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From BRENT HAZELTON, ASSOCIATE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR AND DIRECTOR OF NEW PROJECT DEVELOPMENT, MILWAUKEE REP
“We’re two seasons in to reestablishing a literary department and new project development program after a few seasons of hiatus that was due largely to the same kind of cuts resulting from the economic downturn that everyone felt. As part of that revival, we’re trying to become familiar with as many voices as possible after having been off the radar for awhile. In terms of material that we acquire, we currently have an open submission policy (though we’re debating the practicality and feasibility of it), and make every effort to get scripts turned around in not more than three months. Anything longer just seems not right, and if we, on the literary personnel side of regional theater have an issue, it’s in that response time to artists. There’s just never enough time in the day to explore all of the voices that one wants to explore, and inevitably a backlog builds up—I’d say that we’re about three months behind our own three-month goal right now (but that’s a far cry from where we were 24 months ago—responding to submissions that were six or seven years old!). For us at Milwaukee Rep, it’s about creating relationships, to get an idea of what someone’s art is, and—with the exception of all of those great new writing festivals—the only way that one can do that is by sitting down and reading not less than a couple of that person’s plays. It’s important to keep the dialogue chain going. If somebody sends us a play that we think is brilliant, but for whatever reason we know we won’t ever produce, we definitely let that person know; maybe it’s not this play, but it’s that writer a few years from now. You have to take that time if you want to explore an artist thoroughly and build strong, mutually-beneficial relationships.
“We do offer commissions, and I’m happy to say that we’re going to start seeing the fruits of our new project development endeavors in the 14/15 season. We’ve got ambitions to program a significant number of new projects every season across each of our three performance spaces, and we’re working up to being able to do that in a genuinely sustainable way that supports and nurtures writers and creators just as much as it supports and nurtures productions. At the moment, however, we’re more heavily weighted toward producing extant material. That’s just where we find ourselves at this point of our institutional journey. If we could switch it to three, four, five, maybe even six world premieres in each of our twelve-play seasons in seven or eight years from now… To me, that feels like we’d be a vibrant contributor to the new play conversation of the overall theater ecology, but is that right for our audience? For the institution? Is that too many new plays? Not enough? All questions to be answered, and we’re working on what those answers are specifically for Milwaukee Rep. There are so many great writers out there, and my personal largest source of frustration is not having the time and resources to explore and develop relationships with each of them.
On the other hand, what we run into as theater managers is that, with declines in traditional contributed funding sources in recent years, the always tenuous margins between surplus and deficit have become even more razor thin. There’s a tendency, if you’re in a period of struggle institutionally and whatever you’re doing isn’t landing, to look at what’s working for other theaters. I think that’s natural, and, in some cases, very beneficial in terms of creating conversations around specific plays on a national level and launching those plays—and, in connection, the art form itself—into the larger, popular public consciousness. The downside, of course, is that programming other theaters’ hits, or last season’s small-cast Broadway success story, creates a certain homogeneity that is not helpful for the growth and overall diversity of the form, to say nothing of the individual identities of our regional institutions themselves.
First and foremost is the uniqueness of an author’s voice, so be your own writer. And also keep putting it out there.The worst thing that can happen is when people just sort of give up and stop sharing with other people; that’s when I think we start to struggle with innovation as an art form, when every major regional theater is doing six of the same fourteen plays that had commercial success the season before. That doesn’t seem like the way forward as an industry and it’s the writers who are really going to show us what the way forward is because they are creating the product. But without a platform for that product, that play is just sitting in a drawer. It all comes back to building long-term relationships between institutions and creators that lead to unique and adventurous but carefully developed and well-supported productions. I think that’s the best way forward that we have.
There are times when, as an administrator at an ambitious (and therefore, understaffed—aren’t we all?!), regional theater, a new, unsolicited script is the only art that I’ll touch that day—or perhaps even that week if we’re in a budget draft cycle. And that time is very valuable to me. If I spend five hours plowing through six or seven plays, I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground in terms of understanding people’s work and what’s going on in theater at a grass roots level—and that’s far, far less than the ideal proportion of time that should be spent in exploration. But that’s just the manifestation of our institutional realities as an industry. And everybody has these stories of ‘Oh, I sat down and opened this envelope and programmed the play five hours later.’ Those discoveries are the romantic notion, that really exciting, discovery part of the search—that keeps us opening the envelopes. But those moments are getting more and more rare, largely, I think, because of the exploding support mechanisms for emerging professional writers in the country. It’s a rare thing, now, for excellent writers to go undiscovered, and that’s wonderful. Even with that, of course, there are still voices that we aren’t hearing, and those doors need to be opened. But with limited resources, how do you ensure that those doors don’t close? We’re actually in the midst of an internal conversation about whether or not to continue to accept unsolicited scripts. We need to explore, but we don’t have the means to support even a small fraction of the unsolicited material that we receive. For a writer (another of the hats that I wear), it’s marvelous to have someone reading your play—but if all you’re ever going to get back is, “Hey, nice play, thanks for sharing…” There has to be a better way, for all of us, to really make meaningful impacts than that. And we’re committed to finding it.”
My nutshell takeaway: Is it possible to be both encouraged and discouraged by the same post? I love Mr. Hazelton’s encouragement and positive attitude about new work, but, by his own admission, it bumps right up against that reality wall: new work doesn’t keep theaters solvent. Open submission policies are impractical. If even an artistic associate at a regional theater is saying that regional theaters shouldn’t all be doing the same plays that were successful last season but that it’s necessary, how does the problem ever get solved? If there are answers, I hope that Milwaukee Rep finds them.
It seems to me that while regional theaters once were the ones who introduced new work into the mainstream—I know, in Buffalo, where I live, the former Studio Arena was responsible for launching the careers of the city’s two very successful and frequently produced playwrights: A.R. Gurney and Tom Dudzick. I’m sure other playwrights can share similar stories from the day. Now, it seems as though new work exploration falls primarily to smaller theaters, with smaller budgets—theaters that may do an extraordinary production but one that nobody outside of town is looking at, which means a new play—however great—often lives and dies in that production which, to add insult to injury, makes it no longer eligible for myriad contests that want only unproduced work.
What can be done? I have a couple suggestions if anybody is listening:
1) Regional theaters should all commit to doing at least one new work per year. It should be part of the subscription, but a scaled back production that allows for cheaper tickets because the point is exposure. Subscribers trust a theater’s brand, and will see a new play if they trust the host theater. And regional theaters get big reviews, reviews that get noticed. It’s not enough to say new plays don’t make money. Not all regional theater subscribers keep tabs on every play on Broadway, i.e. they may have never heard of Venus in Fur or Clybourne Park until they saw ads in their local papers. You sell a new play the same way.
2) Play contest organizers need to start cutting playwrights some slack. I know that the grant money is in new plays, but even if a play has had one production, you can bet that it changed a LOT while that play was running. I know when I have a production, I go home every night and make changes, changes that the current production won’t see but that make the play better. By allowing even one production, you’re getting a better product overall, and it’s still a new play.
To me, it seems as though there are many, many people committed to the idea of new work. But loving the idea just isn’t enough. Mr. Hazelton talks about the need for playwrights to keep writing, to keep things fresh, to keep sharing, and I think we’re doing it. But as he said, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of playwrights, without anything near those numbers on the other end to receive. I thank Mr. Hazelton for being one of them.
Until next time,