Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Theresa Rebeck's Free Fire Zone, a book about her experiences in writing for the theatre, television, film and fiction. This is a must-read for those who write in any of these forms, and is full of insights, painful and funny stories, and advice. The book contains Theresa's edgy humor and articulate perspectives on all aspects of writing for performance.

Return of NPD Blog

After a tumultuous month dealing with a family crisis in California and participating in the Kennedy Center ACTF Intensives and the MFA workshops, I'm back! Lots of interesting perspectives came up during these two Kennedy Center events, and over the next few weeks, I will blog accordingly.

About Post-Play Feedback Sessions: As a playwright, you have no doubt been involved in these. They can go well or they can go badly.

Usually when they go well, it is because you actively participate in the conversation, clarifying your intentions. Don't feel as if you have to answer questions, either from others inside the process/festival/conference (usually artistic advisors and/or the creative folks from other readings) or from audiences. And even though it's difficult to focus your thoughts after you've heard your play, try to consider what questions you want to ask the responders: Are you engaged from the very beginning? Did the ending make sense AND was it a surprise? How would you describe the play to a colleague? You can also learn a lot by asking which theatres might be most inclined to place the play in their season, because this question will place your play in the context of a community and an aesthetic. If the answer is Berkeley Rep, that tells you one thing. If it's Actors' Theatre of Louisville, that tells you something else.

The Liz Lerman guidelines, while a good start, can sometimes be so polite that you won't be able to derive what didn't work, what the obstacles were to engagement, etc. All the more reason to have your questions in mind at the get-go.

Who should moderate the discussion? Usually the dramaturg will moderate, but that is not always a good thing because if they have been working with you on the insides of the play for a week or so, they may have, if temporarily, lost their objectivity. At Sundance and at the O'Neill, the feedback sessions are moderated by the Artistic Director, which means the comments can stay focused on the text without necessarily being overwhelmingly "dramaturgical" in nature.

When your discussion is with a large group and/or audience, you may want the discussion to begin with a couple of advisories. I tend to start by asking the audience to not rewrite the play or to suggest scenes they'd like to see because the playwright wants to rewrite the play him/herself. I warn them that if they start to become prescriptive, I will interrupt them. I also suggest that questions to the playwright are most productive if they remain unanswered. These questions often, in the asking, identify a place in the script that needs your attention in one way or another. Questions can also be turned back to the audience for their response.

Finally, it's your process. If you have not had a chance to put in the revisions you know you want to do, you can decline the discussion entirely. If the institution needs to have a discussion with the audience as part of their community/marketing strategy, that doesn't mean you have to be there for it. At the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, when I was the A.D., I often led post-play discussions without identifying the playwright, who sat in the audience and wasn't put on the spot.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What I will/can do here

Here’s what I will do:

Answer questions about how to submit your work to theatres, where to find collaborators, how to write a synopsis, whether or not to submit a script that is intentionally flawed in the hopes that the person who reads it will be inspired to produce the play so they can fix it (NO!!!!). I will help you think differently about a scene or a character. I will tell you what to look for (and look out for) when you get a reading or workshop of your play. I can (and I will) ask you questions that will provoke you to create the best play you can create.

I am not prescriptive. It is your privilege and responsibility to write the play, not mine.

We can talk about writing, why you do it, how you do it, even where. We can brainstorm. We can vent. I can tell you the reason a theatre has rejected your work (they do not share the nature of your obsession enough to spend whatever amount of money they spend on a given production) and what that means (write your next play).

I will help you compose your work so that your potential collaborators are invited into the play. Directors, actors, designers, literary managers, producers, and volunteer scriptreaders will be drawn into the world of the play.

I know I know I know: dramaturgs have a bad rap. Some theatre folks have had bad experiences with what I call ‘samurai dramaturgy.’ You have probably heard terrifying stories about dramaturgs who think they can “fix” plays that are somehow “flawed” until they put their fingerprints all over them. Some people believe that we are nothing more than geeks with library cards and/or Advanced Google Search skills.

And it’s not always pretty and it’s never easy and you will get pissed off and perplexed. And then it will land; you will hear a character speak in a different tone, you will see him stay in the room, you’ll deprive him of the opportunity to indulge himself in a 7-minute direct-audience-address monologue. You will no longer set your plays in a “large American city” because you’ve figured out that Los Angeles is different from New York and Chicago and Miami and Houston and Milwaukee. There will be more texture. You'll be less worried about what is "realistic" and free to worry about what will be dramatic and theatrical. There will be more to work with/in/from. Because you ignored the vicious rumors and listened to a dramaturg who is not afraid of telling you the truth and who has your highest interests at heart and in mind.

As my friend Alan Mandell points out, I left some names out of the Founding A.D. list: Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, who not only founded the San Francisco Actors Workshop, but were teachers/mentors of SCR's Emmes/Benson team. But unless you actually are the esteemed Alan Mandell, let's not make this a history blog, ok?

your favorite theatre blogs?

