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Monday, November 5, 2012

Half Baked Theatre

Opinion by Kevin Six

I have been acting since 1977, writing plays since 1990 and directing since 2000, so I like to think I know a few things about how theatre should be produced.  As for new work, I have recently learned that very few people can do it alone. So now I want to talk about what I think is the best way to bring new work to the public.

Theatre, by its very nature, is collaborative so why should the development of the work be otherwise?  Every playwright needs a person he/she can trust to say things no one else can say.  Namely, rewrite this, cut that, don't put this before an audience yet. And the audience should be brought in much earlier -- more on that later.

Playwrights need a trusted adviser because they tend to read more into their writing than anyone else does.  They look at it minutely, get overly attached to things, and sometimes don't  think enough about what other people think.  When other people share what they think, the playwright might think they 're unqualified -- after all, no one but the playwright sweated through the creative process.
What if directors, dramaturgs, actors and even audience members shared some of the load?  The playwright, who understands he/she makes the final decision on what stays in and what is cut, also gets all the credit and a fair share of the money.  The people who take most of the risk -- and reap most of the reward -- the producers -- should help keep the process more collaborative earlier and more often.

And now audiences.  Audiences are specialists in: what they saw, understood (or not) and  how it felt.  This is why they need to be included early and often during the development of new work.  No one is served by a playwright stubbornly holding on to something that doesn't work.  Conversely, playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, actors -- and audiences -- should be given enough time with these things to see if they work.

The early model was easy: get famous, get a commission, put it up and let the audience decide.  Later, producers developed reading committees who funneled worthy plays to artistic leaders.  Later still, there were play development workshops that drew the process out longer. The problem with this process is that it is not as cost effective as producing a flop.  A regional theatre with a healthy subscriber base and a good marketing department can still make pretty good money on a show nobody likes.

We see this all the time in San Diego.

I think that the process should be longer, but not too long, and that producers can and should negotiate watchability into contracts for new work. It makes sense for playwrights and producers to part company -- amicably -- over differences of opinion or if plays don't work.  Producers, who are responsible to audiences, should be able to get out early if early audiences can't make sense of something.  Is there a way to make it pay -- or at least not lose money?

I have always believed that audiences are given either too much or not enough credit but rarely asked what they think.  Audiences should be able to vote with their voices and ticket purchases early and often and the financial risk should start low.  Seeing and speaking at a low-cost staged reading; watching and commenting on a moderately-priced workshop; and, finally, paying full price for a full production.  Or not if a plays don't get there.

In this model, several plays won't get there but the playwrights, producers and audiences actually feel good about the process and want to do it again. If the risks are small and they are rewarded with eventual good work, audiences will take the plunge along with playwrights, actors, producers and dramaturges.  And they can feel, rightly, that they helped to develop new work.

That is why I will produce new theatre like this for as long as I can.

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