Denver: Too Many New Play Festivals?

Few would argue that there are too many new plays, but a case can be made that there are far too many new play festivals, even if they are splendidly-managed affairs such as the DCTC New Play Summit. In March and April alone, one might attend the Alberta Theatre Project playRites Fest, Florida Stages 1st Stage Fest, Humana Fest (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Orlando Shakespeare’s Harriet Lake Fest and the
Southcoast Rep’s Pacific Playwrights Fest to mention a few, and these events only scratch the surface of the complete annual calendar of new work gatherings.

The first obvious question is “How many of these things can any one person attend, whether critic, director, artistic director, producer or agent?” The less obvious question — but far more important question — is “What is the value of such events for the playwright?” If you look at the bios of authors here at the DCTC, you’ll quickly observe that most writers hold multiple commissions at the same time. Three is not uncommon and  I’ve seen as many as five at once. How can any playwright, no matter how gifted and conscientious, possibly juggle three or more overlapping commissions and produce works that are (a) of equal merit and (b) the best writing he/she can do?

For various reasons, and they aren’t simple, we’ve altered the paradigm for playwrights. The old model was income and security based on royalties of an artist’s most successful work, providing the leisure to write at will on subjects of choice. Now — like Verdi in his “years in the galley” — far too many playwrights survive on commissions. Regional theatres are sick with “World Premiere-itis” and they pass the disease on to authors. How many of these hundreds of yearly world premieres ever go on to second, third, 10th or 100th productions? The new play fests helps authors create a volume of work, but not a body of work.

When will three major regionals pool their commission money, commission one new work from an author and guarantee three independent productions? When will we have a Festival of Second Productions? Or a Best of the New Play Festivals Fest? I do not believe the present model of multiplying new play events serves either writers or theatre well in the long run, as exciting as the events may be in the short-term.

Jonathan Abarbanel, Chicago 

Reader Comments (3)

The NNPN is more as the model SHOULD be: it's Continuing Life Fund gives modest cash grants to three theatres each of which guarantees a production of the same new play within an 18-month period in what the NNPN calls a "rolling world premiere." I'm familiar with the NEA program but not with details of how it works, so I can't offer comment. P.S. Full disclosure: I helped create the NNPN in 1998 and its Continuing Life idea in my part-time capacity as a literary manager.
Jonathan Abarbanel

February 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Abarbanel
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