To document 13P’s nine-year producing experiment as it concludes its mission and folds.
Publish an anthology of all 13 scripts; create an online “how we did it” archive for posterity.
Publicly releasing budgets, grant proposals, documentary footage and interview material offers aspiring playwright-producers practical pointers.
New playwright groups must forge their own path.
It’s hard to imagine why an Obie-winning, Mellon Foundation–funded theatre group with 13 highly regarded productions under its belt would want to implode. But that was part of 13P’s mission from the get-go. “We are not a company,” says Rob Handel, one of the initial instigators. “Madeline George calls us a machine for productions.”
In 2003, playwrights Handel and George, tired of endless new-play development cycles, gathered 11 other early and mid-career playwrights together at Winter Miller’s New York City apartment. The group set out to make a producing collective with a bold tagline: “We don’t develop plays. (We do them.)” Each playwright would become artistic director for her production, and a volunteer staff would help with the nitty-gritties of production. A proper press representative would be hired, and Handel, who had fundraising experience from the Mark Morris Dance Company, would work to ensure the group’s future life. But the future had a clear endpoint: Each writer would have a play staged, and one play only. After that the group would dissolve.
“The whole idea was to bring plays into being that didn’t fit into the world of American theatre—which has trouble existing outside of boxes, literally—and to produce them,” says Handel. The order of productions was decided at the very first meeting. Anne Washburn would go first with The Internationalist, and Sarah Ruhl—whose play Eurydice at that time had gone through 13 readings and workshops with no productions—would go last.
Times have changed. Ruhl is now one of the most widely produced playwrights in the country—her plays have appeared on the top 10 most-produced-plays-at-TCG- member-theatres list for the past five years—and a number of the other 13P playwrights have gone on to have meaty careers. Ruhl’s 13P production, Melancholy Play, which bowed in July, was sold out before it opened and was closed to reviews. (All other 13P plays were open to reviews in order to help bolster the group’s chance at receiving grants and funding.)
“Having Sarah go last is really an ideal way to close out the mission,” declares Handel. “It’s giving her a chance to return to the community of artists she started out in. We’re still the only theatre in New York City where no one will come in and give you notes.”
Playwright-centric, thumbing-the-nose bravado was a notable aspect of 13P from the start. In a 2004 article for the Brooklyn Rail, Brooke Stowe observed that a “lack of compromise and aggressive, take-no-dramaturgs stance fairly reverberates from 13P’s initial group publicity releases…Is this confidence, hubris, or just a new and different way of looking at the role of playwrights in contemporary theatre?”
Certainly 13P has raised awareness about the problems in play development and contributed to a changing new-play development landscape. Since 13P’s ascent, a number of larger institutional theatres have started developmental series and opened up smaller spaces to foster new work. In New York City, these include the Roundabout Underground and Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3.
Now that 13P has accomplished its mission, it’s time to celebrate—and to convene as a whole group. (According to a Time Out New York article, all 13Ps have never met in a room together—perhaps an indication of how farflung they are.) A wrap party this month will fête the group’s history and herald the arrival of the 13P the Complete Plays anthology.
13P will also launch “A People’s History of 13P” (sure to make activist and playwright Howard Zinn smile from above). The online archive will live on the website of New York playwrights’ haven New Dramatists and serve as a how-to for scribes itching to put work on its feet. “There are going to be bits of a documentary film we’ve been shooting for the last few years, along with budgets and grant proposals,” Handel notes. “It’s basically a record of what we did and hopefully a useful tool for others to start their own companies.” Interviews with staff members and playwrights will also pepper the archive.
While budgets have grown ($25,000 per production swelled to $40,000 with help from the Mellon Foundation), some advice remains the same. Says Handel, “If you’re going to start a theatre, the first thing you need to know is that there needs to be someone willing to give up their whole life and make the grant and tax deadlines. If you can’t identify that one person, don’t start a company.”
A huge part of the group’s success can be credited to a volunteer staff and the involvement of executive producer Maria Goyanes, who was living in her parents’ basement when she started. (Goyanes has received nominal sums for productions she has line produced but not for volunteer time spent running the company). “Maria would get these amazing all-volunteer staffs,” says Handel. One such staffer was Caleb Hammons, a recent NYU graduate, who is now 13P’s marketing director. Goyanes and Hammons have grown in their own careers, she as associate producer at the Public Theater and he as a producer at Soho Rep. “13P was like my grad school. I am the producer I am because of 13P,” says Goyanes.
Don’t expect a parochial approach to “A People’s History of 13P.” Advice is there to be interpreted, wrestled with and expanded upon. Goyanes hopes the archive will demystify how 13P came about and likens it to a cookbook for theatremakers. “Find your tribe, sprinkle in some enthusiastic young people with good organizational skills and have a lot of faith,” she says. Playwright Erin Courtney says, “I hope that playwrights will utilize the archive in a very brass-tacks way. We need more playwrights to serve as artistic leaders and 13P hopes that our archive and documentary can inspire and assist playwrights in taking on that role. The first step in getting something done is believing that it can be done. Our archive will show the way that we did it.”
She pauses before adding, “But of course the next group of playwrights will figure out an even better way of doing it!”
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