Recently, Peter Snoad (Playwriting Fellow ’09) had a highly successful run of his new play… nearly 1,000 miles from here. We’ve invited Peter to guest blog about the experience, as well as the trials and tribulations of bringing a new play to the stage, be it here in Massachusetts or elsewhere on the map.
A Time of ‘Crisis’
“So when is it going to be done here?”
That’s a question I’m often asked by friends and neighbors in Boston when a play of mine is being produced out of town. Most recently it was my new comedy, Identity Crisis, which had its first staged reading by the New Provincetown Players at Provincetown Theatre last year, and received a workshop production in January at Centre Stage in Greenville, South Carolina.
Greenville? It may not strike a chord with many theatre aficionados in our neck of the woods. But Greenville has been named one of the 100 Best Arts Towns in America. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, and once known as the “textile capital of the world,” the city has remade itself, literally and figuratively, in the last 20 years. It’s now a thriving little cultural mecca, with a renovated and vibrant downtown that sits astride the rambling Reedy River and its scenic waterfalls. Greenville boasts no less than four theatre companies, two large performing arts/events centers that regularly feature national touring companies, a resident symphony orchestra, a light opera, a bevy of artists’ studios and galleries, a dozen or more ethnic restaurants (Persian anyone?), and a minor league baseball team, the Greenville Drive, that’s a Boston Red Sox affiliate. (Greenville has another Boston sports connection: Kevin Garnett of the Celtics is a native of nearby Mauldin. Also born-and-bred in Greenville: Keith Lockhart of the Boston Symphony.)
Centre Stage, with its modern 285-seat theatre, has developed a national reputation for fostering new plays. Since 2002, it has run an annual New Play Festival, attracting hundreds of scripts from playwrights across the country and overseas. The four selected finalists are brought to Greenville on the theatre’s dime and their plays receive a rehearsed staged reading with a local director and actors. The winning play is produced as a workshop production, generally the following season, with the author receiving a percentage of the box office in line with industry standards for a regular production. (In many contests, the production of the play is the prize, so Centre Stage is respectfully generous by comparison. Also, the “workshop” designation leaves open the possibility of the playwright landing the highly prized “world premiere” with a theatre in a larger market.)
Under the leadership of festival chair Brian Haimbach, who teaches theatre at Greenville Technical College, the New Play Festival has developed a growing local following. My first experience of it was in 2006 with my play, Guided Tour, which won the festival that year. The staged reading for Guided Tour attracted 50 people; last October, the audience for Identity Crisis was three times that number. Plus, with funding support from the Dramatists Guild of America, the professional association of those who write or compose for the theatre, Centre Stage now has a playwright-in-residence for the week-long festival. Last year, it was the talented and generous Deborah Breevort (Women of Lockerbie, The Poetry of Pizza). Deborah was on hand at each of the readings to offer her thoughts on the play and to lead audience discussion; later she gave each playwright personal feedback on her/his work. Audience members were given a role in choosing the festival winner by filling out a brief evaluation form after each reading.
Before Identity Crisis was read, I was a tad anxious about what people would make of it. The play is a comedy about race and identity that imagines a growing phenomenon that no one wants to talk about: white people are turning black. Well, as it turned out, my fears were unfounded. The audience – diverse but mostly white and older – laughed a lot, and many were quite effusive in their praise on the evaluation forms.
After Identity Crisis was declared the winner of the festival, we quickly went into gear to plan for the workshop production in January. I was delighted to learn that Peter Saputo, who had directed the reading of Identity Crisis, was willing to direct the full production, too. A veteran actor and director with more than more than 40 years of stage and film experience, Peter had helmed the first production of Guided Tour at Centre Stage in 2007. He did a brilliant job, he’s a consummate collaborator, and I was thrilled that we’d be working together again on Identity Crisis – albeit mostly at long distance via e-mail and phone because I couldn’t take time from my day job to attend rehearsals.
All shows have their moments (or periods) of crisis before everything somehow magically comes together (or not, as the case may be.) But Identity Crisis endured one quite unexpected bump in the road: the weather. Accustomed to the balmy low 50’s this time of year, Greenville got clobbered with a freak snow and ice storm five days before we opened. Cast and crew couldn’t get their cars out. The streets of Greenville were ice-rinks. Two precious days of rehearsal – in production week – were lost.
Still, the show must go on, and it did. We had a stellar cast, a great stage crew, and under Peter Saputo’s skillful and creative direction, Identity Crisis came to life with brio. We had only one published review – the winter storm’s aftermath kept other critics away – but it was positive (“a clever, funny script… a great way to get out of the cold and warm up with some laughs.”) And clearly word-of-mouth helped build the box office: almost 900 people saw the show, and the last of the seven performances was the best attended (190). Not too shabby for a brand new play by an author with next to no name recognition. All in all, it was a very satisfying experience. And once again, the Centre Stage folks excelled with their kind hospitality. They respect playwrights and they treat you right.
