Rolling With The New Play-Surge

Teamwork and Trust are watchwords for NNPN honcho Jason Loewith

An interview by Celia Wren

Like oil and water, hot and cold, Christian Louboutin pumps and flip-flops, the concepts of expansiveness and intimacy seem inherently at odds. Harnessed together, however, the two principles have sped the progress of the National New Play Network, a coalition of theatres that share an interest in cultivating and staging newly minted scripts. Over the past 15 years, NNPN has supported scores of plays and numerous playwrights, sending ripples of influence through the theatre field. In a signature initiative, it has planted the concept of the “rolling world premiere” in the nation’s artistic toolbox.

And yet, NNPN still boasts a relatively small core membership—just 26 companies, up from the 13 that attended a seminal meeting in 1998, the year the network was launched by David Goldman, then special programs director for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. (Goldman had the endorsement of O’Neill Center founder George C. White.) In subsequent years, NNPN’s leaders have regulated its growth carefully, believing that the group draws strength from its modest size.

“My job as executive director is to grow us in as many ways as possible, so we have as many tentacles as possible out to different parts of the new-play field, without sacrificing that small and engaged collaborative spirit that drives the organization,” NNPN’s Jason Loewith said in an interview at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in July. The bespectacled 44-year-old—formerly the artistic director of Next Theatre Company, in Evanston, Ill.—was taking a break from his work at the MFA Playwrights’ Workshop, an intensive that NNPN (based in Washington, D.C.) presents annually with the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival and the National Center for New Plays at Stanford University.

The Workshop, which pairs accomplished MFA students with directors and dramaturgs, is one of many, many irons NNPN has in the fire. Admittedly, the organization may be best known for its Continued Life of New Plays Fund, which encourages three or more theatres—at least two of them NNPN core members—to mount productions of a script as part of a rolling world premiere; the network supplies grants to the participating theatres, thereby cutting down on the risk associated with staging untested work. Since its first beneficiary, Thomas Gibbons’s Permanent Collection, a decade ago, the program has underwritten some 100 productions of 30-plus plays, including works by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Dan Dietz and others.

Perhaps more significantly, in the larger scheme of things, the term “rolling world premiere” has entered the broader lexicon—think “Kleenex” or “xerox”—with theatres unaffiliated with NNPN mounting their own multistage debuts. It’s a development “which we love!” Loewith exclaims.

Complementing the Continued Life fund, NNPN has over the years put together a range of initiatives that nurture writers, rather than individual plays: The programs constitute “a pipeline that keeps a playwright involved throughout the network” over the course of a career, says Ryan Rilette, who recently stepped down as NNPN board president (and is newly the producing artistic director of Maryland’s Round House Theatre).

Take, for instance, the example of scribbler Sean Christopher Lewis: After attending the first MFA Playwrights’ Workshop at Stanford in 2006, Lewis moved to Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company with the help of NNPN’s Playwrights-in-Residence program, which gives recent MFA-program graduates a berth at NNPN theatres. While in Philly, Lewis penned Killadelphia: One-Man Mixtape of a City, which subsequently won the NNPN-administered Smith Prize, an award for plays with political themes. Lewis has received one of the commissions the network gives out annually to playwrights nominated and selected by member theatres. And he was at the Kennedy Center in July, too, directing one of the MFA Playwrights’ Workshop projects.

“All the plays I have had produced have been at NNPN theatres,” Lewis says. The network has been more than a production outlet: It has been his support system. “I feel completely empowered to send a play to anyone in the network,” he asserts cheerfully. “I’ve never had an agent—and I live in Iowa!”

His remark points to an important, less obvious dimension of NNPN activity: The organization serves as a repository of shared expertise, with artistic directors, literary managers and other participants swapping info about specific artists and scripts and staying in touch with writers who pass through the programs. Some of this exchange flows through formal channels, like “pitch sessions,” which take place during NNPN’s annual conference and National Showcase of New Plays and allow theatre folk to talk up specific plays; or the monthly “literary chats,” which enable NNPN literary managers to go online and trade information and queries. But some of it takes place in informal phone calls, e-mails and conversations.

“I feel like I have colleagues in a way I haven’t had before,” says Jody Hovland, artistic director of Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre, which joined NNPN in 2011. She calls the network a “truly thrilling” professional resource, and notes that the organization’s collaborative style “gets to the heart of what draws us to theatre to begin with.”

Loewith stepped into the epicenter of NNPN’s trust-based teamwork when he accepted the executive director post in 2009. A writer (Adding Machine: A Musical) and director who also happens to be a former high school math whiz—poring over a theatre budget, he has confessed, is his idea of “heaven”—he may have been the ideal candidate for a position that required idealism, pragmatism and financial savvy. As the organization’s first full-time staff person, he provided much-needed continuity and organizational rigor.

“NNPN has professionalized profoundly” during Loewith’s tenure, Rilette says.

