From the World of New Plays in Washington, DC

Over the past 2 years I’ve been one of the representatives from the devised theatre world at the American Voices New Play Institute’s Convenings (along with rainpan 43, SITI Company, Sojourn Theatre, Universes, Tectonic, the Rude Mechs, the Civilians, Pig Iron, and a TON more producers, individual devising artists, and ensembles – check out list HERE). The primary takeaways from that convening: theatre institutions have so many more resources than they think they do for devising artists, and it’s not all about money – think unused space, scene and costume shops, etc.; the devised theatre world is happily (and sometimes grumpily) defined by its DIY aesthetic and so any co-productions with institutions need to be crafted to preserve this impulse and way of working; none of us are able or much interested in creating a narrow definition of devised theatre. The initial Devised Theatre convening was a chance to discuss the challenges and practices of this work with a group often spread out and working hard on its own stuff, and as a small step towards the (slow) process of American theatres accepting this broad spectrum of work into the general new play/work conversation.

This weekend I attended a convening on “the 21st century Literary Office.” I believe I was the only devising artist there, and there were only a few playwrights, so artist representation in general was low, though not the focus. Dramaturgs and literary managers from around the country discussed the state of their field amidst changing technologies, the possibility of partnering and linking resources through a national database (controversial), the sprawl of the office’s tasks – from connectivity to script reading and season planning, and the role of the dramaturg/literary office in preserving the intellectual integrity of a theatre. Devised theatre seemed essentially nonexistent in this conversation. Our plays/productions/works/pieces are not to be found in the “piles” covering the desks and floors of literary offices; our work doesn’t live on the page. This isn’t intended as a complaint. I’m not sure – despite the fact that the TEAM’s work is drenched in literary references, history, and hopefully reflects a high level of intellectual integrity – that we belong in a place called the “Literary” office. Devised theatre, as I practice it anyway, is in part a reaction to the idea that a play should be able to be understood/experienced through reading. The page doesn’t have Matty’s sound, Brian or Libby’s or Kristen’s or Jill’s or Jess’ or Frank’s or Jake’s inflection or movement, Nick’s eroding landscapes, etc. which all share equal weight with the words we’ve written. And I actually don’t think this is specific to devised theatre, and would imagine many playwrights feel this way (they do, right?). The conversation seems to be slowly arcing from “new plays” to “new work,” and I think the distinction between playwright-driven and devised work is an unhelpful, and implies a false divide that is likely limiting or insulting to both playwrights and devisers.

Conversation continues on NewPlayTV and the wonderful HowlRound – to which Polly Carl reminded me I owe an article! It’s in-process…


One Response to From the World of New Plays in Washington, DC

  1. As a playwright I agree…there are a lot of plays that paper just can’t hold. In the case of many of my plays it is a challenge, attempting to stuff a visual/ aural/ rhythmic/ olfactory/ environmental experience into a blank page 0.0032 inches thick so that a literary department might experience it. Some plays are perfectly comfortable on the page but there is a whole world of writing-for-performance that cannot be fully notated, and so cannot be really “read”. Luckily I do find literary managers are increasingly aware of this; but it does make it hard when one is guiding a play from the page to the stage.