Monday, April 6, 2015

Incubating New Plays

Actors prepare for the NewSCRipts reading Going to a Place where you Already Are by Bekah Brunstetter
New Plays by the Numbers

During its 51 years, SCR has produced 489 plays, including 126 news plays and 64 commissions. There have been 113 readings at the Pacific Playwrights Festival and 125 NewSCRipt readings.

Scott Hylands, K Callen and Jordan Charney in the 1983 production of April Snow by Romulus Linney.

Lisa Zane, Frank Hamilton and Mark Arnott in th 1988 world premiere of Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas.

Kandis Chappell and Suzanne Cryer in the 1996 world premiere of Collected Stories by Richard Greenberg.

Shane Williams and Kevin Jackson in the 2003 world premiere of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage.

Tony Amendola, Leo Marks and Linda Gehringer in SCR's 2010 world premiere of The Language Archive by Julia Cho.
South Coast Repertory’s season begins with the selection of plays. SCR stages both classic and contemporary theatre works, but also it is renowned as a champion of new plays.

King Lear was a new play once upon a time and every great play that we now go back to, over and over again, was once a new play,” says Associate Artistic Director John Glore, who also is director of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, SCR’s annual showcase of new works.

So why are new plays important? And how do they come to be written? 

“New plays matter because without them, we won’t have the classics of the future that represent this day and age the way that Shakespeare’s plays represented his day and age and Arthur Miller’s plays represented his day and age,” Glore adds.

SCR produced its first commissioned work in 1983, April Snow by Obie Award-winning playwright Romulus Linney, and has only looked forward since then, because, as Glore says, with new plays “you’re in on the birth of something.”

The New York Times praised the company as “an incubator of major talent … South Coast has mounted an impressive list of acclaimed plays, long before the East Coast establishment got wind of them.” The company’s 1988 Tony Award recognized SCR’s outstanding contributions to the American theatre through new play support.

When SCR commissions a new play, the company provides money up front for work that has yet been written. SCR sees commissions as a way to invest in writers and their process, to give them the means and time to concentrate on the next play they want to write. A commission offers needed financial support to a playwright, but just as important, it serves as a vote of confidence in the writer’s talent and ability.

“I can't overstate how much a commission and subsequent play development has meant to me as a playwright over these past few years,” says playwright Rajiv Joseph, whose SCR-commissioned Mr. Wolf, receives its world premiere this spring. “First and foremost, to offer a writer a commission is a statement of faith on behalf of a theatre—a theatre is telling you, ‘We believe in your voice, your talent, your vision.’”

To date, the company has given 293 commissions to nearly 200 playwrights. Among the more-than 130 world premieres are Wit by Margaret Edson (Pulitzer Prize-winner), Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas, The Language Archive by Julia Cho, Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage, Collected Stories by Donald Margulies, Golden Child by David Henry Hwang, Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg (Pulitzer Prize-nominated), and Mr. Wolf by Rajiv Joseph.

Each year, the theatre’s literary team reads between 400-600 new plays, many of which come up through SCR’s commissioning program. Think of the literary department as the research-and-development arm of the company: it reviews, evaluates, recommends and ultimately works with commissioned playwrights to help create the best work to bring to the public.

But, what does SCR look for in a script?

“Every playwright wants to know the answer to that question—they’re looking for that silver bullet that will enable them to get a play produced at South Coast Repertory,” Glore says. “But the answer is typically frustrating to them. We don’t really know what we’re looking for until we see it—which is to say that we want a play to surprise us, we want a play to have something unique in its DNA that is exciting to us.”

SCR tends to favor plays that use language in interesting ways, either the playwright has a sense of lyricism or poetry the dialogue or there’s muscularity to the dialogue that creates a sense of driving momentum as it moves forward. The company likes plays that are plays—in other words, works that were born to be done on a stage rather than on a screen somewhere—and that have a sense of theatricality to them, whatever that might be. Something about them speaks of theatre rather than television or film.

Megan Cole and Mary Kay Wulf in the 1995 world premiere of Wit by Margaret Edson.