Would love to have lots of suggestions about what theatre-related blogs I should be following. What do you follow?

About Me

When you're as old as I am, 1200 characters doesn't cut it, so while I've managed to simply post lists in the About Me section, I thought a traditional narrative bio might be in order:

This is my tenth ninth year as a dramaturg/Associate Artist with the Sundance Theatre Lab. My work as a dramaturg has been represented on Broadway by the musical Passing Strange, which received the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and was recognized by multiple Tony, Drama Desk, and NY Critics Circle nominations and awards. Other Sundance projects include The Evildoers by David Adjmi, Equal Measure by Tanya Barfield, Citizen Josh by Josh Kornbluth, and After the War by Philip Kan Gotanda.

Before I moved to the DC area, I lived in Seattle, where I was the production dramaturg for several plays directed by Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, including Cymbeline, Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner, Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden, based on the best-selling book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Titus Andronicus and Craig Lucas’ The Dying Gaul. I also got to work with Kate Whoriskey on her stunning production of Ionesco’s The Chairs.

I turged Pamela Gien’s The Syringa Tree (Obie Award for Best Play), Nilo Cruz’ The Beauty of the Father, five productions of Intiman’s annual presentation of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity and five years of the Seattle Rep/Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival, where I was fortunate to work with Eisa Davis and Cherrie Moraga.

I was the Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. I had the great good fortune to be the first to develop and produce the work of Nilo Cruz, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While at the Magic, I provided an artistic home for Mr. Cruz, Marlane Meyer, Jon Robin Baitz, Octavio Solis, Roger Guenveur Smith, Claire Chafee and Joseph Chaikin. I produced the world premieres of Night Train to Bolina and A Park in Our House by Nilo Cruz, A Huey P. Newton Story, written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith (Peabody Award), Topographical Eden by Brighde Mullins, and Pieces of the Quilt, a collection of short plays about living with HIV/AIDS by Migdalia Cruz, Philip Kan Gotanda, Danny Hoch, Naomi Iizuka, Octavio Solis, Erin Cressida Wilson and Lanford Wilson. Pieces of the Quilt was funded entirely through a sold-out benefit featuring performances by Peter Coyote, Cheech Marin and Robin Williams.

At Berkeley Rep, I was dramaturg for the premieres of Quincy Long's The Virgin Molly, Jose Rivera's Each Day Dies with Sleep, and Laurence Yep's Dragonwings. Going even further back, I was Director of New Play Development at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I got to work with Thomas Babe, Donald Margulies (Pulitzer Prize), Anna Deavere Smith, Darrah Cloud and Marlane Meyer (Peabody Award).

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

First NewPlayDevelopment post

If you have found your way to this blog, you probably are interested in knowing something about new plays and their development. You’re probably a playwright, but you might also be a director, dramaturg, or an actor. You are passionately committed to work for the theatre that speaks – in a very immediate and visceral way – to how we live our lives right now.

Maybe you’re writing a solo performance work or an episodic drama, a cutting-edge musical or a work for young audiences, an irreverent comedy, a linear narrative. You want your play to be driven by character, language, image, plot.

And if the last 25+ years of my experience are in any way indicative, you are having problems with structure and with the ending.

What I hope to do with this blog is to give you guidance, feedback, and reflection. And have a really good time doing it. Because as my friend Constance said many times: “Nobody dies” in the theatre business. We’re not doing brain surgery. But we may sometimes be performing a surgery on ideas or thoughts or feelings or attitudes. We may be deconstructing the world around us and then putting it back together so we can see it from a new perspective. And as Mother Teresa told my evil twin Morgan Jenness, our country has famine of the spirit. Artists know that, and they know how to feed the hungry.

There is a secondary goal in writing this blog, which has to do with the potential loss of knowledge. My generation of theatre workers – the baby boomer artists who grew up building the regional theatres that were founded by the previous generation (Fichandler, Papp, Ball, Jory, Lion, Richards, Davidson, Emmes/Benson, et al) – is getting lost in the shuffle of bricks and mortar campaigns, post-9/11 budget slashings and the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008. In the course of the last three or four decades alone, dramaturgy and new play development has gone from a joyful (and slightly obsessive) focus on nurturing new writers, lobbying for cultural diversity, and sharing our “back pocket” (thanks, Patch) plays with each other to one of research, program notes and lobby displays. In the mid 1980’s, The O’Neill’s National Playwrights Conference regularly received 3,000 submissions each year and now receive closer to 1,000. What happened?

Well, I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I hope this blog can be a sort of download of my generation’s brainpan (thanks, Marlane). A place where we can pass on our mistakes and our triumphs to the next generation before we forget what we did and how we did it. Maybe it’s not as valuable as I think it is, but it seems that the regional theatre is destined to undertake that most American effort to reinvent itself (thanks, Robbie). Maybe the remarkable artists who are now my students can benefit from our history.

Next post: What I will/won’t, can/can’t, do in this blog