Somewhat by accident, I stumbled into a weekly twitter conversation about new play development (hashtag #newplay) despite the fact that I am not a playwright. What I am is a university professor who for six of the ten years I spent in academic administration led a large theatre/film school whose mission includes the development of new work. Most of that new work is developed by students, some by faculty, and once during my tenure, by commission. I provide this brief biographical excerpt to give some weight to the following statement: the field can do a better of job of using universities as laboratories for new play development.
There are several university programs that, in similar fashion to mine, nurture young playwrights enrolled in MFA programs. There are also several programs that have deep connections with LORT theatres that sit resident on their campuses (LaJolla Playhouse, The Huntington, for example). There are several large LORT theatres that develop and present new plays (Actors Theatre of Louisville, Arena Stage, to name two). What we’re not seeing, but which would exist in my utopian view of better connections between academic and professional theatre, is a systematic effort to engage universities in the research enterprise that is new play development.
My university, like any research intensive university, has an infrastructure devoted to contracted research. These offices exist primarily to facilitate research by faculty in university labs sponsored by an outside organization. This could be a pharmaceutical company sponsoring drug research, a municipal government contracting with the university to undertake policy research, or the department of education contracting with the university on curriculum development. What if a theatre that is interested in a playwright contracts with a university to develop their work through the sponsored research mechanism?
In such a scheme, LORT Theatre X says, “we’re really interested in the work of playwright Jane Doe, but can’t devote the staff time or space or even the actors to see her new play through the early phases of development.” So, LORT Theatre X approaches Research University Y and says, “we would like to enter into a sponsored project contract with you to develop Jane Doe’s next play. We will pay an amount of money to the university [say, enough to cover a reasonable stipend for the playwright] and your faculty dramaturg and his graduate students work with the playwright; your graduate acting students take part in readings and a workshop, and then at the end, if we like the play, we’ll put it on our season next year. Further, if there is commercial interest in the play, Research University Y gets to retain Z percentage of any commercial production.”
It seems that in such a scheme, everybody wins. The theatre reduces its play development costs because it is not shouldering any of the infrastructure of the development process. The playwright gets a stipend, development time, and, potentially a full production, the faculty and students benefit from the research/teaching/learning experience, and, ultimately, the field benefits from having a new play in the world and a class full of MFA students skilled at developing new work.
This structure has advantages to a university commissioning the piece outright because it includes an organizational partnership with the LORT Theatre that is mutually beneficial; it has advantages for the playwright because there is more infrastructure available. Emerson College recently recruited David Dower and Polly Carl away from Arena Stage’s new play development center. The field is watching the developments there, but that scenario is somewhat the reverse of that described here. Universities have been investing in the recruitment of theatre professionals for 25 years or more. The structure described here is the reverse; it involves the theatres shifting their perspective on universities away from a pipeline for new talent and toward viewing universities as potential laboratories, as research and development units with which they can contract for new play developments. Because universities have indeed been recruiting faculty from the professions, the talent is there and the facilities are there. What is needed is a vision and a structure for organizational partnership that is symbiotic, the kind of partnership between research universities and the private sector that has fueled innovation in almost every other sector.
Perhaps such a scheme already exists. If so, it needs better PR.