From Page to Pulitzer: A Dramatic Journey

A play came to South Coast Repertory in the 1990s from an unknown playwright named Margaret Edson. She had submitted her script for a play called Wit to nearly 200 theatres and had it turned down by each. Until it came to SCR, where Founding Artistic Director Martin Benson read it. Something clicked with him, and SCR made a commitment to produce the world premiere of the play.

“The material is tough,” says Associate Artistic Director John Glore. “It’s a play about a woman who is dying of cancer, specifically ovarian cancer. And not only that, the woman in question is a scholar who studies the work of poet John Donne. It spoke to Martin and he knew from the get-go that it was a play he wanted to direct.”

Benson directed a NewSCRipts reading and then the world premiere production, which was a huge hit with SCR audiences and critics alike. But after that tremendous start, the play just languished for several years “because we didn’t have the apparatus to let the world know about the play and how extraordinarily well it connected with audiences,” says Glore.

Finally, Wit found a second production at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, and “was reviewed by some of the New York critics. Then it moved into New York, where it was a huge hit and ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize that year. It was the first SCR work to win the Pulitzer Prize,” Glore adds.
Once a commission is granted, Glore and SCR’s literary director talk with the playwright, to find out what’s on the writer’s mind in the way of possible ideas for a play. The first priority is to commission something that the writer is personally passionate about, which tends to generate the most interesting work.

Through the commission process, the writer gets feedback notes from SCR or sometimes a reading of the script's first draft is done—with actors adding more life into the words on the page. When a second draft of the play is submitted, a decision is made, whether SCR wants to move forward with the project in some way or whether the play will be released back to the writer to do with it what s/he wants.

If SCR elects to move forward, the commission enters a formal development phase, which often includes one or more readings or workshops designed to facilitate the rewriting process. SCR tailors the developmental process to the specific needs of the writer and the play.

“Development is where the real magic happens,” playwright Joseph affirms. “Readings, discussions, the encouragement and counsel of the wonderful staff at SCR—this is where a first draft works its way into something that needs to be seen on a stage. That process is necessary and remarkable.” 

Another option in the development phase is a public reading, such as a NewSCRipts reading. For each of the three readings during the season, actors have two-and-a-half days to rehearse, and then they give a reading on a select Monday evening before an audience of up to 200 people. Following the reading, the audience is invited to give their response to the play.

Public readings also are part of the annual Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF) each April.

“The works we feature at PPF have vitality and a range of expression that reflect the best of new American theatre today,” says Artistic Director Marc Masterson.

Now in its 18th season, PPF brings out an audience of roughly 300 local new play fans, as well as up to 200 theatre industry professionals from around the country to see seven new plays (at least two full productions and four staged readings) over the course of three days. Actors will have rehearsed during the four days prior to each reading.

If SCR doesn’t opt to produce a work read at PPF, then another theatre company can opt for it and produce the world premiere. 

Playwrights like Joseph find PPF “unlike any other in the country, and it has done wonders in connecting playwrights with each other, and strengthening the community of American playwrights,” he says.

“For playwrights, finding artistic homes is as crucial to the process of being a writer as the writing itself,” says playwright Melissa Ross. Her SCR-commissioned play, Of Good Stock, had a reading at the 2014 PPF and premieres as a full production in April 2015. 

“I feel so blessed to count South Coast Repertory as an artistic home and family,” she says. “Their support over the past four years has been hugely inspiring and rewarding and instrumental to my growth as an artist.  And their audiences—who love theater—and speak of it so insightfully and passionately—are some of my favorite people to write for.”

Of the 113 new plays featured during the first 17 years of the festival, 58 have earned productions at SCR and 87 have gone on to productions at other theatres across the country."  Glore says this validates one of those founding principles: “to get these plays out and into productions at other theatres.”

Both NewSCRipts and PPF invite engagement to help a play take its next step toward production. The post-reading discussions do not ask audience members to re-write the play—that’s the writer’s job. The audience is asked to tell how they responded when they heard the play, what they loved about it and even what may have troubled them about it.

“Certainly by offering eclectic programming here at SCR we hope to give a lot of those people at least some of what they’re looking for each season.”

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