Indisputably, America’s resident theatres have been a significant wellspring for new plays reaching back at least 30 years. But a quickening sea change has occurred quietly though demonstrably over the past decade.
I would argue that regional theatres, once unduly reliant on warhorses and the latest New York hit, have become the primary incubators and showcases for new work in the United States, and the source of much of what will become the core of the lasting literature of American theatre for the coming decades.
The five boroughs of New York City still premiere perhaps four dozen new works each year. But the array of regional companies from Seattle to Atlanta, who collectively host at least twice that many, are no longer merely the farm team. They are increasingly the feeder system.
While no one has definitively quantified the phenomenon, the accumulation of anecdotal evidence is impossible to ignore.
“If we want to have a discussion as a numbers game, it’s not even close, and hasn’t even been close for 25 years,” said playwright Steven Dietz. A few of Dietz’s 32 plays and 11 adaptations have been seen Off-Broadway, but his plays have been produced hundreds of times across the country and around the world.
Amy Rose Marsh, literary director for the Samuel French Inc. licensing company, acknowledged New York’s one-time primacy, but added, “There’s definite movement away from that,” saying they’ve seen “a ton of theatres” outside New York doing world premieres.
The scope and depth of this trend is evident from my observations of even the most modest theatre communities, where there is typically at least one company committed to new work; from my tracking of submissions to play competitions (I serve as chair of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association, which gives out a major new-play prize each year); and from my quizzing of artistic directors and interviews with successful playwrights who rarely—in some cases never—have had New York productions.
EXHIBIT A: Consider the breadth of the National New Play Network (NNPN), with 108 member theatres dedicated to producing brand-new work; only two are based in New York City. Its 30 core members pledge that a play selected for its Rolling World Premiere program will receive at least three full professional productions, enabling the playwright to evolve the piece (and enabling all three companies to claim it as a world premiere). Members range from renowned League of Resident Theatres companies to scrappy troupes in Tucson, Skokie, and Indianapolis. In its most recently finished fiscal year NNPN approved 37 productions of 10 different plays at 33 member theatres.
EXHIBIT B: The corridor from Key West through Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach County is home to more than 40 professional companies. At least 12 have commissioned, developed, and/or presented new work, including Miami’s Zoetic Stage, which counts two playwrights as founding members; Wilton Manors’s Island City Stage, which favors LGBT-centric works; and Miami’s City Theatre, which premieres short plays. Louis Tyrrell ran Florida Stage in Palm Beach County for 24 years; it was once touted as the largest regional theatre producing exclusively new works. After that company folded, Tyrrell moved to Arts Garage in Delray Beach, and now has a resident professional company, Theatre Lab, on the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University, which has hosted Israel Horovitz, Deborah Zoe Laufer, and Michael Hollinger.
Even more local troupes give playwrights-at-work those crucial second and third productions. Others, such as GableStage in Coral Gables, regularly host staged readings of works that then receive their first full production elsewhere. Zoetic Stage also serves as a base for emerging local playwrights, such as Miamian Christopher Demos-Brown, a national prize-winning writer whose sixth play, American Son, bowed at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts last summer.
Nationally, some companies mount only one new play a year. But some are dedicated entirely to new work, such as the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in West Virginia, which attracts D.C. Metro patrons for a summer stay (see p. 46), or the Denver Center’s Colorado New Play Summit in February. And this isn’t counting development-only labs like the Sundance Institute in Utah and the Eugene O’ Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.
Steve Yockey, a rising Los Angeles playwright whose Blackberry Winter had seven productions just last season but who has never been mentioned, let alone reviewed, in The New York Times, name-checked a number of other new-play-nurturing outposts in an email: “So many of those midsize regional theatres are channeling resources specifically into the cultivation of new work right now. Places like Kitchen Dog in Dallas, or the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, or Actor’s Express in Atlanta. And if you aren’t following Forum Theatre [in Silver Spring, Md.] yet, then you’re missing out on a pretty fearless model for development, production, and audience engagement around new work.”
Other venues are so venerable that they are taken for granted, such as the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville, which has produced more than 450 new plays since 1993, including such Pulitzer winners as Dinner With Friends, Crimes of the Heart, and The Gin Game, and Pulitzer finalists Becky Shaw, Keely and Du, and Omnium-Gatherum.
