Prophesying the demise of New York theater continues to be a popular pastime. The accusation that writers don’t script plays like they used to or ought to remains rife. But what if American writers are creating such plays, and watching them go unrealized? Nearly every contemporary theater artist has a pet play—or six—which has yet to see the light of day in New York. According to stage directors and artistic directors, playwrights and teachers of playwrights, there are myriad great works that have not been afforded a production here. Charles L. Mee’s farce Wintertime, seen at La Jolla and a favorite of director Jo Bonney’s, has never taken Manhattan; nor has Kirsten Greenidge’s Rust, an African American identity play extolled by Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford; nor the early work of Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz, such as Night Train to Bolina, championed by playwright Paula Vogel.
Why would a great work go unproduced? The answer is multifaceted, but much conversation swirls around non-profit business models, the economic climate, and changes in funding bases. Simply put, many theaters— particularly those invested in new and challenging work—don’t proffer as many plays as they used to. In its first five years, the Manhattan Theatre Club averaged over 29 plays per year, including a six-week flurry in 1973 in which 23 plays opened, among them Terrence McNally’s Bad Habits and Sam Shepard’s Chicago and Unseen Hand. MTC’s current season consists of just eight plays. Playwrights Horizons used to boast similarly awesome totals. The 1973-74 season, which consisted of 31 plays, included works by Larry Kramer, Albert Innaurato, Len Jenkin, and Jane Chambers. Six plays compose the 2002-03 roster.
Tim Sanford sighs, “This is a tough climate economically. Suddenly every theater is scrambling for money. If I had more slots, I’d have plenty to put in them.” Sanford can tick off a couple of dozen plays he’s read in the past two years but has been unable to stage. The list careens from Connie Congdon’s apocalyptic So Far (“really brilliant and strange with an invented language”) to Barbara Cassidy’s hushed Interim (about middle-aged women having visions) to Naomi Wallace’s The Inland Sea (concerning landscaping and 18th- century social uprising) to Keith Glover’s Dark Paradise (“a goth vampire cowboy thriller”).
Playwright Jeff Jones, who struggles to get his own experimental plays staged while championing other writers at his occasional Little Theater at Tonic, argues that lack of funds not only limits the number of plays staged, but also the types of plays. He laments that so many theaters “are tied to subscribers. It reinforces a collective timidity. Theaters want to keep the subscription base, the subscription base wants to see plays within a certain boundary.” Among works perhaps seen as too challenging for audiences, Jones mentions Kelly Stuart’s Mayhem (“a thinly disguised slice of her own life and intensely relevant”) and her Homewrecker (George Bush onstage in a collage of his own words); Joseph Goodrich’s Polar (“an existential noir with literary discursions, on Proust!”); as well as the vicious oeuvre of Brit Sarah Kane. Melanie Joseph, artistic director of the Foundry Theatre, also worries that “as money is dwindling, increasingly, I wonder if companies aren’t going to play it more safe.” Plays that may have fallen victim to this trend, she suggests, include W. David Hancock’s work and David Greenspan’s The Myopia—”a tragic burlesque of epic proportions in which David performs all the roles and never leaves his chair.” Some of those roles include 22 Republican senators about to nominate Warren G. Harding for president.
Even Sanford, though he strives for varied seasons, admits, “I’ve found from experience that my tastes are often broader than those of audiences and critics. I have a great affection for a lot of downtown theater, but I do run an uptown theater.” Mac Wellman, a much lauded playwright and a professor of playwriting at Brooklyn College, argues that the thrall to audience expectations results in a climate of “sentimental melodrama. It dabbles in all sorts of euphemistic political stances, but it doesn’t challenge anything, it doesn’t offer dialectic or critique.” Among playwrights who do offer that sort of critique, and consequently go unproduced, Wellman mentions older playwrights Jenkin, Jones, and Eric Overmyer, as well as newer ones like Cassidy (Interim again) and Kevin Oakes (The Vomit Talk of Ghosts—”very funny and ribald and scary”).
Many of the same names and plays turn up over and over again. Jones and Cassidy receive several mentions, as do Congdon, Stuart, Eric Ehn, and Lynn Nottage. Emily Jane O’Dell’s The French Revolution, Part Deux (a new jersey play), in which the city of Paris descends upon the Garden State, is name-checked as well. Some of these playwrights are simply too new and too unproven; others may not be new enough. Some playwrights are unfamiliar to New York audiences. Director Mark Brokaw gushes over writer Barbara Blumenthal Ehrlich, hoping her recent move to the city may lead to production. He describes her play There Is No Present, which he wouldn’t mind directing, as “language-based, theatrical—it’s about urban dwellers and how tenuous our times are.” Voice theater editor Brian Parks craves the day the work of Argentinian writer-director Federico León arrives in Manhattan. Parks praises Fifteen Hundred Meters Above the Level of Jack—”a surreal but heartfelt family play, set in a bathroom. The characters are dressed in wetsuits, and splash in and out of the tub, threatened with electrocution by a glowing TV resting just above the puddled floor.”
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.”
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.”