Ready for a little rant? I’ve kind of had it with complaints about the purported one-and-done mentality of American theater. I’ve had it because it’s simply not true; more, there are no facts to support this presumption.
Before I get into my actual argument, I will concede up front that most contests do indeed want unproduced work because they are in the business of discovering plays. They’re hoping that one day if your play does make it big, they will be able to say they recognized its potential before anybody else. Or maybe they just like playwrights and working with them. Or development is part of their mission, and there is grant money attached. (Maybe there are other reasons, and I’m happy to hear them in the comments section). Though they don’t always, when contests do offer production—especially when they offer it with no development—it’s frustrating for playwrights, who really do need several productions to get a play “finished” and who, after just one, are left in the unenviable position of trying to market a play that isn’t yet the best it can be. So to contest-holders, I urge you to please consider plays that have had productions and stipulate what kind are acceptable: played to fewer than 1000 people, non-Equity, no more than two, etc. This would go a long way toward helping playwrights have true marketable and production-ready work. It’s gratifying to see that some contests are trending in this direction: Yale and the Susan Glaspell come to mind.
Next, let me also preclude my argument by saying that none of this applies to the alarming trend of demanding unproduced ten-minute plays. I mean, effing really? It’s a ten-minute play. As somebody who curates a ten-minute play festival, BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories, I can attest that even when you don’t make that stipulation, you still have to wade through a lot of bad plays. Why then aren’t theaters asking for the best ten-minute play you have to offer, one proven by productions but still new to their audiences? I don’t get it (but please, if you have any explanation that makes sense, the comments section is below).
Where was I? Yes… where are the facts to support the one-and-done model? Excepting everything I’ve said above, when it comes to season productions, I can’t find any. Take a look at the season lists in American Theatre magazine and you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of plays being produced by member theaters have been produced before—often many (many) times. This is the norm, but to hear playwrights talk, you’d think every theater was showing world premieres and then adding them to a giant blacklist that all theaters consult before choosing their seasons. No.
The truth: if a theater wants to produce your play, they will produce it whether it’s been previously produced or not. Why? Because it’s a good play that they have fallen in love with and they think their audiences will, too. In fact, when I did research for Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project, the comment I heard most often from literary managers and artistic directors was that while they would love to do more work, they don’t because new plays traditionally lose money. So while everybody wants to discover a new play and embrace new work, they have to consider how much financial liability they can take on to do so. Which means there are fewer spots for new works in general, and which is why theaters are more likely to do a play that has been proven through multiple productions because it’s a more solid play, or has name recognition (either title or playwright), and because it’s still new to their audiences, which is who they serve.
That’s right. While theaters can and do encourage new work, they primarily exist to serve their audiences, not playwrights. If a theater is passionate about new work, it tries to cultivate an audience who will enjoy seeing new work and, hopefully, is successful in doing so (and often tries to do so through new play reading series with engagement, a much smaller commitment). But in the end, the plays they choose are those that they believe will challenge and entertain the audience they have. Not that there can’t be exceptions. Bruce Springsteen used to say in concerts, he plays one song for himself, then one for the other guy. Theaters probably aren’t as equitable as Bruce, but they know that when they do one for themselves, they should be prepared to take a financial hit for it (though it’s lovely when this doesn’t happen). (Theaters: please jump in here and slap me if I’m wrong about this.) Some theaters love the idea of being the first to produce a play (most are content with new-ish plays with name recognition), but they’ve cultivated audiences and sponsors that afford them that luxury, and they are wonderful and to be lauded and bowed to. But they are not the norm.
So in the final analysis, if a theater has rejected your play—not a contest, but a theater planning its season—it’s not because it had one production that played to 200 people in Podunk, USA. They don’t want to produce it because they don’t like it. Or because it’s still not ready for a production beyond your self-, hometown, or contest win production. Or because nobody’s ever heard of it–or you–and they don’t think it will make money (even break even). Or because of the zillion other plays they have to choose from, they love another one more than yours. Or any of these reasons Impact’s Melissa Hillman so eloquently lays out here. It is not because it’s been produced; trust artistic directors when they say they want to find good work; they mean it!
Does a theater like to call a play the world, West Coast, regional, state premiere? Sure, but they’ll call it the Buffalo or even Main Street premiere if they like the play enough. Because if a theater does new work and loves your play, it will produce it with or without a world premiere label. The idea that they won’t is ludicrous, and is serving as mob mentality battle cry that many playwrights–and I was one of them–take up without seeing that it has no basis in reason.
Why has this happened? Because of the aforementioned contests that want unproduced work. As a result, playwrights have gobs of places to send unproduced work and, generally speaking, those opportunities are easy to find through myriad lists that circulate the Internet (as opposed to second production marketing, which requires more independent research and a lot more hustle). Therefore, first production opportunities, by that very limitation, have less competition than second production opportunities, which makes first productions easier to get. If a contest entry wins or places among a pile of untested, undeveloped plays, playwrights assume they have gold. And maybe they do. But even assuming that’s true, so do tons of other playwrights, known playwrights, playwrights with relationships with theaters, playwrights with previous successes, major award-winning playwrights etc. So without explicit opportunities for plays that have been produced once, even twice or three times, for any available season production spot, you are competing not just with people who have an unproduced play, but with every existing play by every playwright on the planet, living and dead. Consider those odds. You are not fighting for a second production; you are fighting for a production period. One that you have to find yourself and that only the rare contest is going to come along and offer you. That’s why it’s so hard to get a second production. And yes, it’s a bitch.