Every City Could Have a “Dead City”

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This is a TheatreForté post from a long time ago, and I’m still proud of it.

The comments at Matthew Freeman’s Theatre and Politics blog have wrought an idea I’d never heard or had before.

What would be the logistics of “national openings” for major plays? What if, in lieu of endless try-outs, major productions … all opened with different casts on the same night at major theaters throughout the United States AND Broadway?

Wow. I love this idea. Let’s explore it a bit.

Freeman responded to his own idea in part by saying, “The worst effect would be that it would turn almost all of the major downtown theaters in across the country into clones of one another without individual artistic identities.”

Have you checked out what the “major theaters throughout the United States” are producing? I don’t know what the cut-off is to be included in that group, but one look at American Theater’s yearly Top Ten shows that a play like Intimate Apparel or Crowns orThe Drawer Boy is getting produced in about 25 cities over the course of 2 years. A real smash, like Proof can top 40. So to say that the “major theaters” have “individual artistic identities” is a bit of stretch anyway. Actors of Louisville, the Guthrie, the Goodman, Contemporary American, Philadelphia Theater Company, Cincinnati Playhouse, and so on and so forth. The details are in the cracks, certainly, but I’ll bet they all have a mission along the lines of “producing engaging, entertaining theatre for diverse audiences.”

So, co-ordinating the openings of these plays probably wouldn’t hurt diversity, if you’re talking about “major plays”. And at the “major theaters” it probably would take a major play to pull this off. (Even as I type I find reasons to disagree, we’ll get to that.) I can imagine, though, that if a reliable hit-maker (do we have a current equivalent to Neil Simon?) had a play ready to go, and offered it to regionals before Broadway, there would be a possibility to open it nationally like this. It could be marketed more like a movie. That wouldn’t hurt.

I part from Freeman on the idea of centralizing direction and design. Aside from the big logistics issues, it seems like it would be much more interesting to see the differences in the productions.

I do agree on these fine points:

More local professional actors could be put to work on high profile productions.

Playwrights could become a part of a national conversation, which could cure a bit of the problem of the overly regional nature of theater.
. . .

That means that an intimate play could have a large amount of exposure, without having to be at an overwhelming house (per Alison’s issue.)

Regions could benefit from a new work that usually have to wait for New York to close the show.

One issue we have with promoting new(ish) works in the middle of the country is that audiences, we’re told, are reluctant to see new(ish) work. It’s why Jon Jory had to create the Humana Festival. Doing new plays all at once as a fun event was the only way he could trick Louisville audiences into tolerating more than one new play per season. So, even if it’s just a mediocre run in New York, we presume that audiences want a play to have some history to validate it’s quality.

I say “we assume” and “we’re told” because this stuff doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me. It seems to me that if you haven’t seen a play before, it’s a new work to you. Certainly, a play that is a decade old, and has been done everywhere seems to have something going for it, but when thousands of people went to see The Pillowman this year (and thousands more next year) … why is that different than if they were seeing The Thugs or Dead City? Sure, some of them may have a history with Martin McDonagh, but I bet that’s a pretty small percentage. What makes that play okay and programmable as opposed to anything else? Does that fact that you can call it “a hit” (a pretty subjective term that surely doesn’t have statistics backing it in local papers across the county) or say that it was “on Broadway” make that big a difference? I’d like to give our audiences more credit than that, but this is what I’m told.

So, I think it’s pretty stupid, but I’m sure that there needs be a certain level of “programmability” to the play that would be picked for this project.

Then again …

There may be an opportunity here for a playwright on the verge of being the next big thing. That’s why I picked Sheila Callaghan for the graphic above. Referring to this tired, old post provides a list of other names that could easily fill this spot.

Freeman says it here:

… why would we need to use playwrights of existing note? Why not do this to benefit up and coming writers that could use the national exposure? What if this was done for Sheila Callaghan or Anne Washburn or Jason Grote or Adam Szymkowicz or Jordan Harrison or David Johnston or James Comtois or Qui Nguyen or, I dunno, Jenny Schwartz or George Hunka or ME?! (I had to.)

Wouldn’t that finally get one or two or all of these writers out of their particular niche and into the national conversation?

A “national premiere” would be a great opportunity for a playwright who’s on the verge of breaking through. Sheila is a great example of a writer who’s got incredible buzz, even outside of NYC, but somehow hasn’t written a play that the major regionals see fit to give their attention. (Whether that’s because they don’t like her plays enough, or because she hasn’t had a production big enough to provide sufficient “programmability”, I don’t know. But I’ll bet it’s the latter. I, for one, adore her plays.)

BUT … if, say, a dozen “major theaters” were willing to take a chance on something like Dead City all at once, turning it into a special event worthy of national press, and garnering the validation (for the audience’s sake) that comes from being part of such an event, maybe Sheila’s play could finally be seen all over. I can only imagine that the result would be that her plays would suddenly be done everywhere all the time. At the very least it would be a boost for her career.

It’d be a boost for us, too. Imagine the result if a play like that could break-through. Maybe it would open up those big theaters to more adventurous programming in general. What’s been happening with plays like The Drawer Boy is that the regionals are proving they have the power to turn a play into a national hit without NYC’s help. Nothing against NYC, but that’s good to see. Now. if we could use that power to promote even more exciting plays, it’d be really thrilling.

I’m really just going to quote Freeman here.

Then again, this might be an opportunity for smaller companies to combine resources and create buzz for themselves. If you have a string of smaller theaters with loose affiliations under a single umbrella (The League of National Independent somethingorothers) they have more clout than any single one of them could have on their own. Talent and budget sharing, pooled marketing, etc. There are lots of companies that have resources that are more or less equal in major cities.

One of the benefits of smaller companies doing this together is their agility. They don’t have lumbering legal offices and marketing machines and boards to satisfy…they can make executive decisions and create handshake agreements to make something like this happen with far more ease than a series of large roadhouses that are looking after their personal fortunes.

Another great idea. Maybe it would be easier for smaller theatres to pull this off. And maybe if a whole bunch of small companies got behind an emerging writer, then both the writer and the theatres could emerge from under the label of “hip, hot, and on the verge” and be regarded as more than curiosities. Maybe they’d be regarded as a force to be reckoned with, and get the respect they deserve. Seriously, a lot of those “major theaters” don’t need this idea. Let’s give it to the people who do.

Let me close with this …

I run a very cool, small professional theatre company in the Heartland (Columbus, Ohio). We’re in the process of figuring out the next year of work (guess whose play I’m angling for). I’m reading plays like a fiend right now. (Thanks again to everyone who suggested and sent plays.) I would be willing to try this National Opening (I don’t even think the play has to be brand new) thing, even on a smaller scale with 4-8 small theatres. March 2008 would work well for us. If anyone’s interested, email me (inbox at avltheatre dot com). I DARE YOU.