This past weekend, there was a big gathering of dramaturgs in Washington, D.C., convened by the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. As is usually the case when dramaturgs meet en masse, there was a fair amount of navel-gazing. But some interesting questions were addressed, most of which were centered around the ways in which we develop new plays. The discovery of new writers and the cultivation of their work is a principle concern and responsibility of dramaturgs, but the accepted processes through which this happens have become fraught with some controversy. Check out this speech from playwright Richard Nelson, a diatribe that was the cause of much fist-shaking in D.C.. To summarize, he took issue with the way readings, workshops and other enforced developmental programs create a culture in which playwrights feel dependent on, and beholden to, theaters to provide them with help that they might not necessarily need. I, like most dramaturgs, vehemently disagree with Dick in the sense that I believe this “culture of help” has significant artistic merit that outweighs the possible negative consequences he cites. Nelson also suggests that theaters insist they provide this help because it will allow them to grab on to a financial stake should the play go on to continued success. The theater will assert (contractually) that if it weren’t for the guidance that they provided, the play would not have gone on to such glory. I’m not sure this is entirely accurate but when he says, “You apply principles of hardnosed business to every element of the theater and you will destroy the theater,” it rang true for me. It’s the kind of chiding that we here in the L.A. small theater world would be wise to heed.
Nelson’s piece implicitly suggests that a risk-averse, bottom-line-centric culture has overtaken theater. I agree, and I believe that this culture has extended into our community. Here, we contribute to plays and playwrights becoming trapped in the proverbial developmental hell of readings and workshops not only because of the chance it allows for us to make some money but also because it allows us to save some money. Endless readings and workshops allow us to promote ourselves as being in the new play business (which itself can lead to increased economic support) without ever fully rolling the dice on these plays. And even when we do put our money where our mouth is and give these plays full productions, the way in which we conduct these readings has already done serious harm. I went to an event last week that is a part of a theater company’s long-standing reading series. Actually, the company went to great lengths to stress that these aren’t readings but workshops, with a rehearsal period and blocking and all that jazz. This creates the favorable impression that what you are seeing is closer to a production than it is to a bunch of actors cold-reading text and this brings in an audience. But of course the company didn’t have to spend nearly the same kind of money or devote nearly the same kind of time that they would have if the play were actually being produced. And as a result, the actors had their noses buried in their scripts as they plodded through their barely-learned blocking on a slapped-together set. So in exchange for publicly giving off the appearance of serious investment in new work and giving themselves another event to market and raise money at, the company had created an event that was (a) not entertaining or enlightening to watch and (b) I would guess not useful to the writer because the actors were too concerned with turning their script pages at the right time and hitting their marks to think about, you know, acting.
Look, I’m not saying stop with the readings and workshops. But I am encouraging us to stop thinking of these as cheap alternatives to full productions and to remember that readings and workshops exist not for the audience and not for the theater but for the artists. One of the great things about working in small theater is that things are never very complicated. We so often complain about how little we are paid (myself very much included) but the beauty of that reality is that we never have anything to lose. When our money comes from Kickstarter campaigns and donations from friends and family rather than ticket sales and prestigious grants, it doesn’t really matter if the show sells or not. We’re not beholden to anyone and no one’s livelihood is at stake. Its just us, working out of our living rooms. We can take risks that the institutions represented in D.C. and that Nelson rails against cannot. We can do these plays. We shouldn’t be casting them down into developmental hell. We should be pulling them out.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.