Where Do New Plays Come From? Pt 1

By Pat Gabridge

Originally posted at http://writinglife3.blogspot.com 10/27/10

That’s an excellent question, Virginia: where do new plays come from?  Well, now that the upcoming seasons have been announced, we can actually start to answer that question.  Since we live in Boston, let’s take a look at which theatres are doing new plays here in Boston.  And by new plays, I mean either world premieres or fairly new plays by Boston writers.  (Recent Off Broadway hits do not count as new plays.)

In particular, let’s talk about large and medium-sized Boston theatres who putting on professional productions.  There are smaller theatres doing new work, which is important, too, but we’ll hit those another day.

Huntington Theatre Company:  2 world premieres:  Vengeance is the Lord’s by Bob Glaudini, and Son of the Prophet by Stephen Karam (though the fine print says “Commissioned and produced by special arrangement with Roundabout Theatre Company, and I’m not exactly sure what that means.)

American Repertory Theatre:  1 world premiere (though Ajax is a new translation…), Prometheus Bound by Steven Sater.

Those are the big guys.  How about some of the mid-sized and bigger small theatres in Boston:

Lyric Stage:  none

Speakeasy:  none

New Rep:  1 world premiere, afterlife: a ghost story by Steve Yockey (this is a “rolling world premiere” with the National New Play Network, which means the play will be premiered by several NNPN members this year).

Boston Playwrights Theatre:  (these guys always win) 3 world premieres:  Five Down One Across by Michael Towers, Two Wives in India by (my pal) Leslie Harrell Dillen, and Waking the Volcanoby Jon Lipsky.  Two of these are Boston writers, too (Leslie abandoned us for New Mexico).  I’ll just highlight all the Boston writers receiving premieres (or even productions of full-length plays)  (Theresa Rebeck is not a Boston writer anymore, sorry.)

Company One:  1 world premiere, on their Second Stage (you know they’re getting bigger when they have a second stage),Cartoon Confessions by John Kunz and Rick Park.

Actors Shakespeare Project:  2 world premieres (both by Boston writers).  Okay, I didn’t expect to see them doing as many new plays by Boston writers as BPT, but they are.  Their Winter Festival will feature two-week runs of The Hotel Nepenthe byJohn Kuntz and Living in Exile by Jon Lipsky.  Both these guys seem to be about to have a pretty good season.

Central Square Theatre:  1 world premiere (though they had a good year of new plays last year), Silver Spoon by Amy Merrill andSi Kahn.

Zeitgeist Stage:  none.

So, in the seasons of ten Boston theaters, we have 11 world premieres (out of more than 50 productions), though BPT skews the average a little.  Of those 11 world premieres, 6 are by Boston writers (only 4 out of 10 theatres are producing work by local writers).  If you take BPT out of the mix, since they exclusively produce new work by BU alums, that leaves us with 4 full-length plays written by Boston writers getting professional productions in town.

Given those numbers, you wouldn’t know that we have a wealth of playwrights living in or near Boston, whose work has been widely produced.  There are no full-length plays on Boston stages this season from Kirsten Greenidge, Lydia Diamond, Ronan Noone, Ken Urban, or Melinda Lopez.  (or that Gabridge guy)   And there are more, too.  I can’t list everyone, but some of these come to mind: Joyce Van Dyke, Peter Snoad, John Shea, Jacqui Parker, Kate Snodgrass, Bill Donnelley, Janet Kenney, Monica Raymond, my fellow Rhombus members–Joe Byers, Carl Danielson, Ginger Lazarus, Alexa Mavromatis.  And there are scores more (who I hope will forgive me if I haven’t included them in this list, including the new HPF members, whose names aren’t public yet).

So what does all this mean?  I’m not sure.  To me, the numbers of new plays by Boston writers seem very, very low.  (Imagine if only four out of ten professional theatres hired ANY local actors or directors.  It’s not the same, but…)   Most Boston playwrights aren’t getting the chances here at home to fully develop their work, and to learn by seeing how those plays succeed or fail in front of audiences.

It also shows that while Boston audiences are getting plenty of exciting imports, they’re not seeing plays produced by people who live and work in their communities.  And audiences are not developing relationships with local playwrights (though they do with local actors and directors)–this creation of an audience for a certain writer’s plays can play an important role in the growth of a playwright, because it helps level out the hit/flop mentality that can come with the production of only a single show or two by a writer–audiences (and critics) start to follow a writer, and a two-way relationship forms and actually helps shape the work.  Audiences might not love every show by that writer, but they want to see what’s going to come next.

The numbers might to point to gaps in the market that could potentially be filled by new companies who have a stronger focus on new work and work by local writers.  For now, Boston remains a town where exciting new work can be imported (just look at ArtsEmerson), but very little new work written by Boston writers and produced by Boston theatres gets exported to other cities.  I’d sure like to see that change.

Pat Gabridge  is an active playwright, with more than 150 productions and readings of his work.

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  1. #1 by Megan Sandberg-Zakian on December 13, 2010 - 8:15 am

    This is a great conversation. I started to wonder how you are defining “play” — does it exclude other events in ART’s season like “Alice vs. Wonderland” (a re-imagining of the Alice tale by ART grad and Boston resident Brendan Shea) and “The Blue Flower” (a new musical by Beverly-based couple Jim and Ruth Bauer which, although it has been workshopped in nyc, is receiving its first full professional run in Boston)? And what about the exciting new work being devised by emerging companies like New Exhibition Room? There is so much cool stuff going on — and I agree with you that it would be thrilling to see it gain more of a presence on the national stage. Thanks!

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