The Problem With the New Play Development Process

The Problem With the New Play Development Process

Anthony J. Piccione

  • OneStage New York Columnist
  • @A_J_Piccione

When you’re a playwright, and you’ve just finished the first draft of that big script that you’ve been working on, it’s often a great feeling. You’ve spend plenty of weeks, months, or maybe even years working on this script, and it’s nice to be able to say you’ve finally achieved your goal of writing that last line, where the last scene finally fades to black.

Then, the pride starts to fade a tiny bit, because you’ve realized what’s next. Before you even read through what you’ve created, you start to think about what mistakes you might have made, whether the play is good enough, and what can be done to make it better. Is this scene even necessary? Should I provide more of an explanation over why this character is like this? Will this entire thing make any sense at all? These are just a few questions that could be going through the playwright’s head after finishing the first draft, and are often what holds him or her back from feeling confident enough to send it out to a theater or publisher. It’s hard to know the answers to them, as well, without hearing other actors read the script as if it WERE being performed on stage.

This is why staged readings exist. It’s not quite the full production that all playwrights (or presumably all of us, anyway) would like to see their play receive, but still, it’s nice to be able to see your work read out loud by professional actors, to get a good idea for how your play might sound if it were ever produced, and to see if it is ready to take that next step.

Now to be clear, I’m all in favor of staged readings for new plays, as a means of helping playwrights further develop their work. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen quite a few of my plays presented in this way, in addition to full productions of my work, over the years. Yet sometimes, there is such a thing as having too many staged readings for one play. 

Given the emphasis so many theaters seem to put on simply offering readings of new plays, you’ll have to forgive if I think that this is a big problem with the development process that many new plays go through in the modern era. One or two staged readings are good, but after that come a feeling of redundancy, questions over how productive they’ve really been for the playwright, and whether or not this is really something that is helping lead a play to the next step in the development process. 

It is an issue that should not go unaddressed, and ought to be considered by many of the theaters and groups responsible for organizing such readings. So to show you what I mean, here are just a few problems that I have, generally speaking, with the overemphasis that many theaters often seem to put on staged readings in the new play process.

The first issue worth pointing out is that numerous potential edits could be coming your script’s way, as you are exposed to the opinions of many different people on how to improve your play, not all of whom are likely to be in agreement. Of course, I’m not saying that getting lots of constructive feedback on your play is a bad thing. During the development process, when others help you to see potential improvements that could be made – which you might not have initially seen yourself – that could make or break whether or not it gets produced. Yet after taking in too much feedback, it gets to a point where you can find yourself making so many changes to your script, it doesn’t even feel like your play anymore, and you end up with something which feels heavily watered down, and which you might as well have co-authored with over a dozen other people.

Now, depending on the play, maybe this would help get your play produced. Maybe it wouldn’t. In any case, I think it’s worth asking: Is it worth going through so much edits – based on the suggestions of so many different people – just to please others, if it ultimately leads to something that is dramatically different from the great work art that you initially set out to create? Is it worth putting your work out there to be produced, if it’s not the work you first dreamed of creating?

After that – and this falls more on the producers than anything else – is the fact that it seems that there are more opportunities for staged readings than full productions. Nearly every website you can go to see where there are opportunities open to the public to submit their play, it seems that nearly half of them are merely opportunities for readings, as opposed to opportunities for their play to actually get produced. Personally, I find it odd that there are that many submission opportunities for just readings, as opposed to full productions, if the ultimate purpose for the playwright to see his or her work read aloud is to eventually get an acceptance letter from one of the latter opportunities.

If the whole purpose of the staged reading is to help the playwright eventually get to a place where it’s developed enough to be ready for a full production, does it not make sense that there should be more opportunities for productions than for readings? Especially if many plays that are submitted could easily be produced in a more minimalistic setting, would it really be that much harder – financially speaking – to do a production such as that, as opposed to a staged reading which doesn’t come anywhere close to the caliber that you often find in most theatrical productions? Even the fact that the script is in the hands of an actor should say enough about even more minimalistic productions vs. staged readings, in my opinion.

Speaking of money, another thing worth questioning is why some of these staged readings exist, in the first place, and whether it’s in the best interest of the playwright. As some in the acting industry might already know, one of the easiest and quickest ways to make money as an actor is through gigs at staged readings. This is despite the fact that many of these same opportunities also charge the playwright for a submission fee. Think about that. If you’re charging the playwright to submit a play that may never receive a full production even after this event, but you’re paying each of the actors involved, is that really a fair deal for the playwright?

I believe not, and I suspect that most playwrights feel the same way. It says a lot about how certain theaters show little respect for writers, when they take advantage of our work to fill the pockets of others involved, while giving us nothing more than a heavily watered-down performance of our script, in return. I’m all in favor of more opportunities for actors to find work, but I think it would be better for both the actors and the playwrights if they were at least for an increased amount of minimalistic productions, rather than just readings – which I think is very doable, especially if the actors are going to be paid to perform our work.

Now, on a separate note, there’s still the question that I’m sure some playwrights might be asking, as they read this: What if it really does need more work, after one or two readings? Well, if the playwright can’t figure it out for themselves, and if theatre companies aren’t willing to say it themselves, maybe I should be the one to break the news: Maybe you’re play just sucks. I know that sounds harsh, but if it’s at a point where you’ve had LOTS of staged readings and no productions, and your play still is in dire need of a major rewrite, as opposed to just a few tweaks, then maybe – just MAYBE – you should take that as a sign that it’s time to abandon that project, and start focusing on a new idea that you might have. 

For other playwrights, however, the staged reading opportunities that do exist (and yes, there should be less of those and more of production opportunities) should be taken advantage of for less developed plays (though not necessarily ones that haven’t been read out loud by ANYONE, because it might be good to see that happen before even a staged reading) that they might be working on. If you can’t even get a staged reading, perhaps just a table reading or two could also help. All you would need to do is just get a few of your actor friends who might be willing to help one day, and that could easily be helpful. Even maybe try doing that before submitting to a staged reading opportunity, and maybe that would increase your chances of even getting into one of those.

With respect to the theatre groups and companies responsible for organizing such readings, the question they are probably asking as they read this column is this: So then, what do you think should be done to improve this situation? Well, as I said, I’m not saying AT ALL that staged readings are bad. They do still have a place in the new play development process. However, I would recommend to theatre companies who haven’t already that they make them part of any educational programming that their organization has to offer, as opposed to being a separate sort of second stage series – to go along with a main stage series – that they have to offer, which is what many theaters seem to do. If they are one-act plays, maybe don’t even make them staged readings, and instead choose to do straight-up productions of these scripts? Shorter plays can easily be rehearsed in shorter periods of time, and often can be produced in minimalist settings, so would it really be that hard to actually produce them, instead of letting the actors read the scripts in their hands, while wearing clothing that doesn’t even closely resemble their characters, when it’s not exactly necessary?

In any case I hope more theaters take into consideration the fact that the whole point of a playwright wanting to see his play read out loud – in the first place – is to hopefully, at some point or another, see it produced and even published. The world needs to see more new plays, but they belong on stage in all their well-deserved glory, not hopelessly stuck in the cruel joke that is development hell. The sooner more producers realize that, and do something about that, the better it will end up being for all of us who love watching new theatre.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Playwright, producer, screenwriter, actor, poet, critic and essayist based in New York City. 

To learn more about Mr. Piccione and his work, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage) and on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione).

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