By Sevan Kaloustian Greene, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
Hot on the heels of starting this blog another wildfire of conversation has sparked over on the Arena Stage's blog stemming from a panel discussion at the PlayPenn Conference led by David Dower in which Hal Brooks, a well-established director, wagged his finger over the issue of Arena's elimination of their open submission policy.
At the heart of Dower's argument is that, essentially, open submission policies are pointless because of the lack of manpower to read through and properly respond to all the scripts coming in. Instead, Arena has decided to continue and pursue relationships with playwrights they already know or those that are recommended to them. He goes into further detail in his post "Dear Hal Brooks."
Brooks quite astutely calls Dower on the holes in the argument in his response where he quite rightly asks: Then how do we find the emerging and new voices? He provides airtight anecdotes and arguments over the need to find and support the next voices of the stage page.
This is exactly the kind of issue/debate I wanted the EWG section of this blog to be around for. It's an important, even vital, issue for emerging playwrights. It's essential that we not only respond to the Arena postings (and please feel free to share your thoughts here as well), but also that we spread this conversation because all people in the business should have an opinion about this.
Hop on over to the Arena blog, check out what Dower and Brooks have to say, comment, spread the word. Have an opinion and make it known - on this blog or that one - otherwise, things won't change.
A Pre-Mid-Career Playwright's Response to David and Hal
By Chris Cragin, member of the 2008 Emerging Writers Group
Is a theater company’s value determined by the quality of work they produce, or by their contribution to the artistic growth and development of the American Theater? If the former is true, a theater that only produces work by established and mid-career writers, but does it well, is valuable because of the inspiration and creative engagement it offers its audiences. If the latter is true, then a theater’s ability to discover, nurture, and deliver new voices to the dialogue of American Theater will determine its lasting impact. I’m not a theater historian. You tell me.
As a playwright, I appreciate the transparency of David Dower’s new closed submissions policy at Arena Stage. Personally, if no one on the artistic staff of a theater is going to read my work, I would rather redirect my submission efforts elsewhere. Why would I waste time trying to muscle my work into an impenetrable institution when there are smaller theater companies chomping at the bit to align themselves with a playwright they believe has the fresh talent and drive to rise to the top?
The needy artist in me loves Hal Brooks’ passion for opening the American Theater’s kingdom gates to new voices, new writers. Thank God for directors who get a thrill from the grueling process of directing new plays. Where would any of us be without them?!
When I write plays, I don’t think about what they will contribute to American Theater, so perhaps I shouldn’t hold this same standard to producing organizations. I write stories that move me, change me, open up some hidden part of my soul. Why shouldn’t producers be allowed this same pleasure? I can only offer that part of what allows me to find those gems that become my plays is a certain amount of openness, a belief that gems can appear in the most unlikely places. If I only searched for gems in jewelry stores, I doubt I would ever find anything unique and special enough to write a play about. Theater is about the delight of surprise. That’s what makes the magic.
Chris Cragin is a 2008 member of the EWG. Her play, A GIRL NAMED ESTHER (developed with Emily Zemple and Jonathan Roberts) is opening in Baltimore this fall at the E.M.P. Collective's new multi-media performance space.
By Pia Wilson, member of the 2008 Emerging Writers Group
I am Cinderella. Sort of. I had self-produced a play and been involved in a few small festivals before I applied to The Public’s Emerging Writers Group. I was looking at The Public’s website because in my naiveté, I thought The Public would just love to produce the play I was about to finish. It was a great, political play, right up their alley. I thought they’d read it, love it, produce it, and I’d go down in the annals of playwriting history. Then, I saw a blurb about the inaugural EWG, and I thought it’d be easier to get into the group than to get The Public to produce my play outright. Again, naive.
My references for my application: my best friend (who also happened to be my supervisor at work) and a fellow self-producing playwright (because I figured I needed to have someone theatrical as a reference). Still, I got into the group (and I beat out more than 700 other applicants to do it)! I didn’t have real connections, just hope and a really good play. Thank goodness The Public and Time Warner wanted to develop a program that gave access writers who didn’t have traditional access to the broader theater world. Thank goodness they had an open submission policy. Thank goodness I didn’t have to be vetted by developmental conferences and readings and the myriad of other things I only learned about as I entered the inside of the theatrical caste system.
I was one of the great unwashed playwrights. That’s why I get so disappointed when I hear about exclusionary policies at theaters. The latest disappointment came when reading about Arena’s closed submission policy. It’s exclusionary and a step in the wrong direction.
