Though dramaturgs, agents, literary managers, and, of course, playwrights have worked non-stop through the two years of the pandemic, many new-play development opportunities have stalled. The industry has been in a sort of time warp when it comes to developing new works, with premieres planned for 2020 and 2021 still falling victim to calendar reshuffles. Elsewhere, familiar homes for emerging writers, like the Lark in New York, have shuttered, further exposing gaps in support for early- and mid-career playwrights.
Enter the Black List: In January, the popular screenwriting and television writing platform, initially started to shine a spotlight on worthy but unproduced screenplays, announced an expansion into theatre, allowing playwrights to host scripts on their site and pay for professional evaluations from readers. The service—which launched in 2005, and whose influential year-end lists of unproduced screenplays was one of the inspirations for the Kilroys List for under-produced plays by women, trans, and non-binary playwrights—quickly sealed some theatrical deals that seemed to mark it as a serious player, entering into $10,000 commission partnerships Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, Miami New Drama, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and New York City’s Movement Theater Company.
Despite the business’s pedigree and reputation—it has hosted a variety of well-known scripts across genres coveted by agencies and management companies—the Black List’s entry into the playwriting market raised some questions. Was this a service that theatres or playwrights actually wanted, and was the Black List qualified to provide it? On social media and elsewhere, writers and administrators wondered about the motives of a for-profit business entering a space dominated by nonprofits, including the Playwrights’ Center and the National New Play Network (NNPN). The site’s financial model also drew concern: It charges $30 per month per script hosted on its platform, prompting dramaturg and popular newsletter writer Lauren Halvorsen to label it “straight up pay-to-play.” Founder and CEO Franklin Leonard (he/him) was quick to point out that no aspiring writer is beholden to this model, as one can list information and script loglines free of charge, and waivers and exceptions are available for those who cannot meet the financial threshold. But what happens when the condition of being a working playwright is an exception in itself?
“I think the pricing model mirrors the pricing model right now in film and television,” Franklin told me from his home in Los Angeles. The initial fee, which can be waived if a script receives enough positive ratings, is a way for the site to pay its staff and readers, but is also “a conscious disincentive against posting not good things” rather than allowing for endless uploads. “It means that the ecosystem we have is people putting their best foot forward, not just putting everything into the system.” He reiterates, however, that any writer concerned about the fees to get started on the Black List can communicate with the team for waiver information.
On the other end of the spectrum, New Play Exchange (NPX), a project of NNPN, allows users to upload their work and download the work of others for low-cost annual fees—under $20 a year for most readers and writers and $25 a year for organizations like schools, agencies, and theatres. The service doesn’t value quantity over quality, necessarily, but does function as a sort of encyclopedia of new work online, its numbers bolstered by a large reserve of 10-minute and one-act plays. “The only thing that makes a play right for an audience is finding the right audience for it,” said Nan Barnett (she/her), the executive director of NNPN, of the site’s model, which encourages everyone from League of Resident Theatres (LORT) producers to small-town community theatres to browse their library. “I’m choosing the play that’s right for my audience, whatever that audience is.”
This egalitarian framework defines NPX as an accessible tool that the theatre community has come to not only value but trust since its 2015 launch. The NPX team is also rolling out improvements to the user experience, like allowing for a script to have multiple authors and giving dramaturgs further ability to promote themselves, which they hope will be implemented by the end of 2022. The site is a vast resource, undoubtedly. But its more hands-off ethos may also contribute to a certain lack of cachet when compared to sites like the Black List. The Black List’s readers—who are required to have some experience reading for agencies, studios, networks, financiers, or similar entities to be hired, a bar that also applies to prospective playscript readers—rate scripts on a 1-through-10 system, and writers hope for their scripts to receive more than one rating of at least an 8. Scripts that receive multiple high ratings can be hosted for free on the site and labeled “Black List Recommended,” and the site will increase the distribution of those scripts to industry members at no additional cost. Megan Halpern (she/her), the Black List’s vice president of programs, partnerships, and productions, whom Franklin credited with spearheading the theatre expansion, said that this constitutes less than four percent of the material on the site.
Franklin described the system as a “two-sided marketplace” with a “qualified curatorial group” bridging the gap between readers and writers. NPX’s recommendations system is more straightforward but doesn’t rely on vetting its readers, who are treated with equal weight whether they be producers, directors, or just people who like reading plays. “We let people describe the play in their own words,” Gwydion Suilebhan (he/him), NPX’s project director, told me. Writers are encouraged to make their own evaluations regarding who has read and reviewed their work; if you’ve ever interned at a theatre, researched trends in playwriting demographics, or tried to find the perfect play for a college production, you’ve probably scoured NPX’s library. “It’s inviting people to think more and evaluate instead of drop to a bottom line and make a reductive decision,” Suilebhan said.
Though their business models and user experiences differ, the two services aren’t diametrically opposed. Though social media conversations among theatre artists may project a hesitancy to embrace the Black List’s new venture, the NPX team doesn’t share this sentiment.
