Rebeckian Wisdom

We talked about the problem of de-virginized plays in class the other day, and I mentioned one of the most important essays on this topic, Theresa Rebeck’s “Is Your Play a Virgin,” from American Theatre (January 2005). See the text after the jump.

Is Your Play a Virgin?

Sheri Wilner has written a play. Apparently it’s a pretty good play–when her agent sent it out she got three offers for productions, in addition to strong interest from other theatres which weren’t yet quite ready to bite. Unfortunately, when they found out there was already a production slated for spring of 2005, all the other theatres withdrew their interest. “If they couldn’t be first, the play was dead to them,” Wilner says.

Ronan Noone has written a play. It received a workshop production at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, got raves from the critics and won all of the Boston area’s major theatre awards. It has never had another production. “The thing won a ton of awards, and I’ve only ever seen 12 performances of it, with student actors,” Noone admits. “Who were great. It was a terrific production. I’d just like to see it again.”

Suzanne Bradbeer has written a play. Her work has been seen in many theatres regionally and Off-Off Broadway, where she has a growing reputation. A New York theatre actually commissioned this play and paid her $1,000 to write it. Then, a larger theatre in Connecticut read it, and now they want to produce it as well–but may back out, because they want the premiere, which has been promised, even though the commissioning theatre is only slated to present an Equity waiver production not open to critics. “It took me two years to write this thing,” Bradbeer says. “Am I being told that a thousand dollars is all I’m ever going to make? Is one Equity waiver production all I’m ever going to see?”

For those of you who don’t know about this dandy system, here is how it works: The vast majority of American theatres are obsessed with producing World Premieres. Some theatre people call this phenomenon “premiere-itis,” identifying it, appropriately enough, as a disease. Premiere-iris demands that if 12 theatres like that play and want to produce it, then the playwright has to pick only one of those productions and dismiss the other 11–even if they are all in different cities where there will be no possible overlap of audiences whatsoever. Of course, if after that one production, the play gets picked up by a New York theatre, and if the New York production goes well, and if the reviews are good, and if the play gets an extended run, then other theatres around the country can, again, do it. So, if what happened to Proof, or to Wit, or to Art–or to my play Bad Dates–happens to you, eureka, good for you. But if you don’t have all of those nearly impossible things happen to your play, then the likelihood is that one three-week production some where will constitute its life. This is the rule of premiere-itis.

Sometimes more established writers can put together co-productions or juggle the system better than less established writers can. Some plays and playwrights just get a pass on premiere-itis altogether, for reasons which are desperately mysterious to everyone else. But exceptions are just that, and the unfortunate rule is: Once your play has lost its virginity, it’s ruined. And virginity is easy to lose. A non-Equity waiver showcase might be enough to pop the cherry. And then your play is ruined.

As one might imagine, this is not a formula that actually works for, or even makes a shred of sense to, most playwrights. When it happens that you write a play which excites people to the point that it attracts several offers of production, only to find you have to pick one–and only one–you really just want to blow your brains out. “If you ask me, the theatre that gets the so-called ‘sloppy seconds’–the already premiered play–is probably getting a better play than the first theatre,” notes Wilner. “So many kinks are worked out during that first production. Unanticipated problems discovered and solved; audience reactions gauged and changes made accordingly–how many times do we walk out of the final performance saying, ‘Okay, now we know how to do this play?'”

So why do so many theatres seem to like the one-production arrangement? When you check in with theatre management, their answer is pretty simple: grants. According to Karen Chilcote, associate director for corporate and foundation relations at Seattle Repertory Theatre–which supports new plays with admirable consistency–the number of grant-writing opportunities for a world premiere run is in the double digits. She knew of no grant-writing opportunities that would provide funding for plays that were not world premieres.

Janice Paran, dramaturg at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., sees a second factor playing into the obsession with premieres. “Marketing departments further hope to generate enthusiasm by broadcasting a play’s status as a ‘world premiere,’ an ‘American premiere,’ or even a ‘regional premiere,'” she states. “I’m not sure those marketing tags make a lick of difference, but everyone uses them.”

In a completely unscientific poll conducted to find out whether or not those tags make a lick of difference or not, I asked random theatregoers what they looked for in a new play. These were their responses:

“I usually look for an actor I like or playwright or topic. I’m looking to be challenged by plays and to have a different type of thinking in the theatre than I do at the movies or watching TV, where I usually do three things at once.”

“Usually I go because Rusty (my stepson, an actor) or one of his actor/director/writer friends is involved and has said this is something they are excited about. I guess that would fall into the broad category of ‘word of mouth.'”

“Sometimes we’re looking for a different viewpoint. Sometimes a validation of our views. Sometimes just for fun. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself.”

I also asked if anyone was more interested in world premieres than in any random new play that was out there. These were their responses:

“No.”

“NO.”

“No. Whether a play has been done before is never an issue–the point is, it’s new to me. Theatres that want to do only world premieres seem to be practicing a bizarre type of fetishism.”

Out of 30 answers to this question, I got not one “yes.”

Okay, so obviously someone needs to explain to marketing personnel that this whole “world premiere” thing is a boneheaded maneuver, if you’re trying to attract people to come see your play.

Someone also needs to explain to funding organizations that obsessing on world premieres is completely counter-productive in terms of the health of the art form, not to mention the mental health of the playwright. Can’t somebody tell these people that second and third productions are just as important as the first? I contacted TCG and several research foundations that track grant-writing policies, and none of them knew of grants for second or third productions. Nor did they seem terribly interested in the question. Too many people in management seem to accept that new-play grants are necessarily going to support world premieres. But why?

At this moment in time, the choice to be a playwright is absurdly optimistic in its embrace of the belief that stories told outside the crushing demands of corporate capitalism will have significance and weight for a community. Playwrights are, in fact, optimists, once you get past all the depression and anxiety. And our playwrights are asking a serious question here for all of us in the American theatre: What kind of theatre survives, much less thrives, without a commitment to the overall life of the play?

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By Theresa Rebeck

Theresa Rebeck is the author of the plays Spike Heels, Bad Dates, The Family of Mann and, with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, Omnium Gatherum.

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