Loewith also has vision. “He’s actually a thinker about what theatre is capable of, and where it should go, and that’s something he pursues also, aside from making us all happy and organizing all these great things,” says Aditi Brennan Kapil, whose plays Love Person and Agnes Under the Big Top: A Tall Tale had NNPN “rolling” premieres.

Under Loewith’s leadership, NNPN will be embarking on several significant ventures in its 15th-anniversary season, as the executive director pointed out in the July interview. An edited version of the conversation follows.

 

CELIA WREN: What will NNPN be up to in 2012-13?

We have at least four more rolling world premieres: Robert Caisley’s Happy; William Missouri Downs’s The Exit Interview; Guapa, by Caridad Svich; and Wolves by Steve Yockey.

NNPN started a collaboration fund last year—a consortium of NNPN members can ask for grants of up to $10,000 to support pioneering collaborations. The consortium of five theatres doing The Exit Interview is planning to send the same dramaturg to at least four of the six productions. As you know, with rolling world premieres, the production does not travel, just the script; the playwright has the opportunity to see the play develop with different artistic teams and communities. But we always felt it would be great if the playwright had a support system in place—somebody who could say, “You know, we tried that, back in San Diego, and it didn’t work, and here’s why.” We’re going to try that for the first time with The Exit Interview.

The other project the collaboration fund has supported this year involves Guapa. The Guapa premiere starts at Borderlands [Theater in Tucson, Ariz.], then goes to Miracle Theatre Group in Portland, Ore., which is a non-member, and then the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis. The script relies, in part, on projections that relate to the Southwest. We’re paying for video that’s going to be shared by all three productions, as well as a reading of the play prior to rehearsals with all three directors attending.

Also this year: We are formalizing a lot of our collaborative efforts, like the literary chats and pitch sessions, in what we’re calling the Collaborative Literary Office. The Collaborative Literary Office includes our new Virtual Script Library, which has a number of different reading rooms. We have program archive reading rooms—so you can download scripts developed through any of our past programs. There’s an alumni playwrights reading room: Playwrights-in-Residence and Continued Life alumni playwrights can upload two new scripts a year. There’s a literary manager’s reading room: You pitch something in a literary chat or pitch session, and immediately it can be read by member theatres.

Some new aspects of the Collaborative Literary Office include an Alumni Playwrights Council, giving our alumni playwrights an advisory voice at NNPN. And this year, for the first time, we’ll be offering online dramaturgy to our “rolling” world premiere consortia: All the partner theatres can upload dramaturgy for the same production, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

But the biggest new thing that we’re doing this year is associate membership. It’s a way of broadening our reach and also giving the existing members of the network an opportunity to learn about communities and writers they have yet to encounter. Because members are expected to both import and export plays—export plays to other members and import plays from other members—it has been difficult for theatres that are devoted to very specific playwright communities to participate as core members. For example, a theatre devoted solely to the production of Utah playwrights can’t really import plays—but we still want to know about the work they’re doing.

Associate membership gives those kinds of theatres an opportunity to get their plays into the consciousness of the network members—and of course it gives NNPN-supported plays new outlets.

 

What will associate members not get that core members will?

Associate members cannot participate in the Playwrights-in-Residence or Producers-in-Residence programs. They cannot nominate plays for commissions. They currently cannot nominate plays to be in the National Showcase of New Plays; that may change. And they don’t go to our annual conference, which is to say they don’t participate in the governance of the network.

When I came to the network, I was surprised at how slowly it grew. I had 30 or 40 theatres wanting to become members in my first year; and we only allow, at most, two new core members each year. I was confused about why that was, and why we were limiting our impact.

But then I realized there were two really great reasons to grow that core membership slowly. One is the depth of collaboration that’s possible for these members, because they all know each other so well: They have visited each other’s theatres; they have seen shows at the theatres, so they know the taste of the artistic leadership. Seth Rozin [producing artistic director of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company] reads a play that he knows isn’t going to be right for him, but is right for Bryan Fonseca [producing director] at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis. So he calls Bryan and says, “This is a really good play for you,” and Bryan very quickly puts it at the top of his pile, because he knows Seth knows his work. That’s why the network works so well. If it were 100 theatres and nobody knew each other, a recommendation wouldn’t count nearly as much.

Another reason relates to the level of service: For every dollar in membership dues that our core members pay, they currently get about $5 back, in grants and travel stipends. We pay for them to come to our conference and showcase; and then there are the residency grants, and so on. In order to maintain that level of service, we need to grow very carefully. But the associate membership is a way to open things up, to allow greater breadth of knowledge of the theatre field.

 

When you joined back in 2009, what were the big issues you set about addressing?

When I first joined the network there was no long-range plan in place, no mission or vision statement. Each of our programs had grown very…“organically” is the generous term, “haphazardly” the more realistic one. So the first thing that I needed to achieve was to figure out what the network was doing and what it is capable of. I wrote a 60-page handbook. And we created a long-range plan to take us through 2015.

