The Third L.A. Weekly-Hosted Roundtable on New Play Development

On October 27, the L.A. Weekly hosted the third of six roundtables on new-play development, in reaction to the closing of the Mark Taper Forum’s play development labs and A.S.K. Theater Projects. The roundtable featured two newcomers: Gordon Davidson, founding artistic director of Center Theater Group, and Nancy Cheryll Davis, artistic director of the Towne Street Theater. Returning were writer-performer Stacie Chaiken, Evidence Room artistic director Bart DeLorenzo, Theater @ Boston Court’s co-artistic director, Jessica Kubzansky, L.A. Stage Alliance executive director Terence McFarland, L.A. Weekly theater editor Steven Leigh Morris, and Ghost Road Theater Company’s Mark Seldis.

Steven Leigh Morris recapped the idea of an annually evolving consortium of arts organizations that had been discussed in two previous meetings. This would consist of a grouping of between four to six performing-arts organizations (theaters, music groups, dance/performance companies), each of which would remain in the consortium for three or four years, so that each year, two could graduate out while two more were introduced. During this three- or four-year tenure, an umbrella administration (which also rotates) would oversee an annual or biennial festival of works-in-development — ranging from readings to workshops, some of which could be a continuation of a development process during the previous year. The design is to encourage interaction among the various groups so that new, interdisciplinary work can be sparked and then developed over a two- or three-year period.

Mark Seldis added that among the goals was investing and interacting in local communities in order to create a greater rapport between the arts organizations and the patrons they serve.

Gordon Davidson asked somebody to expound on the goals for such a consortium. The following suggestions were expressed by the various participants:

1) To create an institution that helps define and give legitimacy to the idea of a play-development laboratory.

2) The creation of work.

3) The collaboration of people working in different genres.

GORDON DAVIDSON: The thing that concerns me the most is really trying to come to grips with how you develop new work better. If all the criticism that one has heard [about the Taper’s development labs] is true, what about it? As in anything, I think it’s only partly true. The success of this depends on who runs it. Now everybody’s in the new-play business, I think it’s diffused, the way in which a play can, or plays can, find a fuller life. It puzzles me, if you don’t have on one hand the Taper or the Lincoln Center or the Public Theater, what is going on to help the situation. When I see something off Broadway, Warren Leight’s new play for example, and it’s truly an engrossing play, but it ain’t done, it ain’t going to get [in a single off-Broadway production]. How do you create a system that allows it? One way or another one can provide a first step, then what can one do, does it have to go to another place, another — I guess, because having done the institutional structure for so long, I want to hold back and see if there’s a sustaining energy in the work. In principle, the idea of artists stimulating artists is great, there should be more of that. But I think we have to help figure out, how does one serve a playwright? Getting to the next step.

BART DELORENZO: I think that the two questions are separate — how you bring a play forward is such a complicated issue, like how do you fall in love?

GORDON DAVIDSON: How do you sustain love?

BART DELORENZO: How do you move the mission in general forward, the mission of creating a community of performers? I think that’s an easier question, I think that’s an easier question; this gathering and mixing and exposing people to different things, I can’t imagine how that would hurt. I think that was one of the great things you did, Gordon — the circus of interaction that you created. The idea of grouping together [varied] individuals to develop work is unarguably useful.

JESSICA KUBZANSKY: Consortium is an idea we should expand around the country.

GORDON DAVIDSON: August Wilson didn’t go through development, he had productions in six regional theaters, he sat, he listened, and whatever notes were there, he listened and he worked on it. No amount of note-giving would have changed that at the phase it’s at. How do you create new motives in which the artist feels safe and yet has a new opportunity to find out more about [the work he/she is creating]?

MARK SELDIS: What we’re trying to create is not necessarily better art, but ways of making better art happen.

(Stacie Chaiken brings up Lee Blessing’s use of Pacific Resident Theater as a laboratory.)

JESSICA KUBZANSKY: How does a play get another life? If a play is done here, the next step can’t happen here, it has to move to another city.

BART DELORENZO: There are two things that are useful: one, being able to see the work; two, the idea that this is not your tryout, this is not the perfect version of it (which I think scares people) — the idea of working on something in your room for a long time and then the process of trying something different with it [once actors get involved]. But it is a sort of tryout situation, because you want to add to the thing that you’ve been working on meticulously. Often when these things happen, you have one version, but then the later version is adjusted slightly.

