We’re back in the realm of “opinion” here, I guess, although the idea that a playwright should be part of the company is consistent with my promotion of Margo Jones’s commitment to new plays in an earlier post. Like anybody else in the company–like Shakespeare and Moliere–they need to do more than “just” write plays; and like anybody else in the company, they need to have purchased a share. Full company membership, benefits, and responsibilities. But their primary area of expertise should be writing plays, and the commitment of the company should be to producing everything that they write. No, I don’t mean “give everything they write a staged reading,” or a workshop, or a production if the play is “good”–give every play a full production immediately. Period.
I look at British playwright Alan Ayckbourn as a brilliant example of this in action. He served as artistic director for the Stephen Joseph Theater, a regional theater in Scarsborough with an arena stage, for 37 years, writing at least one play a year for the theater and directing it himself. In fact, he’s written 87 full-length plays to date, in addition to one-acts and plays for children. Even after stepping down as AD after developing health problems, he continues to write and premiere his plays in Scarborough under his own direction. I’d take Ayckbourn on my team any day.
Some reasons why I suggest this:
- It is good for the theater environment in general. Thanks to Guthrie and those who bought in to his “classics-only” policy, so many theaters continue to produce mostly old plays that are “conceptualized” in such a way as to seem to provide commentary on our contemporary world. Why not just cut out the middleman and produce plays that were written by people actually living in our contemporary world? As Jones said, “if we produce only classics, we are in no way reflecting our own age. Our theatres must not only be professional, they must be contemporary as well.”
- It’s good for playwrights. The theater demands skills that are unique to the stage, and emphasizing theater’s uniqueness is necessary to making sure it has a reason to survive. If the theater is only live TV, or tries to compete with film (hello, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) or worse yet, animated film (hello, what sometimes seems like half of the new musicals on Broadway today), then why would audiences drag themselves off their comfy couch to see a play when they can have the same experience by logging in to the Netflix account and even eat popcorn while they watch? Further, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t work on a stage in front of an audience is as important to a playwright as to an actor or designer. They need to have their work fully produced early and often. If a playwright knows that their play is going to be done the minute the ink is dry and not years in the future, they might be motivated to write more, and also write in response to company needs. I continue to believe that writing for specific actors can be a help to playwrights’ imagination. Hamlet was Hamlet because Shakespeare knew Richard Burbage was going to play him; Alceste and Celimene in The Misanthrope were designed to be played by Moliere and his flirtatious young wife, Armande.
- It’s good for diversity. Having a playwright writing for specific company members would encourage the company to include a more diverse group of people. Instead of using color/gender/ability/age/whatever-blind casting, there would be plays written with those specific things in mind–and maybe those plays wouldn’t treat those differences as a BFD to be focused on. How cool would that be?
- It’s good for the bottom line. Royalties can be a major expense for a theater, and if you are interested in doing a musical the royalties are murderous. Shakespeare wasn’t paid for each of his plays, he was paid according to his share, same as everyone else. Follow that model and let your playwright have “skin in the game.” And if the company decides it wants to, say, stream the production at some point (perhaps as a passive income opportunity), then you’re not dealing with sorting out the legal issues that are in the boilerplate agreement with a licensing company. Plus, having a playwright knowledgeable about the everyday realities of your theater can also be a benefit. For example, here in Asheville where I live, there are two actors, Charlie Flynn-McIver and Scott Treadway, who work together frequently, splitting their time between North Carolina Stage Company and Flatrock Playhouse. They have developed a strong following among local audiences, and perform in plays that highlight their comic talents and chemistry. How great would it be if there was a playwright writing plays specifically for them? And if the theater needed something particular–say, a 2-character play in order to reduce costs or to accomodate a company member on leave–then that can be part of the mix as well.
I’m sure you can think of other reasons as well. For instance, it never hurts to have someone in your company who writes well. The point is that, because of the way that theater students are educated in high school and college, combined with the way institutional theaters (and to some extent Broadway), they often forget that there are living, breathing, creative playwrights in the world, not just scripts you get from Samuel French or some anthology. Having them working with you can add a great deal to your viability as a company.
<– forming a company (part 4): for profit or nonprofit?
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