EXHIBIT C would have to be the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. Launched in 2008, the program will have commissioned 37 new plays by the end of 2017, in its words “sprung from moments of change in United States history” and meant to mirror “the scope and scale of Shakespeare’s history plays.” By the close of 2017, the project will have spent $3 million on writers, dramaturgs, workshop participants, administrators, and others. Seven plays have been produced at the festival, such as Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, with many of the rest expected in the coming years. Most of those seven, plus three others, have been exported to Arena Stage, the Public Theater, Steppenwolf, Yale Rep, and Berkeley Rep, among many other stages.
EXHIBIT D: Examine the number and quality of submissions for the new-play competition created by the ATCA in 1977 and funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust since 2000. Created specifically to recognize regional theatres as significant sources of new work, the Steinberg/ATCA prize has gone to eight of August Wilson’s works, three by Lee Blessing, four by Jane Martin, two by Sarah Ruhl, two by Arthur Miller, and two by Donald Margulies, as well as All the Way, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, A Shayna Maidel, Getting Out, and Intimate Apparel. More recently it honored Lauren Gunderson’s ubiquitous I and You, Johnna Adams’s Gidion’s Knot, and Lucas Hnath’s The Christians.
And while many of these plays received high-profile New York productions at some point in their journey, every last one of them originated in regional theatres, without which many or most simply would not exist.
EXHIBIT E: These plays form the lion’s share of what is seen on America’s stages. Becky’s New Car is a title few New Yorkers have heard, because it never played in the metropolitan area. But Steven Dietz’s droll, affecting play about a runaway wife, birthed in Seattle in 2008, has since had no fewer than 187 productions across the country.
This under-recognized movement reflects a growing audience hungry for new work. Consider that CATF, like many other festivals, is located essentially in the middle of nowhere, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and yet people from nearly 40 states schedule three- and five-day jaunts to immerse themselves in new work. It attracted a record-breaking attendance last year of 15,000, said Ed Herendeen, the organization’s founder and producing director.
Certainly, some theatre patrons steadfastly resist new work. Tyrrell of Florida’s Theatre Lab said he tells those people, “If you’re interested in Pulitzer Prize winners of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, or last year’s hit from Broadway, you can go” to a nearby theatre. And certainly, sometimes when a theatre peppers new work into an otherwise traditional season, season subscribers may balk.
But companies like the 16-year-old Mad Cat Theatre Company in Miami have simply raised their aesthetic banner to attract an existing niche audience of adventurous, often younger patrons. Others tout their consistent quality to persuade audiences to take a chance on plays they’ve never heard of. The key is educating their expectations for a work in progress. Said Nan Barnett, NNPN’s executive director, “You talk to your audience about how they’re part of the development of a work that will end up in the theatre canon—that their responses will be part of shaping a piece that will be representative of our time.”
That appeal can be so strong that companies often fight each other for the rights to advertise the “world premiere” of an author’s latest work. In some cases, a troupe will provide the actual first full production but find the playwright has promised the “world premiere” status to a more established company. Jim Steinberg, director of the Steinberg Trust and one of the nation’s leading supporters of new work, wryly refers to it as “an arms race.” Using that analogy, the NNPN “rolling world premiere” is one effort at a kind of détente, or at least a de-escalation.
Regardless of how the new work is positioned, even receptive audiences and local support are not typically enough to support these efforts alone. To develop risky new work they often rely on specifically targeted grants from government funders, including the National Endowment for the Arts, corporate sponsors like Humana, and foundations like the Pew Charitable Trust. The American Revolutions project in Oregon is underwritten by more than 30 groups, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Edgerton Foundation New Play Awards.
The reasons for this change—and further validation of it—come down to considerations of both art and commerce. While the market for warhorses remains, that audience is dying out. Artistic directors and their boards believe that the only way to attract and sustain current and future patrons is to deliver theatre they haven’t seen—and work they can’t find on YouTube or Netflix.
“The standard theatregoing audience has gotten sick of seeing the same things over and over again,” said veteran playwright Michael McKeever. Audiences “are interested in seeing new work that reflects their lifestyle, their pace, their vernacular.” His regionally successful Daniel’s Husband, about a gay couple dealing with the tragic consequences of not marrying, will play in New York next spring.
Artists, too, “want to have an impact in their community talking about today’s issues through the lens of an artist,” Barnett said. “It’s a priority: To keep making theatre relevant and vital, we have to keep making new theatre.”
What’s more, helping give birth to new work is the ultimate joy for many theatremakers. Enthused Tyrrell, “As an artist, you have to want to put the original paint on the canvas. How could you not want to see new work develop and flourishing if you are a theatre artist?”
