The Plays What They Wrote

The Best Scripts Not Yet Mounted on a New York Stage

Though they may not have to worry about electrocution, most playwrights do face a forbidding landscape of fewer productions and fewer grants opportunities. Professionals fret that playwrights may cease writing for the theater altogether. "Censorship is so successful at getting people to leave the field," playwright and Brown professor Paula Vogel warns. "They become novelists, they write for film and TV." One of Vogel's favorite plays, Kermit Frazier's Kernel of Sanity, never saw production. Frustrated, Frazier turned to screenwriting. Kate Robin looked at the half-dozen plays moldering on her shelf and joined the staff of Six Feet Under. Jones opines, "Plays that haven't been produced are only the tip of the spectrum. There are writers who have stopped writing plays. There are writers of proven work who are hardly writing."

Even writers such as Vogel and Craig Lucas, who have proved popular and bankable, have difficulties getting work produced in the city. Vogel regrets the neglect of her bawdy 1981 comedy The Oldest Profession; Lucas could not find a New York theater willing to take on his latest play, a boundary-pushing update of Strindberg's Miss Julie. "How many theaters do you think have offered to do it in New York?" asks Lucas. "None. So if Strindberg isn't good enough for them . . ." who is? Apparently not the more obscure playwrights and plays Lucas enthuses over: Amy Freed's The Psychic Life of Savages (about confessional poets), Joe Rudy's Bed ("original and deeply troubling"), Cyndi Coyne, Anne Washburn, Lisa Loomer, and the neglected Harry Kondoleon. In fact, Lucas was so eager to put Kondoleon's work onstage, he made the late career addition of director to his résumé and brought Kondoleon's Saved or Destroyed to the Rattlestick. He followed up with a production of Kondoleon's Play Yourself for New York Theatre Workshop.

As Lucas demonstrates, if you want an unproduced play done, you may have to produce it yourself. The enterprising engage in DIY fundraising and procure rental spaces. Mac Wellman, who had four shows up this season, pursued several strategies. He sought a commission from a college and provided them with an interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream; he partnered with Ridge Theater Company for Jennie Richee; he approached a dance company when no theater companies showed interest in his Antigone; Bitter Bierce or, The Friction We Call Grief, a one-man show about Ambrose Bierce, he produced and directed himself. "I don't sit around waiting for people to do my plays," Wellman counsels. "If I did I'd be unproduced. My friends who sit around and wait for it to happen are unproduced—it's as simple as that. With my students at Brooklyn College, I'm trying to get them to take some initiative."

The French Revolution, Part Deux (a New Jersey play): Emily Jane O'Dell's pont et tunel–ers
photo: Pam Murray / Perishable Theatre
The French Revolution, Part Deux (a New Jersey play): Emily Jane O'Dell's pont et tunel–ers

Those students might start by approaching companies and institutions—some large, some small—with a reputation for supporting new and daring writing: Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop (including the reading series), the Vineyard, the Public's New Work Now Festival, Soho Rep (particularly the Writers/Directors Lab), New Georges, the Little Theater at Tonic, and Clubbed Thumb. Todd London, the artistic director of New Dramatists, can speak eloquently about the despair writers feel, but he cites these venues and their seasons as encouraging. Though he wishes Bridget Carpenter's swing-dance-themed Fall, Octavio Solis's "hallucinogenic border play" El Otro, Diana Son's cross- gendered Boy, and others might see more New York stages, he himself does not lose heart: "I think that the profession of playwriting, at least in my lifetime, has never been as rich, as diverse, as plentiful as it is now. You focus on the energy of the work and you know that ultimately it will find its way."

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