It’s been a week since the virus began disrupting our lives, our industry, our income. It’s uncertain when, indeed if, we will return to normal. It seems increasingly like social distancing is here to stay, at least for the season. The hit to all of us is felt, financially and creatively. But in the scrambling to proceed with producing as much as possible, we may have forgotten ways the theatre already exists outside the proscenium.
Of course the best way to engage with theater is live, onstage, with people in front of people manifesting the magic of imagination. But as calls for livestreaming performances and audio-based broadcasts abound, I’ve yet to see calls for a more immediately available, and, in my opinion, more profoundly pleasurable experience: reading plays! On paper! Inside books!
There are several Twitter threads that have asked for reading recommendations for plays on NPX, yes (I was fortunate to be mentioned in one of them, thank you!). I also have seen those threads become unmanageable monsters as we all race to recommend our friends. As lovely as that is, the usual problems with sourcing an abundance of plays from NPX remain: Drafts on NPX are rarely the most current draft, and there’s an argument to be made, at least from this editor/playwright, that writers shouldn’t make full drafts available for download at all.
Instead I offer a pitch for purchasing plays from publishers! I plead for such purchases outside of pandemics, but today that pressure is especially acute. Donate your canceled tickets to the theatres rather than ask for refunds; provide financial support and physical resources in whatever way to the out-of-work performers and production crews. But playwrights are the foundation of this industry, and the last to see any protections in these moments, because, we assume, our “work” is “done.” But the cancelation of performances across the country hits playwrights as directly as it does performers. Playwrights rely on royalties from those performances as much as the production team depends on their paychecks.
I have had the honor of working for the past decade with playwrights on the publication of their plays as editorial director of Dramatists Play Service. The details of the publication process are vague to anyone, I know, who hasn’t been through it. But I hope the writers I’ve worked with will vouch for me about the thoughtfulness and often deep dramaturgical thinking that goes into taking that PDF from NPX and putting it between construction-stock covers.
We cut lines; we add paragraphs, we ponder the meaning of breaking this character’s dialogue here rather than there. We create, in essence, a reading experience precisely comparable to reading poetry, with one joyous distinction (if I may declare, as an avid reader of poetry even in the best of times): A play happens in your head! You can read plays with the voices of your dream cast. You can blast through them in a couple hours or you can take them scene by scene over the course of a day, rolling that most ancient poetic impulse, common speech, around the tongue of your mind.
There may even be, if I may be so bold, plays that are better as reading experiences than visual ones. Have you read some of our writers’ stage directions? Often they express the poetry of possibilities, which any single production would construct, however effectively and beautifully, as merely one version of the world the playwright has conceived. Also, remember closet dramas? More or less lost to modernity, closet dramas—plays written to be read and never intended for production—were once a flourishing form, one in fact that provided women writers an opportunity to have their writing distributed, as they were either outright banned from presenting their work onstage or merely excluded from the opportunities.
Think of all the writers whose work remains too ambitious, too marginalized, too something for broad production. In many ways, theatrical publishers’ catalogues are a canon of unknown shows as much as the guardians of rights to the big ones. Those publishers have taken financial risks for decades on releasing in print plays of artistic value as much as of commercial value. I’ve edited acting editions for playwrights whose soon-to-be-published work was seen only once at a two-week festival, or staged for five performances at the writer’s alma mater, or had a premiere at an Off-Off house to critical acclaim, only to flounder in its future life due to our world-premiere-obsessive producing model. So many of these are astonishing works of theatrical literature!
You could also read plays aloud to each other! My Google hangouts app has popped off in the best way this week; already I’ve had (almost-)face-to-face conversations with old friends and friends I always wanted to know better. I look forward to a potential new tradition that will outlast this pandemic: of socially distanced play-reading book clubs, or our own closed silly performances—all while making sure that one of the few remaining avenues of income for playwrights, as licensed productions are postponed or canceled, remains as robust as reasonably possible while we all struggle to make ends meet. We might even emerge from this with a theatre more wide-ranging than we’ve yet seen.
Haleh Roshan is an Iranian American playwright and fiction writer. Her work fuses leftist politics with intercultural narratives to challenge global power structures and trouble conceptions of identity and ability. Plays include A Play Titled After the Collective Noun for Female-Identifying 20-Somethings Living in NYC in the 2010s (2019 Corkscrew Theater Festival), Free Free Free Free (Exponential Festival, 2018 O’Neill NPC finalist), The Woman Question, adapted from the prison memoir of a woman in 1980s Iran, and The Houseguest, adapted from a play by Mohsen Yalfani (Oye! Avant Garde). MA: NYU Gallatin. @halehroshan
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!