New Play Festivals are Eating Their Young

Posted: May 1, 2013 in Cara Blouin, crotchety ranting, reviews, theater
Tags: , , ,
Cara Blouin

Shakespeare was supposed to have written all of his plays in one draft, each of them bursting perfectly formed into the world like the goddess Athena from the skull of Zeus. I don’t currently know any writers who can do that, but the model that playwrights have access to is either apathetic, disingenuous or expects exactly this sort of miraculous birth.

While two or three local writers have brought enough full productions into the world to be demonstrably safe for production companies to invest in and have new, full-length plays produced regularly,  the rest are trapped in a churning purgatorial gutter of bake-offs and 24-hour play festivals and one-off one-act nights. The majority of new plays that I see are accidents, huddled together with their equally ill-conceived brethren in the institution referred to as a ‘festival.’

A new play ‘festival’ of one-act or ten-minute plays is a really great way for a theater company to take in a lot of money without spending much. They can offer the playwrights exposure instead of a stipend, pay a large number of actors nothing because it’s only ten minutes, call two cafe chairs and a cube “the set” for the same reason, and bank on each of the many participants having an exponential number of people who will be compelled by loyalty to show support, paying the same ticket price they would for a fully-produced play. ‘Festivals’ don’t happen because anyone wants to see them (I can’t remember the last time I went to an evening of new plays and walked out saying, ‘wow, that was exciting and compelling and a great use of my time!’ because it was never), they happen because they make good economic sense.

A company picks a theme, not compelled by a desire to explore it, but to wedge it into their season thematically(baseball!). Or maybe it’s February (love!), or there is funding or recognition from a larger producer to be acquired (Paris in the fucking 20’s, for Christ’s sake!). Which means that the foundation of the whole thing is an idea the company never even cared about in the first place.

Writers — who want their work produced, but likely don’t have an existing play about (the Irish Potato famine!) — throw something together for the deadline. Now, a generation of latchkey plays exist to take up space on the writers’ hard drives and which haven’t had the benefit of criticism or revision in the rare case where either, under different circumstances, may have been inspired.

Talented actors are given the tiresome task of filling out poorly-developed characters and masking plot holes and exposition.  Half-interested directors are hardly motivated to make half-baked skits look like  plays that are ready for production.

This is shaping up to be a great night at the theater!

This way of working isn’t fair to the embarrassed participants, and it certainly isn’t fair to the audience, many of whom will attend out of a sense of obligation to the artists, not interest in the ‘work’. Mostly, however, it’s not fair to the writers, who have writing that is far from their best, hasn’t had any rigor applied to it and is about something they didn’t even really want to write about in the first place presented to an apathetic audience as though it were a real and complete artistic venture.

The implicit idea that causes writers to bear these ills is that having their writing samples produced will lead to full-length productions of the work they actually do on purpose.  But they’re laboring in vain. The likelihood that a playwright’s work will end up in someone’s season because an artistic director saw their ten-minute piece in a festival is staggeringly slim, if only because representing yourself under the worst possible conditions is less than likely to move a producer.

A company that cares about bringing up great new plays needs to invest in their development.  Writers need workshops and readings, but companies also need rubrics for what makes work good, for what makes them willing to present it. And they need to create opportunities for writers who also believe in that rubric to improve within it and work towards full production.  If a festival is going to be an opportunity to help writers create mature plays, it needs to be curated with some intention.

It hurts the entire medium to present a showcase of unfinished skits as a polished final product. It’s particularly cruel because many of the writers are emerging artists who can’t yet– and shouldn’t be expected to– successfully write something worth watching in 24 hours (or while suspended upside down, or on the theme of acupuncture, or whatever the gimmick is). At the very least, emerging playwrights are owed the support of a company that cares about the idea behind a festival. They’re owed selectivity based on careful examination of what they write against a clearly defined set of standards. They’re owed  time to refine and perfect the work with supportive, experienced directors and dramaturgs before it’s shown to an audience as representative of what they can do.  It’s not right for companies to tempt writers with a potentially lasting or fruitful relationship then serve patrons whatever those writers hastily produce in hopes of attaining it.  Audiences might not know what’s in the meatballs, but they know it’s no good.  Eventually even loyalty won’t bring them back. Not just to festivals, but to the theater at all.

If we want plays that can really stand on their own two feet, then they’re going to need tough love throughout their development. Tough means we have to have clear standards for what a play produced by any given company should be, share those standards with playwrights and help them get there. Love means that means if we’re promising exposure, we should refuse to expose something that isn’t ready.

New work in particular– and really, theater in general– has enough trouble defending its worthiness without our putting our worst foot forward. By presenting poorly-considered, incomplete work as what our art has to offer, we reinforce the idea to audiences that theater is inscrutable, or silly, or boring. Popping out and then abandoning fledgeling plays not only leaves us with no posterity, it makes false promises that waste writers’ effort and floods the medium with adolescence.

  1. Moff says:

    In Madison we have one, relatively new semiprofessional theater company that puts on one or two monologue series every year — “The First Time I Fell in Love” was one theme (for February, of course) — and I’ve generally enjoyed going and even looked forward to going. But monologues may be a bit of a different beast, because I imagine there’s less production involved and they might be easier to polish since you’re only dealing with one person onstage.

  2. braak says:

    Well, for a variety of reasons — I’m assuming, for example, that most of the monologues run in the two- to four- minute range, right? It’s a lot easier to sustain a weak premise or a slender idea over a single speech than it is over ten minutes of actual play, and every time you don’t manage it, your audience has the benefit of not having to sit through your mistakes for very long.

  3. Moff says:

    They probably run closer to 10 minutes, but yes, that’s in keeping with my point — for a variety of reasons, monologues are probably easier than plays proper.


  4. braak says:

    I would not want to listen to a ten minute monologue.

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