“Anybody that’s doing anything to make an artist’s life better, to make their work better—all for it,” said Barnett, and Suilebhan and NNPN engagement director Jess Hutchinson (she/her) echoed this “the more the merrier” attitude. Suilebhan added, however, that in the years since NPX launched, the team has seen multiple other organizations and initiatives come forward, and many are no longer operating. “Most of the other organizations that have tried to enter the space have left after a time, and that’s sort of disappointing,” he said. Rather than viewing the Black List as a competitor, his “approach has always been to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing? How can we help?’”
Barnett also said that conversations around playwrights stepping into film and television spaces don’t feel as one-sided as they have in the past. “It’s not like in the old days, when somebody crossed over to the dark side and they never came back,” she said. “They work on a screenplay, they work on a show, and then they come back and write a play, and then they go back and forth.” The Black List is capitalizing on a trend that’s seen a resurgence since the onslaught of COVID, as film and TV productions have seemed to bounce back with both financial and public health resources that the theatre industry hasn’t been able to replicate since reopening. Some playwrights are balancing their creative output, as Barnett suggested: Jeremy O. Harris saw his Slave Play open in Los Angeles as the show he co-produces, Euphoria, had its second season on HBO, while Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was tapped to write and executive produce a pilot based on Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred just as a revival of The Skin of Our Teeth, for which he is supplying additional material, prepares for a bow at Lincoln Center Theater. Theatre’s fortunes may have felt uncertain for the past two years, but writers’ fortunes have long been hybrid and multihyphenate.
The new theatre venture from the Black List is in part a reflection of this multihyphenate reality. If a writer wants to use the site to host only playscripts and no screenplays, they may not get the same bang for their buck. Both NPX and the Black List highlight the diversity of their writers’ backgrounds: NPX frequently changes their homepage list of recommended scripts by topic, which often includes identity categories, while the Black List publishes categorized year-end lists, like the Muslim List or the Disability List. A diversity in career background may be equally desirable. “TV people generally love theatre,” J. Holtham (he/him), a TV writer and member of the new-play development group Bespoke Plays, told me. Though the reverse isn’t always true, and social media arguments among creators may amplify these deep-seeded rivalries, Holtham said, “Every time I’m in a writers’ room and it comes up that I’m a playwright, at one least one person reaches out to me separately to be like, ‘Oh, I was interested in writing a play.’”
A self-described “mostly retired playwright,” Holtham was part of what he called a “brain drain” of playwrights relocating to L.A. to work in TV in 2012 after facing setbacks in his New York theatre career. “A lot of my work had been both criticized and praised as being very sort of TV-like,” he told me over Zoom. For three years, he balanced work as a bicoastal playwright and TV writer, but decided in 2015 to follow the path that had proved more lucrative for him both financially and artistically. “The theatre ecology and the theatre economy doesn’t support exactly the same kind of risks that working in TV and film can.”
While the financial draw of Hollywood is “astronomically different” than that of theatre, according to Holtham, a steady paycheck isn’t the only reason artists are diversifying their work or shifting their primary focus; it’s also that your work is more likely to get produced. As many of the comparatively small number of theatres in the country continue to face COVID-related hurdles, opportunities proliferate in L.A. due to the streaming boom. Holtham, whose TV credits include Supergirl and Jessica Jones, has seen firsthand how getting work produced can transform a writer’s confidence as well as their willingness to experiment with form. A resident dramaturg at the Ojai Playwrights Conference, Holtham reads scripts each year that reflect the diversification of craft now seemingly required by theatre artists. “Kids are coming out of grad school turning in 185-page plays that are half poetry, and stage directions that are four pages long,” he said in admiration. “I think the biggest shift in the last couple years about playwrights moving to TV is that there are just many more playwrights as creators.”
The self-determination and agency that playwrights can harness as multihyphenate artists hopefully allows arts to flourish throughout the country, whether on stage or screen. Both the Black List and NPX aim to put some power back in the hands of artists, to amplify their work and tear down the walls that legacy structures have built. In a reminder that Twitter is not always reflective of the material world, neither organization holds animosity toward the other. “At the end of the day, the more ways there are to serve the field, the more the field benefits,” Suilebhan summed up.
Good intentions aside, what’s missing is some kind of middle ground between the gateless library of NPX and the artist-financed business model of the Black List. Halpern emphasized that the Black List’s new commissioning model with four regional theatres is unlike efforts the organization has undertaken before with partners in film and TV. “There’s just a lot of opportunities in theatre that don’t exist in film and TV,” she said, making it clear that the folks at the Black List are willing to listen and learn in a space that’s new to them.
New-work development is always tricky territory, but as long as institutions and individuals maintain this open-mindedness—and avoid Twitter arguments that pit writers against each other—we might come up with a list of the most collaborative, boundary-breaking opportunities.
Amelia Merrill (she/her) is a contributing editor at American Theatre. @ameliamerr
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