Long before the onset of the Coronavirus Era, playwrights had become experts at dealing with social distancing. It’s not that we wanted that skill set, mind you; it’s just that most of us have been exiled from theatres for so long that we’re accustomed to being kept at arm’s length by people. We know how to avoid getting too close; how to communicate from afar; how to find solace and community at home, instead of at work; and how to survive on whatever’s left in the cupboards of our creative kitchens rather than waiting to be invited to an artistic group feast.
So on March 12, when Broadway shutting down for a month (at least) kicked off wave after wave of productions disappearing from our theatrical calendars, our hearts all broke for each other. For the average playwright, roughly one world premiere per decade is what success might look like—if it weren’t for the fact that there are enough above-average playwrights to make the real numbers look much worse for the rest of us. So we understood, immediately, what it must have felt like for the writers who lost productions to COVID-19, and we set out to help each other.
At first, the conversations I saw all centered on alternative means to tell stories: live-streamed productions, Skype readings of monologues, and even gathering neighbors (at a healthy six feet of distance apart) to read plays around campfires. It was clear that we all needed to find new ways to make and share art for a while, because stopping wasn’t an option. Even before the big Broadway announcement, however, playwrights had already begun exploring another alternative: supporting each other’s work on the New Play Exchange.
The first magnanimous gesture I noticed was made by Stephanie Alison Walker—author of The Madres, The Abuelas, and Friends with Guns, among others—who shared the following offer on Twitter: “Playwrights, if you had a production cancelled or postponed due to the #CoronavirusPandemic, please reply with a link to your play on @NewPlayX and I’ll add to my reading list.” Nearly a hundred retweets and more than 250 likes later, she’d started what I like to call a generosity revolution. Other playwrights joined her in offering to read and enjoy each other’s cancelled world premiere scripts, and suddenly the social distance started to feel smaller.
Before long, the @NewPlayX Twitter feed—always an easy place to find expressions of kindness among theater makers—was overflowing with words of support and encouragement. In more than five years of managing the account, I have never seen it that active: not even the day we launched, which brought a ton of fanfare. (As I write these words, it’s still on overdrive!) Writers were reading and praising each other’s work left and right, and within a day playwright Donna Hoke—inspired by Stephanie’s gesture—had created a Google doc with New Play Exchange links for all of the scripts with cancelled productions. I can’t even tell you how widely that doc was shared, because as I write this it’s still making the rounds on social media, and writers are still reaching out to Donna with new links to add to it. Meanwhile, playwrights kept writing me private notes on various platforms asking whether there was anything more they could do to help.
While the list of lost productions started getting longer, furthermore, the number of academic institutions going virtual for the rest of the semester also started growing. Siobhan Carroll—my National New Play Network colleague, who manages higher education partnerships for the New Play Exchange—quickly identified an opportunity to make an immediate difference for teachers working in drama departments all over the country. A few emails later, NNPN decided to offer a month of free access to the New Play Exchange database for colleges and universities making the transition to remote learning, and our social media posts on the subject went (pardon the increasingly troublesome pun) viral. Within eight hours, we had inquiries from 15 schools, and those inquiries have continued to roll in rapidly.
If you’re like most artists—most humans, really—you’re probably looking for bright spots right about now. From my vantage point as its project director, the New Play Exchange is one of those bright spots. We’ve all probably got a long stretch of time to spend indoors, and the NPX has a library of more than 31,500 scripts to curl up with…not to mention a community of users like Stephanie Alison Walker and Donna Hoke to support and be supported by. I hope you’ll join us. The cure for social distancing is only a few clicks away.
Gwydion Suilebhan, a playwright, is the project director of the New Play Exchange.