JESSICA KUBZANSKY: Every playwright needs different kinds of nurturing; one of the virtues of the consortium is that it allows for different approaches. We need to discuss more the curatorial role of the consortium.

GORDON DAVIDSON: One of the things it could offer is what I’d call a full-service gas station. We could commission, we could do readings, we could do small productions. When [the Taper] lost the John Anson [Inside] the Ford experimental theater, we didn’t really replace it until the Douglas. I’m a big fan of the idea that if you possibly have the ability to move a play to the main stage, you should do that. [When challenged, Davidson presented administrative reasons why the plays at the Taper’s New Work Festival couldn’t go directly to the main stage.] What sounds interesting about this — can a city provide a way in which projects can go sideways — where a play can move to a different 99-seat theater that can cut the ball a different way?

BART DELORENZO: The interesting issue is continuity, the rotating committee is interesting. So often these things start out as one way, they have about three good years, and then things get weird. I think it’s because of this democratic spirit that waters things down — I like a bit of elitism to help preserve continuity.

GORDON DAVIDSON: It’s very dangerous to think of permanence. The Theater Guild in Pittsburgh, it lasted five years. The Group theater was not very long. I’m the oddball that I’ve been here 38 years. Maybe [the short lives of such programs] should be that way — sometimes you have to evolve — the money for what you’re trying to do, it’s not out there. Maybe the theaters can do something about that, and in the process help share more things about how the hell you make art in the 21st century. With the computers and the Internet. What is it you’re trying to do? The answer could be simple — we just want to see artists see their play.

NANCY CHERYLL DAVIS: Would audiences sustain a play that moves around the city? I think the production aspect is already out there — does the festival aspect [of a consortium] take plays to a next level?

GORDON DAVIDSON: I think you have to make a case for the strengths — what’s different about this project, what makes it strong. A lot of it is the people who gather around the table, who make theater. Diversity. I don’t think at this stage it’s something about audiences. Audiences are a result. What you’re trying to do is find a way to make better theater. The sense that artists are going to be taken care of. What’s the difference between a consortium and the play-development programs that exist now? That’s the question you need to answer.

BART DELORENZO: If I were a funder, and you wrote a proposal that said with a consortium you get more bang for your buck — mix and match, the great meeting place of all these artists — as a funder, I would find that really appealing. As an artist and an audience, it’s a smörgåsbord of new work.

JESSICA KUBZANSKY: I have a relationship with a playwright that started in Gordon’s theater. The thrill of all those levels and excitement and the idea of consortium, that’s what we’ve lost, that’s what we lost when the Taper went away and when ASK went away. I do think there’s something about the festival aspect; being at one theater is nothing like showing work collectively.

GORDON DAVIDSON: Maybe it has more to do with, either because that program is gone, or maybe not, but each of the member theaters takes it upon themselves to bring forward one or two exciting pieces and that the money you ask for is not necessarily to do that, but to create a citywide festival in which the first and foremost of the city get presented, the artists share, and out of that mix comes this and that — “that was interesting work you were doing” — because the only way you can communicate about art is by doing it. What might be attractive is how you’re taking responsibility for partnering, and what the funding agency is doing is acknowledging the diversity and sprawl of the city. It does represent, from the theaters’ point of view, some of the best things that are possible.

MARK SELDIS: The idea is you’re not trying to get four or five sources of funding to build one gigantic thing, but rotating companies with a core administration — the gathering is open to the larger community. We need to hammer out how this will work.

GORDON DAVIDSON: It should be as exciting as Edinburgh. You can use that as a selling point.

TERENCE McFARLAND: I think the hook is that our society right now is much more interested in process than product. From behind-the-scenes reality TV to Moving Arts, which is discovering its workshops draw larger and more enthusiastic crowds than its productions.

MARK SELDIS: The other question, besides how to bring together the companies, is how an administration would collaborate with the artists, which brings us back to Jessica’s point on how to curate such a program.

More on the future of L.A. theater: Click here for Steven Leigh Morris' article Squinting Into the Sun, on how Los Angeles theater will change over the next decade.


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