Here’s an idea that is revolutionary in its simplicity: the purpose of theaters (big and small) is to present theatrical works of merit on the stage for an audience. That’s it. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “What about making money?” What about it? Would a theater that existed solely on the gifts of one mega-patron and never sold tickets be any less of a theater than one that earns money through more traditional manners? No, not as long as they presented theatrical works of merit to an audience. Would a theater that never presented a single play and instead held a bazaar every day and twice on Sundays be less of a theater? Yes. It wouldn’t be a theater at all but rather a theater-like edifice.
So, if a theater’s sole purpose is to present artistic works of merit, then logic would dictate that finding the best new work would be an imperative, not a nuisance. It would also seem to dictate using as many avenues as possible to find fresh, intelligent, new work.
If I was looking for all the diamonds in the world, I wouldn’t start at the diamond mines. Those diamonds are easy to find; everybody knows where those are. By searching high and low in strange places, by letting communities know I was on the lookout for rocks, sure, I’d get a lot of worthless rabble, but I would also get the shining stones I was seeking. I’d take those stones and combine them with some I found in the diamond mines, and boy, would I be rich!
Theaters need to invest in different systems for finding new work. Scouting at smaller venues is great. Combine that with reading submissions, talking to communities, competitions, theater circuses, playwright wrestling matches, whatever it takes ...
Perhaps instead of shutting submission down, a better solution would be to ask for more. Perhaps we need a new centralized, national submission center as big as the library of Alexandria where every play is read and evaluated. Perhaps we need to have a theatrical congress that meets and exchanges information about exciting new plays that have come into their mailboxes, been put up in community centers or the local pubs or favorite indie theaters.
Let’s do something new.
I know it is hard to divest from the status quo, especially when you benefit most from it. But artistic directors needs to invest in ideas, not just friends of friends or the chosen few. We need to end the culture of scarcity we have and add some place settings to the table. Let’s innovate. Let’s diversify. Let’s invite the barbarians into the house.
It’s not easy reading piles and piles of plays. But if it is your purpose to present artistic works (and you haven’t decided to only present plays from 30 years ago or longer), then reading plays needs to be a higher priority. Systems are invented all the time. It’s not enough to say something is difficult and give up on it.
What would have happened if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had closed her wish submission policy? There would have been one lame ball, and the prince would have married one of the town’s accepted socialites. It could be a happy ending ... sort of.
Pia Wilson is a member of the inaugural Emerging Writers Group, and her first book report was on Cinderella.
Why We Matter
By Sevan Kaloustian Greene, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
Look, let's be real, reading plays is not always fun because there are a plethora of less-than-ideal writers and plays out there (or to be blunt, shitty writing). I've been a reader for a couple of different programs and I have the utmost respect for literary managers and their departments. I do not envy their jobs because it truly has to be a labor of love. I've walked through the Public Theater halls enough times to be astounded by the sheer volume of scripts that have been read and are waiting on the docket. Sure, it's a lot easier to go to the script that a peer recommends. I get that logic; it helps weed through the chafe. But if all we do is support established playwrights with a short eye to upcoming ones then we are forcing theatre into a vapid stagnation.
I'm a new voice in every single way. I came to NYC as a professional actor and very accidentally fell into playwriting. I was not known as a playwright and had no street cred as one when I was accepted into the EWG program. But they saw something there in my neophyte little play (ugly writing warts and all) and took a vested interest in getting to know me and develop me as a writer. Very few people do that. Our business is one of relationships; it has to be. With an overabundance of actors, directors, and writers it's hard to figure out who has the goods without feeling like we are wasting our time, so I get the desire to cut out the extra time and just work on jumping on previously built bridges.
But there has to be a balance of some kind. Most new playwrights, look to regional theatres and new play programs to cut their teeth and to get their work out there. In New York it's become a Sisyphean task to get produced or recognized without a celebrity actor or director attached or without direct heavenly intervention. Most of the exciting new work is being done off-Broadway (thought a little less each day), off-off-Broadway, and in regional theatres where the fetishism of gimmicky theatre has not reached.
Yes, there are a lot of new playwrights popping up every day, but taking the time to look through and find those gems has to be worthwhile. How else will we ride the zeitgeist of theatrical revolutions if we keep bringing the old war horses out repeatedly? God knows I have an uphill climb as an emerging playwright who is also a playwright of color, but it would certainly make it a little easier if I knew that I could rely on relationships AND programs that are seriously interested in meeting someone they have no awareness of at all.
Sevan, an NYC actor-playwright, is a 2011 EWG member. And he's a foreigner. His plays babel, Doon,Say Something and Narrow Daylight will have readings this fall. For more info: www.sevangreene.com.
The Emerging Writers Group is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.