So what’s next for Identity Crisis? I’d love to get it done in my hometown, obviously. But it’s tough. Yes, there’s a burgeoning new play culture in Boston, and a number of theatres, large and small, mainstream and fringe, produce at least some new work. By my calculation, these include (in alphabetical order): the Actors Shakespeare Project, American Repertory Theatre, Another Country Productions, Apollinaire Theatre, Boston Actors Theater, Boston Playwrights Theatre, Central Square Theatre, Centastage, Company One, Huntington Theatre, New Repertory Theatre, The Orfeo Group, and Whistler in the Dark. And in recent years, some established companies have made institutional commitments to nurture local playwrights and new work; for example, the Huntington has a Playwriting Fellows program and a “Breaking Ground” reading series. Meanwhile, seasoned and budding playwrights alike continue to have opportunities to hone their craft through long-running writing groups, such as Playwrights’ Platform, and Write On!, sponsored by Centastage.
Still, when it comes to getting an actual production of a full-length play, the odds are long for “emerging” playwrights anywhere. (Funny phrase, that: “emerging” from what? Obscurity? A cocoon? The purgatory of cliché?). This is partly due, of course, to economic pressures – larger professional theatres simply can’t afford to take too many risks. They need to stage the tried and true, plays by a “name” author, or new plays that at least have the imprimatur of a rave New York review, in order to put butts in seats and pay their bills. Smaller companies on shoestring budgets have more freedom to be adventurous. But even those dedicated to producing few plays can be tough nuts to crack. Why? Because so many playwrights are writing plays – albeit of varying quality and stage-readiness – and there are relatively few production opportunities.
These and other perennial challenges of bringing new work from page to stage will doubtless get an airing at the upcoming Boston Theatre Conference 2011 February 27-28 at the Paramount Theatre in Boston. The theme of this year’s conference is “Home Grown” and the breakout sessions include one on “Supporting New Works by Local Writers.”
Nationally, the Dramatists Guild – of which I’m a proud member – is holding its first national gathering in its 100-year history: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation, June 9-12 at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The stated purpose of the conference, which will feature nuts-and-bolts workshops, legal and business seminars, and other activities, is to “celebrate our community and ask the questions we need to answer about our careers and our craft in order to go forward in the years ahead.”
The ongoing debate about new plays and new play development was given increased visibility and more focused attention at a recent conference at the American Voices New Play Institute. A project of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the Institute is part of a major new Arena initiative to nurture and support playwrights and new American plays. It includes a pioneering online project, the New Play Map, in which theaters around the country can log onto a database and enter production histories for new plays, details about the writers, and other information. Writers can also add their own personal data to the map. The New Play Map is seen as the first step to fully illuminating the infrastructure of new play development in the U.S. That, in turn, it is hoped, will spur new ideas and collaborative opportunities for the cultivation of new plays.
What might the “map” look like locally? Pat Gabridge, a fellow Boston playwright, has done some revealing research on the staging of new plays in our region. Surveying the Boston theater scene, Pat looked at how many world premieres or “fairly new” plays were produced by 10 large and medium-sized theatres in Boston this season. Out of more than 50 productions, he counted 11 world premieres. Six of those were by local writers; of those six, four were not associated with Boston University (which produces only the new work of BU alums.) While he was cautious about drawing conclusions from these numbers, Pat wrote: “Most Boston playwrights aren’t getting chances here at home to fully develop their work, and to learn by seeing how those plays succeed or fail in front of audiences.” You can read more about Pat’s research – he also surveyed new play productions for Massachusetts as a whole, as well as for other New England states – on his blog.
Given these long odds locally, Massachusetts playwrights have to cast their nets far and wide. (One of my short plays had three productions in Australia and one in Singapore last year!). Like other playwrights, I’ll keep doing whatever I can to promote my work: build relationships with other theatre artists; enter contests; query theatres where it seems like a particular play of mine might be a good fit.
While this can be frustratingly time-consuming – every hour you spend sending out query letters and script samples is an hour you’re not writing – it’s a chore that doesn’t have to be lonely. I’m one of more than 600 playwrights who subscribe to the Playwright Binge listserv (started and managed by our own Pat Gabridge, as it happens) that is dedicated to helping each other do what writers are notoriously poor at doing: marketing our work. We share submission opportunities, offer practical advice, applaud each other’s successes, commiserate about poor treatment from producers, and in general provide mutual encouragement and support for getting our work out there into the world and onto stages.
When you’re engaged in an isolated labor of love in which the only certainty is regular rejection, it’s great to have a supportive community.
IDENTITY CRISIS by Peter Snoad will receive a staged reading at 8 PM on Saturday, February 26 at Stageworks/Hudson in Hudson, NY.
Peter Snoad (Playwriting Fellow ’09) writes his stuff in Jamaica Plain. For more information about his work, go to: www.petersnoad.com.
Images: Peter Snoad; poster for GUIDED TOUR, a play by Peter Snoad, performed by Centre Stage; Thomas Azar (left) as Alan and Jason Farr as Frankie in a scene from Centre Stage’s production of Identity Crisis. (Photo: Wofford Jones).