When Allison Gregory’s play Judy Moody and Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt premiered at Oregon Children’s Theatre this past October, it came with some unexpected challenges, as all world premieres do. But unlike most playwrights unleashing a new play on the world, Gregory knew going in that she’d have at least six more chances to open it.
Based on the book series by Megan McDonald, Judy Moody is a co-commission between seven theatres for young audiences (TYAs): Oregon Children’s Theatre in Portland, Ore.; Bay Area Children’s Theatre in Oakland, Calif.; Orlando Repertory Theatre; First Stage Children’s Theater in Milwaukee; Adventure Theatre MTC in Glen Echo, Md., the Rose Theatre in Omaha, Neb., and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. All of the theatres contributed financially and artistically to the development of the play, and each theatre is giving the play its own production over the next year (Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s is currently running through May 27th).
“It’s like manna from heaven,” says Gregory of this multi-production rollout. “Most playwrights work really hard just to get our plays done, but what’s really exciting about this project is we get to get the play right. And that’s just so galvanizing and rare.”
Collaborations in the TYA World are nothing new, and both the Write Now conference and New Visions/New Voices Festival offer support for playwrights and companies developing new plays for young audiences. As the TYA canon continues to grow, co-commissions have become a crucial innovation in this new work pipeline, offering a model that can take a variety of forms and better serve the varied needs of producers, playwrights, and audiences.
The process usually begins with relationships that are already in place. “When I got the underlying rights to Judy Moody, I reached out to six of my friends, people I had good relationships with that I thought represented a nice cross section of the country,” says Michael Bobbitt, artistic director of Adventure Theatre, and initiator of the Judy Moody co-commission. “I was thinking maybe one or two of them would respond, so when six said yes, it became this big project!”
For Home of the Brave, a co-commission between Honolulu Theatre for Youth and the La Jolla Playhouse Performance Outreach Program (POP) Tour, the process began with conversations between company leaders about the large number of military families stationed in Honolulu and San Diego.
“As we discussed the idea further, we took note of the fact that neither of us really knew of a play that addressed the stories of contemporary military families from the perspective of young people,” says Steve McCormick, director of education and outreach at La Jolla Playhouse. Written by Hawai‘i-based playwright and journalist Lee Cataluna, the play is based on extensive interviews Cataluna conducted with military kids in both cities, and is currently touring San Diego schools through March 30.
“I really feel like this was a three-way co-commisson with the U.S. military,” says Home of the Brave director and HTY artistic director Eric Johnson, who’s bringing the show to his theatre next season. “These families, who really were included in the process, in some ways trump either organization in the final content of the piece.”
Likewise, Last Stop on Market Street, a co-commission between Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, Minn. and Chicago Children’s Theatre based on the book by Matt de la Peña, was able to engage the local community in their process. In this case, the two theatres partnered with Northwesten University and, in addition to playwright Cheryl L. West and songwriters Lamont and Paris Ray Dozier, worked with Chicago-based artists and students to develop the piece.
“We were extremely fortunate to have Northwestern University’s American Music Theatre Project come on board to support the first workshop reading,” says Jacqueline Russell, Chicago Children’s Theatre’s artistic director. “We had worked with them on Mr. Chickee’s Funny Money a few years back, and they are a terrific resource for new work.”
While many of the potential pitfalls that come with co-commissioning—scheduling, logistics, etc.—are givens for any type of theatrical collaboration, co-commissions can also require a more rigorous development process than theatres might plan when commissioning alone.
“Lee went to both communities [Honolulu and San Diego], and both teams went to both places prior to the production, which was helpful,” says Johnson about Home of the Brave. “I think part of the value of this collaboration was us just having to be careful and attentive with each other, taking those extra steps to make sure everyone was on the same page.”
A willingness to continue working on the piece after the first production is also essential, as well as an understanding that earlier productions of a co-commissioned script may be bigger risks than later productions. “We will see the production in Chicago, and have already scheduled a workshop after that production closes,” says CTC artistic director Peter Brosius about Last House on Market Street. That additional workshop will “take the piece to the next step, and allow the creative team a chance to incorporate changes based on the learnings from Chicago before we go into rehearsal in Minneapolis.”
Gregory learned the hard way that she hadn’t written Judy Moody with a space like Oregon Children’s Theatre’s 880-seat theatre in mind. “It’s not an epic play, and trying to make it fill that stage was a challenge,” she says. “How do we let the play live and breathe in a massive space like this? What do I need to do as a playwright to make the play be nimble that way? It’s making me reimagine things, with the goal being that by the seventh production, the play can operate on many levels and function in a smaller space with a set cast of seven, but can also live in a large theatre with more students from the acting school involved.”
For all their challenges, the benefits of successful co-commissions are multifaceted. “This country is so large, and we, unlike European companies, have few major festivals that bring us all together and give us the chance to interact and learn from each other,” says Brosius. “These partnerships are one way to think differently, grow and challenge ourselves and create new relationships.”
McCormick emphasizes how the communal aspect of co-commissioning leads to stronger work. “Working together on this piece allowed us to gather stories from two different cities and find more universal themes to write about,” he says of Home of the Brave. “There were experiences we heard about when interviewing people in Honolulu that were repeated almost word for word by someone in San Diego. At the same time, we also discovered things that were specific to each location.”
Co-commissions will likely become even more prevalent in the future, for practical as much as artistic reasons. “It’s becoming more and more necessary in order to secure rights to these expensive, new, and popular titles,” says Russell of Chicago Children’s Theatre.
Bobbitt agrees that the Judy Moody co-commission has opened doors to the rights for big-name titles whose owners previously weren’t interested. “I’ve been leading my emails and phone calls to some of the rights holders of these big titles by saying, ‘The last adaptation I worked on had seven theatres sign on from the beginning,’ and then they want to talk. These are titles that I’ve been chasing for a while, and the fact that they’re now responding to me is telling.”
While big titles are certainly prevalent in TYA, Gregory maintains that TYA commissions and co-commissions are also fertile ground for playwrights. “TYA commissions do frequently want titles, but I would say that I get some of my most creative ideas from these adaptations because there are already rules in place, so I can spend more time in some of the creative aspects of theatricalizing a piece,” says Gregory. “I’ve had a lot more commissions from TYA theatres than from adult theatres. There’s just such a need for new material in the TYA world.”
Whatever the project or model, TYA co-commissions offer a means of building the TYA canon and ensuring that there will be a more robust body of TYA work for future generations of young people.
Emma Halpern is the co-artistic director of New York Children’s Theater. She writes a monthly column for American Theatre about TYA.