Taking a longer view: The possibility that your local theatre is helping forge the next Death of a Salesman or American Buffalo can be intoxicating, since, as Tyrrell put it, “Yesterday’s classics at one point in their lives were brand new and perhaps scandalous.”
On the economic side of the ledger, producing outside New York City, even other major city centers, can reduce the risk and the pressure both artistically and financially. Ken Ludwig, who’s best known for Lend Me a Tenor, debuted several of his plays at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. While new works are usually fine-tuned through second and third productions, tepid reviews of an evolving work in a New York City premiere can foreclose a project’s future. But regional producers, local critics, and their audiences have learned to evaluate these offerings as works in progress. Said Ludwig, “To hurry that process along because you have a Broadway opening is dangerous to the work of art.”
And the economic benefits aren’t just about the risks but also the rewards. Readings and developmental black-box productions can promise a revenue stream on top of the capped revenue from even the most successful mainstage season of scheduled limited runs. What’s more, new-work development—even if it only takes the form of staged readings—can lend a company artistic legitimacy when it comes time to apply for operating grants. And, of course, with works that do go on to other productions, some regional companies negotiate a slice of the profits to put back into developing more.
Some of the downstream payback isn’t monetary: Every time Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics is performed, a line on the program’s title page acknowledges that the piece premiered at the tiny New Theatre in Miami (which, despite that success, closed its doors earlier this year).
Of course, when a theatre takes artistic risks, there will be a certain percentage of misfires. Audiences, lured by the promise of witnessing the birth of a new work of art, may feel they’ve wasted two hours. And while every writer craves the chance to develop their work, the cold truth is that not every company has the sufficient dramaturgical resources to shape it. In some cases, half-baked “development” may even do damage to an evolving play.
Clearly, New York remains a crucial new-play nexus, with such heavy hitters as Playwrights Horizons, Manhattan Theatre Club, the Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Atlantic Theater Company, Lincoln Center Theater, and Roundabout Theatre Company. And many resident theatres still pick from a menu of recent New York hits for their schedules, because they know that buzz presells subscriptions. And most artists value a New York showcase, with its gathering of talent and attention unparalleled anywhere, playwright Yockey conceded. Still, he added, “Honestly, you can have a terrible production in New York just as easily as you can in any other city.”
And NYC’s validation is no longer essential, insisted every interviewee I spoke to, including playwrights with sustained careers in the regionals. Barnett was blunt: “The whole idea of New York being the arbiter of success is bullshit.” Added Tyrrell, “Deb Zoe Laufer’s works are much more Pulitzer Prize-level plays than” two recent winners whose names I have tactfully redacted.
If all this seems obvious to you, great; it is not self-evident to many in the field. An exclusionary snobbery persists. Start with the Pulitzer Prize, which seems to unofficially require the imprimatur of a New York production. Only three plays have won without previously bowing in Gotham: The Kentucky Cycle in 1992, Anna in the Tropics in 2003, and Water by the Spoonful in 2012. But look at where many Pulitzer winners originate: Over the past 25 years, 10 of them had their first production outside New York City, and 33 of the 57 other finalists began in regional theatres.
Indeed, the traffic from regionals to major cities seems to be outpacing the flow in the other direction. South Coast Rep, American Repertory Theater, Steppenwolf, La Jolla Playhouse, Paper Mill Playhouse, Berkeley Rep, and others regularly do the creative heavy lifting before the Next Big Thing finds a berth in The New York Times’s theatre listings.
That reverse flow only seemed to increase during the economic downturn of 2008 and the ensuing years, coupled in the past decade with the exploding costs of producing new work, even Off-Broadway, said several observers. Many risk-averse New York producers thus looked for works that had a successful track record with audiences elsewhere.
“New York went through a period where they became so gun-shy that even the nonprofits were hesitant to produce unknown playwrights,” said Steinberg, who heads the audit committee of the Public Theater and serves on the board of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Now, in 2016, “I think there’s less hesitancy to try something with lesser-known playwrights” at New York’s big nonprofits, but in many cases only “because they have been pushed by the regionals,” and “generally they put them in their second space.”
Indeed, the tide may have turned decisively, and it all comes down to the quality of the work proliferating outside the island of Manhattan. As new-play partisan Barnett put it, “Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter can change my life the same way seeing Streetcar or The Heidi Chronicles did.”
Critic and arts reporter Bill Hirschman is the editor of Florida Theater On Stage.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.