for our audience because they are submitting to me without looking at who I produce for: kids. I'd say at least 70% of the samples/plays I get fit into that category. The playwrights are submitting to every company they see in the Dramatist Guild Handbook that accept submissions without looking at the theatres' missions. If I wrote a musical and submitted it to Steppenwolf, I'd be shooting myself in the foot. Steppenwolf does not produce musicals.

How well does the playwright know the work of the company to which they are submitting? In a city like Chicago, your possibility of getting produced are much greater (I suppose) given the number of companies producing new work. But each of those companies is trying to differentiate itself and may want the work they produce to meet certain criteria. I would agree with Kevin, however. If the study is focused on the big LORT theatres, then the choices would tend to be much safer due to the number of people that need to sign off on it. And that is probably a pretty good reflection of that theatre's core audience.

Unknown said...

I think that's true, regarding safety in play selection. But where would we be if someone hadn't taken a chance on Beckett, Pinter, Albee, etc.? Larger theatres will tend towards safer work for a variety of reasons. What I would want to figure out, if I worked at such a theatre, is ways to work against those pressures so when the right playwright comes along, my theatre is in position to jump on their work.