Recently there's been a lot of movement towards co-productions, mostly between two smaller-sized companies. But a place where co-productions might be particularly effective is between large institutional theaters and theaters that serve a specialized audience. In NYC I'm thinking particularly of what would happen if theaters like The Public or Second Stage paired up with theaters like Ma-Yi or New Georges, under either a co-producer or associate producer arrangement.
At first it seems like the benefits of such an arrangement would be all on the small theater's side: increased resources, increased visibility, the ability to take on stories of larger scope and to reach a larger audience. But the benefits to the larger theater are palpable too: an influx of new audience members, increased artist diversity, and more efficient use of the space (since theaters that own a building don't always fill it).
But perhaps the greatest benefit to the big theater would be the expertise that the small theater brings to serving their particular audience. Increasingly I find that when big theaters try to do plays that are set in a specific cultural milieu they fall flat on their face and end up having to do big mea culpa talkbacks and apologetic press releases. This kind of arrangement might help avoid that.
These partnerships will take a lot of ego suppression and some flexibility in adapting to each other's working methods. And they can't just be financial in nature (i.e., "Yeah we'll do your whatever show; just give us $150,000.") But the long term goal here is audience development. On both sides of the equation, if theaters keep going to the same pool of subscribers year in and year out, we're not (pardon the expression) diversifying our holdings. Which is bad for the long-term viability of this art form.
Institutions large and small can therefore benefit from sharing resources and expertise (and , and in the process broaden the art we present and the people who see it.
I'm starting a new page on my website, Thoughts on the Theater, which is meant to be an infrequently-updated place to collect my ideas on the field that have little to do with my work as a writer.
To whit - Seth Rozin at InterAct recently had me in Philly on an NNPN panel. As he put it, "
I presented the panel with six ideas, which I'll be posting here. As I did for the panel, I've decided to list the ideas in order from "Hmm what a sage idea, Mike, we could do that tomorrow" down to "That's batshit crazy." Here's the first idea, which is the most practical idea.
I will get to the rest when I feel like it.
6. The Blacklist - In Hollywood, as in the theater, there is a huge volume of screenplays that are highly praiseworthy but for whatever reason can't be produced. So someone created The Blacklist, an annual list of the best screenplays that were neglected that year. I believe the same thing exists for TV pilots. At any rate, we could very easily do the same thing for theater, and pair up with American Theater magazine or The Dramatist to publish the results (or blog-publish them). This would be a great way to highlight plays that haven't yet gotten their due, as well as unsung writers.
Let's say we survey a diverse group of around 300 people - mostly playwrights and lit managers - and ask them to create a list of their top 5 favorite (other people's) plays that have been kicking around for a while but haven't yet found production. We then tabulate the results and highlight a list of frequently-mentioned plays. We could also ask high-profile playwrights to write up a short testimonial about their #1 pick, in the hopes of bringing more attention to lesser-known writers.
Way down the line, it'd be great to get an angel investor who'd be willing to provide enhancement money towards producing one (or several) of the plays on the annual list. This would enhance artist buy-in with institutions, because the writers will essentially be electing a "people's choice" winner for production in the next season.
In my experience, fellow playwrights are hugely committed to championing each other's work, and lit managers are enormous advocates as well. But we can't always translate that enthusiasm into any kind of concrete result. If theaters know that there's a wealth of built-in support behind particular plays, perhaps they'd be more willing to take a risk on producing them. I think of how Madeleine George's Zero Hour was so beloved by fellow writers but kicked around for years until she produced it herself with 13P, or how Jorge Cortinas' Bird in the Hand was developed everywhere but produced nowhere until he self-produced it with Fulcrum.
This is something we could do to provide more attention to those overlooked gems.
BONUS. My wife and fellow playwright Rehana Lew Mirza posits that we should make a blacklist specifically for women playwrights and for playwrights of color, which might help theaters put more thought into season planning. In our opinion, theaters generally: 1) don't produce a lot of plays by women or by writers of color; and 2) may have trouble finding a way into scripts told from under-represented perspectives. So advocating specifically for these groups would give theaters the confidence that a wealth of fellow artists see the merits in these plays.