The Playgoer: Development Hell Rocks! (says "American Theatre")

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Development Hell Rocks! (says "American Theatre")

Check out Mr. Excitement's illuminating dissection of the current American Theatre editorial defending development hell--I'm sorry, new play development.

According to editor Jim Quin,

What some detractors may not realize is that the American system of new-play development, for all its shortcomings, is virtually unique in the world; except for the British theatre (where the well-funded Royal Court takes the lead), writer development is simply not practiced in most of Europe.

This reminds me of a random Simpsons joke where a kid in some silly essay grade-school contest on Freedom intones with a straight face, "Where else but America--or possibly Canada--can one pursue their dreams..." Yes, where else in the world can one submit your play over and over again to theatres with no money so that they can put on one-day-rehearsed music stand readings of your work. Oh yeah--everywhere! Except in some of those other weird barbaric countries, you might actually see sets, costumes, actors off book, and audiences.

As Mr. E points out, that "except the Royal Court" is a big exception!
What Jim O'Quinn avoids mentioning in this Editor's Note is that the Royal Court isn't known simply for doing a bunch of readings. They made their name in the 90s the authentic way, by actually producing the new plays of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Christopher Shinn, Joe Penhall and many others. (On my recent trip--well, 2003--to the Court, I caught The Sugar Syndrome, written by 23-year old Lucy Prebble.)

Indeed, what countries is Jim Quinn talking about?

Maybe, maybe, he means that other countries don't have labyrinthine grant processes to fund tons of pointless readings. And perhaps the rate of actually production of new work is not as high in Europe as in England. (Again, perhaps. I'm sure this is knowable. And probably not true!) But one thing I do bet anyone about new work abroad--it costs a lot less in some cities to rent a space and put it on yourself, advertise it, and get people to see it. And in a welfare state, you can better sustain yourself as a new playwright so you can live to write again.

No, I'm sorry, the U.S. is not a "writer's theatre" as Quinn puts it, because it is not a writer's culture.

1 comment:

Jason Grote said...

I've never met Jim O'Quinn, but it's interesting to me how many people have latched on to his essay. And it is, at least in part, a frame to the O'Neill piece that I wrote, so perhaps I should comment.

While AT is one of the only (the only?) national publications devoted to theater, it's also put out by Theatre Communications Group, who (for all the great work they do, and they do a lot of it) are a sort of trade organization. O'Quinn's job is not so much to fill the same sort of independent op-ed role that you, me, or even MSMers like Michael Feingold or Charles Isherwood fill - it's (at least in part) to be the voice of institutional theater. And, while many artistic directors and lit managers I've spoken to are very savvy and aware that this whole "development hell" thing is a problem, the vast majority probably really would agree with O'Quinn's assertions. And I have to admit I understand this - from their point of view, new plays are a tremendous risk, and we playwrights should be happy for whatever bones we get thrown (and I for one often am - I like getting paid for writing and I love traveling for free). None of this excuses the current state of affairs (which I agree is largely the fault of neoliberal economics), but I think it's worthwhile to try and play devil's advocate once in a while.

I also find it interesting that O'Quinn put scare quotes around my assertion that 1001 was mostly done from day one, which exposes the divide between writers and administrators - the narrative is that writers *always* insist their work is done, but theaters know better.

Which is not to criticize Jim O'Quinn per se - AT has treated me very well, and his is a tough job. Having written for the publication four times now, and having all of my pieces appear in print intact, I can say that it's a delicate balance, trying to keep pieces simultaneously readable, interesting, and substantive, yet not adversarial to artists or TCG member theaters in the way regular criticism would be. Said balance, I should add, I was never pressured to keep in any way. I should also add that "from the editor" notes in any publication are often more about tying a bunch of disparate features together more than they are about coming up with any new ideas...