Friday, October 18, 2013

Where Do New Plays Come From?

PlayPenn the new play development conference at the Adrianne Theatre just put out a new call for scripts for next summer’s conference and that got me thinking about where art comes from, particularly what we regard as new art. And what is that anyway?

Does new art break free of the constraints of the old and familiar art forms, tackle new subjects, force us to see ourselves in new ways? Or is it simply a subtle reworking of what we already know with just a bit more technical razzmatazz? In talking about plays, in particular, does it break new ground covering topics formerly taboo, or does it dazzle us with stagecraft that we've never seen before, engaging the audience in the experience. And does new work come from traditional theater sources, from regional theaters, from Fringe festivals, or is it right here in our own backyard?

There is an inclination to see art, in what ever form it manifests, as a creation that springs full-blown, Athena-like, from its creator’s head and once created is immediately recognized as art. But the reality is that for the most part the art that we see, that finally appears in museums and on stage and in the bookstore, has been through an arduous process that has little to do with the creative impulse from whence the original inspiration for the work emerged. And in that process it often loses itself and whatever was radical and new has been softened and modified to meet the demands of the market – known otherwise as the audience.

It’s hard to give examples of those changes unless you are involved in the discussions and rehearsals, creative conferences and lonely nights, because what we see is the end product of the collaboration that goes on between writer, director, designer, and performers. But local festivals like PlayPenn, The Arden Theater Company’s playwright residency program, The Writer’s Room, which gave a playwright six weeks to complete the draft of a new play that was then workshopped and presented in performance, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s PTC@Play Festival offering, which offers staged readings of new plays by emerging and established playwrights, give us an opportunity to witness and, in a sense, participate as collaborators in the process of creation.

The creative process is inherently a messy one, expressing itself in fits and starts, incomplete stories, and re-worked paintings. It starts with an idea, finds an appropriate media - script, water color, mosaic, dance – is worked, reworked, reworked again, then hopefully, produced and eventually reviewed.
It’s rare for an audience to be in at the beginning, unless we are looking at a retrospective of a famous artist’s early work, e.g., Scorsese’s student films, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.

The path from conception to production for a new play is usually a long one, at least two years, according to the various dramaturg’s who gathered to talk about the selection and development process for new works at last summer’s PlayPenn Seminar on “Different Approaches, Different Cities: Are Our New Plays Being Locally Grown?” During that time the author’s original vision is buffeted about by various ‘creative advisors’ until, perhaps, she has lost sight of what she was trying to say in the first place. What emerges, she hopes, is something that audiences will flock to see so that she might with her next play, or the one after that, finally find her own voice, a voice that we will come to recognize as distinctly hers.

These festivals showcasing new work are a gift for the playwright.  They are also a chance to recognize and develop local talent. Although in art, as in cuisine, there is a growing locavore movement, the reality is that only about six percent of locally produced plays are created by local artists.

Paul Meshejian, Artistic Director of PlayPenn wanted to change that. His goal when he founded PlayPenn six years ago was to bring new work, particularly local artists, to the attention of local producers, although he found the local producers were often slow to catch on.

In the six years it has been in existence, PlayPenn has developed 59 plays, 37 of which have gone on to performances in repertory companies across the country and around the world. And because the selection process involves artistic directors of organizations throughout the country, a great many more plays are given an exposure they otherwise would not have had.

As for the themes that emerge, “social change is a slow affair,” says Meshejian. It takes a critical mass for the shift to happen. New plays, he says, normalize controversial social issues, like gender and racial equality, but since most audiences for even regional theater are inherently conservative, the future for being able to produce plays dealing with controversial issues lies with the small and mid-size venues.

The artists, too, are not necessarily ‘outsiders’ to the system. Many have been trained in university MFA programs, although Meshejian feels that these institutions have in some ways co-opted the field. Others have grown up working in theater as actors and directors. And all are constrained by the assumed limitations of writing plays for small companies, which usually means no more than four characters working with one set. Although, Meshejian says, he won’t do musicals, he also doesn’t want to do a play that is just two people sitting at a table talking to each other.

All of this means that while theater pushes some boundaries, there is a great tendency to continue to do more of the same. So when new productions are offered, or plays created by local artists appear, it’s a wonderful opportunity to expand our own horizons and discover some unexpected treats.

This past summer PlayPenn offered readings of six new plays, two plays in progress, as well as a weeklong Whirlwind Workshop in which playwrights working with established artists developed ten minute plays that culminated in a final reading. 

The Arden Theater Company’s playwright residency program, The Writer’s Room, gave a playwright six weeks to complete the draft of a new play that was then workshopped and presented in performance.

And the One Minute Play Festival in collaboration with InterAct Theatre Company featured almost 100 plays by more than 50 playwrights performed by nearly fifty actors at a dizzying pace. 

For those who missed the summer offerings, in February, the Philadelphia Theatre Company will again present its PTC@Play Festival offering staged readings of new plays by emerging and established playwrights. Last year’s winner was xxxx whose sss can be seen at Interact Theatre Company this season.

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