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A Rejection of Risk

It's not easy for a theater to both lead the way and be commerically viable, and the playwright is left relaying on luck and timing, according to Brett Neveu

By BRETT NEVEU
  Rejection—a playwright’s closest, most reviled acquaintance. Nearly every day (or at least every week), a playwright is given a strong dose of “thanks, but no thanks.” It’s an odd situation in which to continue to place oneself, asking your “co-workers” to read and evaluate your work, knowing that there are a thousand situations going through each artistic director’s head (putting together a well-thought-out season, working with an ensemble of mixed talent and availability, a commitment of time and money, personal taste, etc.). It often feels more like luck and timing are the shepherds of a playwright’s career, and for those with any sort of control streak, the luck/timing/rejection triple-threat can be a burden too tough to carry.
    This burden can be lifted by the aforementioned luck (by luck, I mean created “luck”, where the writer has set a few things in motion hoping they will play out to his or her advantage) and timing (a situation like an artistic director having to take a bi-coastal flight, grabbing your script from his or her desk and happening to not be so tired that he or she gives it a read) landing in one’s favor. This bit of acceptance can push the playwright forward a space or two, but without knowing how many spaces are on the board or what the eventual goal is (a workshop?  a production?  a long, deadly silence?), this advancement can become quite confusing and frustrating.
    More often than not, luck and timing are not on the playwright’s side, with money tight at the majority of theaters and new work forever a big gamble. It’s hard not to understand the producer’s plight; they have a passion for producing work that fascinates, but they also need to consider how they’re going to keep their own jobs intact from season to season. We are told as playwrights to focus on our own unique style and voice, but when theaters need certain “commercially viable” plays in order to stay in business, do style and voice suffer?  Is theater doomed to be an enterprise that, like film, leaves its experimentation and risk-taking to those spending the least amount of money? Or will theater step up and lead the way, knowing that its future lies in the support of writers longing to define and reflect what it means to be alive in our present moment?
    In order to both lead the way and be commercially viable, a theater needs to develop trust and follow through in its relationship with its writers. A spot-on example of this support is the success of Tracy Lett’s play August: Osage County with Steppenwolf Theatre. Tracy, a Steppenwolf Ensemble Member (and a seasoned, gifted writer), was given the company’s confidence, focus and time to develop a play that has taken both Chicago and Broadway by storm. Steppenwolf’s commitment to the play and the play’s ensuing rocket-like launch is a direct result of the company’s faith in the script and the theater’s own willingness to go to the dangerous place called “producing new work.”
    It can be an easy choice for a theater to reject new work, citing the headache of “introducing” a new writer to an audience. The argument for this introduction is an uphill battle—having to explain to season ticket holders that they should give a new voice or perspective a chance is something a theater would often rather avoid. This perspective is given less credence by the success of August: Osage County, given that most theatergoers did not know much of Tracy or his work before the production (I’m positive most Steppenwolf audience members knew him more as an actor than as a playwright).  For Steppenwolf to back a new play that is more than three hours, has a cast of 13 and a three-story set, their belief in both Tracy’s ability as a playwright and in the play itself showed both strength and foresight, skills that most large American theaters should seek to enhance.
    Rejection is the flipside to August’s success, and isn’t always about a theater’s inability to support new work. As I mentioned, the factors are numerous when it comes to a theater passing on a script. My personal worry is that this pass comes not from a place of artistic integrity, but one of fear. Once theaters lose the ability to spend money on shows that take risks, the ability of theater to engage and provoke an audience quickly dies and becomes wholly buried in its own reluctance.

Published: February 07, 2008
Issue: February 08 Money Issue