Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nurturing New Work

By Andrew Knight, Assistant to the Associate Producer

With News Stages Amplified officially up and running—Dartmoor Prison had its first performance last Thursday and both Chicago Boys and Ask Aunt Susan are now in rehearsals—there’s a lot of talk about new work at the Goodman and, specifically, the theater’s role in developing it.

This word—developing—is bandied about quite a bit in reference to new plays, perhaps because it’s so inclusive. After all, the Goodman’s role as an institution in premiering new work is vast and varied. The ultimate goal, of course, is to produce the play by assembling actors, a director, designers, and other artists to present the piece to an audience. It’s a simple process in theory, but it takes a lot of time and effort; it requires adequate financing and material resources, an audience, and a level of trust between the artists and the institution to ensure the play can evolve and grow.

Photo: Cedric Young in Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

But before this process can begin, there must be a text (or at least an idea) to work with, and the search for these new texts is a large part of the staff’s job at the Goodman. Whether we’re reading play submissions from agents, attending local and national workshops and productions, or staying current with international work, we’re constantly looking forward, hoping to bring fresh and exciting pieces to the Goodman. However, it’s also the theater’s responsibility to support and encourage the playwright and to facilitate inspiration’s transformation into art. With this in mind, the Goodman has made commissioning a key program in its mission to develop new work.

Commissioning—when the theater awards a playwright remuneration to write a play—is an intricate undertaking and one where the specifics range from case to case. Summing up the process—which I’m about to do—can only offer a general idea of the time and effort that goes into it.

In a perfect world, after the playwright has accepted a commission, a first draft of the script is received within a year. Upon its receipt, and after consultation with the playwright, an in-house reading occurs where a group of actors sit around a table and read the script out loud so the playwright, artistic director, and literary staff can hear the piece. It’s a chance to find out what works—what’s particularly moving, thought provoking, funny, or delightful—and what doesn’t. The playwright goes back to work after this, developing another draft based on these discoveries.

When both the playwright and the Goodman feel the piece is ready, it receives a concert reading or developmental workshop. These are more formal than the table read—more “performance” oriented, with a director and a short rehearsal period. A concert reading might be a part of our New Stages series, and would likely be open to the public. It allows our patrons a glimpse into a process-oriented presentation. In turn, the audience response also gives the playwright a fresh perspective on the play, influencing yet another new draft.

If the play is scheduled for production, a one or two week “pre-production” workshop generally takes place early in the season. The longer rehearsal period allows for an in-depth exploration; perhaps with a little staging too see how it works “on its feet.” The process culminates in another presentation, and the playwright, once again, goes back to work on a new draft—the draft that will be used at the start of rehearsals for the production.

That’s the general idea of how one Goodman commission might come to fruition. The process isn’t always so systematic, though. The reality is that some plays take longer to write—large scale pieces, for example, or those with subject matter that requires in-depth research. Other works, like musicals, require multiple workshops before they’re ready for production. The timeline also varies depending on how the playwright works. Some writers work alone to produce a polished initial draft and might not need a great deal of workshop development. Other writers prefer a more interactive approach, finding their inspiration in hearing the piece and developing it with actors and directors.

Although the primary purpose of commissioning is to support the playwright and augment the American theater repertoire, this process benefits the institution as well. By commissioning new works, the Goodman earns the right to be the first theater to produce the piece. If the Goodman should decide not to produce it for any reason, the playwright is, of course, allowed to pursue a production at a different company.

But by far, the greatest benefit to the theater is the variety that newly commissioned works bring to the season. We aim to commission a range of voices who all write with a singular style and passion. We generally don’t approach playwrights with a particular subject to write about; instead, we hope that freedom will breed inspiration.

On the subject of commissions and the process, it should be noted that the majority of the plays in our New Stages Amplified festival are commissions in their various stages of development. Dartmooor Prison (one of our workshop productions), Smokefall, and Teddy Ferrara (both concert readings) are all standard commissions. Ask Aunt Susan (another staged production) and Two Lakes, Two Rivers (the third reading) were written as a part of our Playwrights Unit. The Playwrights Unit, a new program at the Goodman to support Chicago-based playwrights, follows a more structured approach to developing new work. Four local writers commissioned at the beginning of the season meet once a month to discuss and share their work with each other and Tanya Palmer, our director of new play development, and Neena Arndt, our associate dramaturg. Over the course of the year, the plays developed in the Playwrights Unit each receive two readings: an in-house table read and a concert reading at the season’s conclusion.

None of the works in New Stages Amplified is technically complete. In fact, the productions never really “open”—the playwright may continue to work on the piece after it begins performances. The director, the actors, the designers, and the audience are all participants in the play’s development. As an institution, we hope that through commissioning and by committing adequate time and resources to a play’s evolution, the Goodman will play a vital role in keeping the future of new work bright.

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