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Out of Town but Not Out of 'Times'

When the nation’s most powerful newspaper chooses to review new plays in early productions outside New York, is that helping or hurting the field?

The trajectory of a new play or musical from its first developmental stages to production can take many paths in the American theatre. Plays have private readings in living rooms, readings and workshops offered by institutional theatres, trips to developmental centers like Sundance or the O’Neill or the Playwright’s Center, and out-of-town productions in resident theatres or world premieres in New York.

Over the whole process hangs the eventual reality of critical review—in particular, a review in the New York Times, which often stands as the single most important determinant of a play or musical’s future life.  Many of us in the new-play “biz” worry about what we have perceived as increased instances of the Times venturing out of town to review new plays. And we fret most particularly when the review is not good and the play does not come to New York.

This anxiety seemed widespread enough and a topic of such frequent conversation among myself and my colleagues that it seemed that perhaps the time had come to ask for dialogue with the Times.  So in mid-October, Philip Himberg (artistic director of the Sundance Institute), playwright Lynn Nottage and I met with Scott Heller (deputy editor, and Arts & Leisure theatre editor),  Danielle Mattoon (culture editor) and critic Charles Isherwood to discuss the issue.

Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons
Sanford, artistic director of Playwrights Horizons

Philip, Lynn and I met before our meeting and agreed that our objectives should be to determine if the Times does have a policy with regards to reviewing out-of-town productions, and to communicate the vulnerability many playwrights feel about having their work critiqued in a national forum during the early stages of a play’s development. We did not expect our meeting would persuade them to change their policy, but we hoped a dialogue might make them more mindful of the contexts within which a new play or musical comes to life.

We began the meeting with a statement of perspective from both sides. We started with an acknowledgement that out-of-town reviews sometimes benefited a play’s future life, and that resident theatres often benefited, as well. Scott and Charles represented their view that when a notable playwright had a world premiere at a notable theatre, the Times might have a journalistic interest to cover it, especially if no New York production was yet announced. From their perspective, reviewing out-of-town productions has long been standard practice.

Lynn, Philip and I then cited examples of productions out of town that endured appreciable growing pains and sometimes changed substantially in their next incarnations. We gave examples of plays that were reviewed by the Times in their early productions and then did not come to New York. We also gave examples of plays that were not reviewed in these imperfect early productions but enjoyed positive reviews and were later revised. We could also think of a few rare examples of plays poorly reviewed out of town that did come to New York anyway.

It was not easy to persuade them that they should not review an out-of-town production simply because it might impede its trajectory to NY. And how would it be conveyed to them that a production they might travel to review was suffering such growing pains? But in the end, they did confirm that their general practice is not to review plays out of town that have New York productions announced, though sometimes exceptions are warranted. They also indicated that if members of the artistic team felt clear-eyed about the shortcomings of an out-of-town production and wanted to make a case for it not to be reviewed by the Times, they would be open to that conversation (no promises were made, of course).

Our discussion was not just all about reviews. We also talked at length about the process of development, of how much happens behind the scenes, and how ineffable the process is sometimes. Dramaturgy is more divination than dissection. Plays come to life in so many ways. Sometimes the seemingly most minor discoveries yield the greatest leaps in artistic fulfillment. Conversely, the smallest missteps (often in external factors like design or casting) can derail a play.

We feel our overall objective in describing the larger context about new play development caught their interest.  Danielle floated the idea of an article in which several playwrights might talk about the ups and downs of a play’s journey from its first stages to production. Our hope is that an appreciation for this context might lead them to approach out of town productions a tad more gently.

Each of us left the meeting feeling it was collegial and constructive. In many ways, I feel the conversations we had before the meeting with a broad spectrum of members of our community were just as enlightening. We talked to playwrights, artistic directors, agents and even a few out-of-town critics. We found quite a range of opinion on the issue. Unsurprisingly, playwrights who benefited from out-of-town reviews were relatively sanguine about it, while those who received poor reviews often felt raw and angry, usually at the Times for coming “unwanted.”

But interviews with several artistic directors at resident theatres outside New York revealed that attention from the Times is not unwelcome to most of them. In fact, the notion that they exist merely to serve as a tryout for New York galls most of them. They are understandably proud of their work and don’t shrink from being judged on the same level as New York.

As I’ve had time to reflect on the meeting, I have several thoughts. The first obvious point worth stating is that the people who work at The New York Times are human beings. From their point of view, they are theatre lovers, and everything they do, they do because they think it is the right thing to do. We might disagree with them. We might question their taste. We might wish they cared more about our problems. We might wish it troubled them more that they carry so much weight as tastemakers in our theatrical culture.

But I also feel that many of us fall too easily into the temptation to vilify the Times and act like victims. Many of us in New York are happy to embrace shows that the Times touts out of town, and we turn our backs on shows that are reviewed poorly. If more of us would commit to producing a play being presented out of town before its production, it would have the positive effect of keeping the Times away (per their policy), but it would also increase the New York producer’s knowledge about the piece and make them better producers. To facilitate this practice, resident companies that hold options on the future life of plays they produce would have to release them beforehand to theatres willing to make an offer.

I think there is room for self-examination by resident theatres of some of their practices, as well. The influence The New York Times wields in the American theatre runs two ways. Resident theatres often seem just as influenced by Times reviews in their season planning as New York theatres.

I also think everyone needs to take a good, hard look at our continuing world-premiere fetish. A play in production at a resident theatre with limited rehearsal and very few previews may not find its feet on the first pass, and said play may change substantially in subsequent productions. Do we send the right signal by promoting these first productions as world premieres? Should we consider ways to emphasize that the plays are works in process? And if the playwright and director are unhappy with the production, do they communicate with the artistic leadership about it? Will the artistic leaders be willing to convey specific concerns to the editors at the Times? Futhermore, if we work to encourage New York producers to produce new work that does not have a Times imprimatur, shouldn’t we ask the same of our resident theatre producers?

Playwrights don’t have a lot of options when it comes to their relationships with the New York Times. But we should empower them to seek open dialogue with we nonprofit producers about our relationships with the press. We do have the ability to reach out to the press, both local and national. And we should own our choices if we let the Times‘s opinion about a show influence us. We nonprofit theatre producers have agency to make our own choices about the work we will produce.

Tim Sanford is the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons.

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