Monday evening, I attended a meeting sponsored by The Dramatists’ Guild, a meet-and-greet for, on the one hand, playwrights, and on the hand, theatre producers in Utah who have and will commit to producing new plays. Driving home afterwards, I thought this: nobody, but nobody says of the film industry ‘they shouldn’t just film the same screenplays over and over. They should be producing films based on new screenplays.’ In fact, that’s what basically all movies are: original screenplays (or adapted from other media) mostly telling stories that haven’t been told before. If we go to a movie, and like it, usually it’s because we liked the story. But in theatre, producing new plays is seen as exceptionally risky and bold. My gosh, look at that company! They did a NEW PLAY! How remarkable!Okay, I get that people don’t consume all entertainment products the same way. People can go to the movies and see five terrible movies in a row, and still, Saturday night, there they are, at the cineplex, ready to see another one. Hoping against hope. That this time, finally Adam Sandler will actually be amusing, and not just moronic. (I’m kidding; nobody thinks that). But going to the theatre is a different thing. It feels like a riskier investment, of time and money and brainspace. That’s why, in Utah, the Hale Center does so well–within the fairly narrow range of shows they’ll do, they’re all basically good. I’ve never seen a bad show there, certainly.
But that’s also true of Plan B Theatre, the one company in Utah that really does just do original plays by local playwrights. I’ve seen I don’t know how many shows there–dozens, surely—and they’ve all been good. Not just good, terrific–provocative, smart, stunning, powerful. The message, I think, is this: if you decide the kind of theatre you want to do, and commit completely to it, absolute dedication, you’ll end up being really really good at it. And your audience will learn to trust you.
I think the same thing can be said of the other theatres who came to the DG meeting. Salt Lake Acting Company has a niche, a certain kind of play they do and do well. Right now they’re doing Good People, by David Lindsay-Abaire. My goodness, that’s a lovely play; so glad Salt Lake audiences get to see a first-rate production of it. They just closed Venus in Fur; a terrific David Ives play. That’s pretty much who they are. They do productions of that kind of smart, literary off-Broadway/off-West End fare. Good for them. And sometimes, occasionally, they’ll take a chance on a new script. Plus, annually, they make fun of Utah culture with Saturday’s Voyeur. They know what they’re good at; I take my hat off.
Likewise Pygmalion. Nice little feminist theatre, doing smart, funny plays in outstanding productions. They’ll do new work, if it fits their mission statement. Pioneer Theatre Company is in an interesting place in this discussion. They have this gargantuan space, and they have to fill it–it actually makes sense to me that they won’t even consider producing new work. Karen Azenberg, their Artistic Director, was in the meeting, and I’m convinced that her heart’s in the right place. She wants to commit to ‘play development’ (euphemism for ‘staged readings only’), and she said that if she had access to a smaller black box, she’d stage more new plays. I think she’s telling the truth. But ‘staged readings’ are really only a useful dramaturgical tool for developing new work–they do not represent any kind of actual commitment to new drama. And new works are the lifeblood of any art form.
So for a Utah playwright, we can send work out to fill out the pile on the desk of the management of the Lark or the O’Neill, or we can work with local theatres, and thank our lucky stars that there are some that will read our work and produce the best stuff. And I’m fantastically grateful for Plan B and for the other houses that are committed to at least reading, and sometimes even producing new work. I just think we’re on the cusp of even greater achievement. Keep working.