At TCG’s Fall Forum on Governance last November, participants explored what it means to create “A New Playbook,” or new model(s) for producing and sustaining theatre in communities nationwide. In some ways we are on the verge of a new movement. Certain structures will be disassembled and rebuilt differently. Others will remain intact or be tweaked to work more effectively for a changing environment. Historically, the “why” of the nonprofit theatre structure is grounded in practicality: The commercial model didn’t work for theatres seeking to bring full seasons of new and classic work, year after year, in residence within cities and towns across the country. Philanthropy was needed, particularly in a country where public support covers only a tiny fraction of the budget. “Artistic ambition outpaced the potential of the box office,” as my old friend and teacher the late Ben Mordecai would say.
And as Tom Schumacher noted in a recent panel discussion, and I paraphrase: Even commercially, it’s not so easy to anticipate a hit. People think it is or should be the norm. But it’s actually quite rare that the stars align to produce a gem like The Lion King—which, by the way, had its own elements of risk and the unknown when it was first produced.
So it is with new models. They don’t “grow on trees.” They begin in ambition and risk. Sometimes they work, sometimes they fall flat. But we will always be working to improve on the systems we have, whether within the artistry itself, in the technology, in ways of building audience, or in sharing best practices with each other.
In that vein, there are a few inventions of the last decade that really must be celebrated as game changers for our field. They were envisioned to address a powerful need, they embodied plenty of risk of failure, they were launched, they’ve evolved iteratively, and they’ve worked! The New Play Exchange is one such example. As of this writing, nearly 30,000 scripts by 7,555 writers, with more than 10,000 readers and 762 organizations participating, this effort, founded by the National New Play Network, comprises the world’s largest digital library of scripts by living writers. Gwydion Suilebhan, its founding director, was interviewed by American Theatre in 2013 when the idea was still in development, with a target launch by 2015. While some databases, maps, and newsletters had been developed to change the way play submissions take place for literary departments nationwide, none had fully embraced the possibilities of today’s online technologies until NPX. How will this online community of play love continue into the next decade?
Another is HowlRound and HowlRound TV. HowlRound began as an online journal in 2011 devised by P. Carl, and has since evolved into “a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide,” now under the leadership of Jamie Gahlon. HowlRound’s constant experimentation and evolution, with programs such as the world theatre map and Latinx Theatre Commons, have helped bring our theatre community together in ways that didn’t exist previously. On any given day, new journalistic content combined with live-streamed events are available on the site. And if you can’t attend a particular conference, including TCG’s own national conference, you can catch it on HowlRound.
For TCG, the early recognition and entry into the world of digital reading platforms made it possible for TCG Books to become available for purchase online. E-book sales grew exponentially in the last decade. Though the first Kindles launched in 2007, they became more affordable and more widely used only the very beginning of the 2010s. We’ve since witnessed record years for the sale and reading of books, including plays. Without this quick adoption of digital technology, we would not have been able to make Angels in America, Fairview, and hundreds more plays available to such a large audience.
I sit to write this column on the last full moon of the decade, for a magazine issue that marks the beginning of a new year, not to mention a new decade! So many hopes and dreams for change were hung on this snappy, decade-ending year. While we may not have reached the goals we set out with, there has been some progress. What goals will we hope to reach by 2030?