The Playgoer: US Playwrights in Exile?

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

US Playwrights in Exile?

A UK perspective on the tendency of US playwrights to seek a home over there for their political plays, when theatres back home balk at them. Christopher Shinn, Peter Morris (Guardians), and Gina Gionfriddo are featured. Gionfriddo sums up here experience with the nonprofits here succinctly: "They feel that their wealthy subscribers want a nice evening." The London scene seems to have been more welcoming of plays that aren't just about dysfunctional families, but a dysfunctional society.

I had no idea Shinn was so despondent in his early career that he felt he had to travel to London to personally put his script in some theatres' hands there.

The Broadway/nonprofit distinction is foregrounded in the article, but interesting that the difference is still not completely clear abroad--as it obviously isn't at home either. Writer Emma John says:

And although no one seriously expects commercial theatres - which are sponsored by large corporations - to champion provocative writing...the subscription theatres, the not-for-profit venues which are the breeding ground for new work, seem to be losing their nerve.

It would actually be more accurate to say that corporations qua corporations are more prominently involved with nonprofits. On Broadway, you have individual producers who may have made their millions from the corporate world, but go out on their own. It's only recently that corporations have seen Broadway as a non-philanthropic "branding" opportunity, too.

In other words, the root causes of "losing nerve" may be even more similar than John indicates. The fact the nonprofits have to deal with corporate supporters and individual subscribers, makes for an even bigger mess, arguably.

Personally, I feel a major deleterious effect of subscription-reliance is the "captive audience" factor. This used to be considered a good thing--that is, subscriber signs up for 3 shows they like (musicals, Shakespeare) in order to get them into one show they might not have seen otherwise (for instance, the one "black play"). But one consequence of this is you can no longer assume that everyone at a play in one of these theatres has fully chosen to be there. A common answer to threats of censoring is "just don't buy a ticket" or "change the channel." But season subscribers are in a unique bind. A stand-alone production of, say, "Rachel Corrie" will more likely guarantee a politically friendly audience, or at least an audience who knows what to expect. But at New York Theatre Workshop, there might have been people who said, "I didn't sign on for this terrorist-loving crap!"

The nature of the contract between a theatre and its subscribers (something Artistic Directors are all too aware of) is something worth talking about more.


Anonymous said...

Playgoer - Is there any evidence that shows these corporate sponsors getting in the way of productions? I have heard stories of subscriptions falling, but not the corporate sponsorships. Or perhaps those stories include the sponsorships under the "Subscriber" title.
I guess what I'm pondering is, since there seems to be such a lack of political/controversial theatre, are corporate sponsors that aware of the season ? I guess if they're taking clients they are, but I always pictured the corporate sponsors as donating for the sake of looking cool/writeoffs, and not so much involved in the workings of a theatre, the way a subscriber(s) might be. But perhaps they are subscribers too.

Does this make any sense?

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

Anonymous said...

One last thing - This article is correct about UK theatre being open. I will say as a playwright, I have done what Shinn did and dropped my plays at theatres in the UK. The SOHO sent back a full page of incredibly intelligent feedback within 2 months ! Most US theatres...8 or more.

I highly recommend a playwright check this link for sending material. It might be a rejection, but it's feedback and not a form letter.

Buddha Cowboy - NYC