By Jim O'Quinn
There's plenty of razzle-dazzle in this issue of American Theatre, from the cover shot of Suzan-Lori Parks and Bonnie Metzgar behind the wheel of a '65 red Mustang, for goodness sake, to the glitzy derring-do of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. But I'd like to call your attention to a pair of not-so-flashy articles that bear a quieter significance—accounts of theatrical gatherings in Connecticut and Virginia that explore the dynamics of a practice we often take for granted but that in fact is a phenomenon uniquely ingrained in our American theatre system: new-play development.
Playwright Jason Grote, in his carefully observed first-person report on this year's O'Neill Playwrights Conference, demonstrates in detail how strategies developed by the venerable writer-support organization helped him sharpen critical elements of his own play 1001, despite his conviction that the script was "more or less complete." Affiliated Writer David Kornhaber, who took in the recent Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights in Abingdon, Va., describes an interactive artist-feedback process at that event that can open a writer's eyes to "new scenes, new looks, new areas to explore."
The O'Neill and the Appalachian fest are only two among dozens of organizations around the country that zero in on the needs of playwrights in a non-production-driven environment—theatrical incubators where writers can experiment, hone their skills, expose their fledgling work to select audiences (but not critics) and even discover collaborators for future undertakings. The ultimate goal, according to Todd London, artistic director of the granddaddy of play-development laboratories, New York City's New Dramatists, is "to get the version of the play that the writer is striving for."
But the road to that goal can be a bumpy one—for a host of reasons, ranging from the perennial "developed to death" debate to the kind of controversy generated by the recent elimination of culturally targeted development programs in California. What some detractors may not realize is that the American system of new-play development, for all its shortcomings, is virtually unique in the world; except for the British theatre (where the well-funded Royal Court takes the lead), writer development is simply not practiced in most of Europe. Beyond our shores, playwriting is a solitary enterprise, even for writers committed to artistic movements or alliances, and the plays they create are handled by directors and theatre organizations essentially as commodities to be interpreted and altered at will.
In truth, the new-play development network that undergirds production practices in the U.S. is more than a clever if sometimes problematic strategy for improving plays: It is a signal recognition of the high value the American theatre places on its primary artists. For all its razzle-dazzle, ours is a writer's theatre—it thrives when its writers thrive and falters only when we fail to champion their contributions.