The unique strength of the network is its combined knowledge base and its willingness to collaborate. The next chapter will be about using those strengths to pioneer new programs that are going to serve the new-play field. The associate membership comes from that place. We’re also working on a dream idea: a New Play Exchange that combines a centralized script database, crowd-sourced recommendations, and the interactivity of a social-networking site. You’d be able to query this database, for example, for the most-recommended plays tagged “global warming,” or favorite plays by my trusted friends….

 

Kind of like Facebook for people who read plays?

That’s the right way to say it.

 

You started a Producers-in-Residence program in 2011-12. That seems different from NNPN’s writer-focused programs.

I was an artistic director for six years. I believe, and our members believe, that producing new plays takes a particular skill. People are always reinventing the wheel. The mentorship on which our field is based—you see less of it all the time. And there are fewer opportunities all the time, especially in the new-play field, and especially at the level that our member theatres are—which is the level at which risks tend to be taken more frequently.

 

Are you ever worried about clubbiness? That NNPN divides the world into “in” playwrights and “out” playwrights, the “in” theatres and the “out” theatres?

Creating the associate membership was a primary goal of mine to counter that sense of NNPN being a clique—which I know people have felt. When I got to NNPN, if I said, “What is your impression of NNPN?” a lot of people said, “That’s that club I’m not allowed to be a member of!”

I wanted to get associate membership established so that there would be a way to interact with as many theatres as wanted access to the plays we support—as many as wanted to introduce us to plays and playwrights. Also, as of this year, for our showcase, we are accepting submissions from alumni playwrights; from nonmember theatres that have been through Continued Life; and from new-play development organizations with whom we have a relationship, like PlayPenn [in Philadelphia], New Dramatists and the Lark [Play Development Center, both in New York City]. We have to open ourselves up as much as possible while retaining the small-group collaborative energy that makes this work.

 

Who judges what gets into the showcase?

Selection for NNPN programs is done by different committees drawn from our members.

 

NNPN is launching its first international exchange­–with Australia. Why Australia?

Yes, at this fall’s showcase, in D.C., Nov. 29–Dec. 2, we’re bringing in two Australian plays, part of an exchange with PlayWriting Australia. Then, in February, two American plays are going to go to Australia’s National Play Festival. As for why—remember what I said about programs in NNPN’s early years having grown…organically? David Goldman found himself in Australia, and he met Susanna Dowling [PlayWriting Australia’s associate director.] Susanna went to our showcase two years ago, and then I went to their play festival this past February.

I was struck by the fact that the work felt of a similar level of professionalism to the kind of work in our showcase. And I found the Australian work to be much more aesthetically adventuresome—which excited me.

Given that we had no history of doing international work, it made a lot of sense for our first international exchange to be in the English language—but not to attempt to do something with Britain or Ireland, since they’re over here a lot anyway. I also felt that Australia was akin to America in some ways—Australia is geographically spread out; it is, similarly, a relatively new country. Australians’ relationship to native people of color is something their playwrights are wrestling with in the same way American playwrights wrestle with issues of color. They are also wrestling with issues of immigration. I think this will make a very interesting cultural exchange.

 

In December ’08, in conjunction with the showcase, NNPN conducted a field-wide assessment of the Continued Life of New Plays Fund. What were the findings of that, and did those findings change the way the network operates?

The findings of that included a desire to provide more collaborative opportunities amongst the participating theatres [inspiring the recently launched collaboration fund].

Over my time with NNPN we’ve done a lot of self-evaluation and a lot of talking to playwrights about their experience through the Continued Life fund. There have been some situations where the process has not been as positive as it could have been. There have been stories of playwrights who feel that they’ve had to write three different scripts, for instance. So now we have a mandatory phone call with all the partners to kick off the process. What does the playwright want to achieve? The theatres? How are you all going to communicate? There’s a huge element of trust involved. If you signed up to do a rolling world premiere before it’s been developed, you’re putting a lot of trust in that first director and artistic director.

It is incumbent on us at the network to ask all the partners to be more collaborative than they might normally be. These days, a theatre is asked to send every rehearsal report—every script change—around to the partner theatres. We provide online project-management tools: Every time a script change happens, boom!, it goes up there. Every time somebody has a question, we encourage them to send messages on the project-management software, instead of e-mailing, so that everyone sees those conversations. When the rolling world premiere process works—and when there’s a lot of communication—it is a spectacular experience, for the theatres and the playwright.

 

Why do we always need more new American plays?

We always need to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going, as a people, as a community. I wouldn’t be doing theatre if I didn’t think it was the best way of answering those questions. Our best playwrights recognize that their function is to shepherd that cultural conversation about the past and future—and to do it in little rooms of 100 and 200 and 300 at a time, where their words can be most impactful and their ideas most expansive. 

 

Celia Wren, a former American Theatre managing editor, contributes regularly to the magazine.