Playwrights' Center aims to 'change the ecology of how we think about plays'

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — With the likes of August Wilson struggling for Broadway’s affection and countless scripts languishing in staged-reading hell, the American play is in trouble. Each season it gets harder to see full-blown productions of new work. There might be disagreement about the cause — lack of budget, perceived lack of audience — but no one denies the problem.

Polly Carl has faced the crisis for years. As artistic director of Minneapolis-based play development lab the Playwrights’ Center, she has learned first-hand that “even for experienced writers, it’s harder to get a production of a new play than anyone can ever imagine.”

This, she says, is unacceptable. It’s time to “change the ecology of how we think about new plays.” To that end, she created a program in early 2004 called New Plays on Campus.

The mission is simple: Match unproduced scripts with universities hungry for new work. Playwrights’ Center is the go-between, culling material from its national network of core writers and then sending schools — which pay a $275 membership fee — the scripts that fit their needs. Once the school has found, say, the perfect large-cast farce or all-female drama, it produces the play.

This is obviously a boon for playwrights, and the program has attracted most of the Playwrights’ Center’s core members. Carl understands their enthusiasm: “Writers are getting produced … and since (the schools give) commissions, I’m putting money in writer’s pockets.” Also, college productions are considered amateur, so plays can still “premiere” at professional houses.

For some playwrights, though, the lack of professional expectations is a plus. Melanie Marnich, a veteran of Manhattan Theater Club, is happy to participate because the university environment is “a step removed from the financial and critical pressures that so many theaters have to realistically deal with.” As a result, she says, she “can try and try again without the goal always being a polished professional production.”

Liz Engelman, a New Plays on Campus coordinator, extols this freedom to experiment. “You have the capacity to dream big,” she says, “to have 40-person plays. … The options are kind of endless.”

The options certainly inspire Marnich, who feels students are adventurous because of their “craving … to make a mark in a new territory that they helped chart.”

This craving underlines how the program helps schools as well as playwrights. Unless they’re in the few colleges with regular access to writers, students can complete their degrees without working on new plays. As an undergrad, for example, playwright Kira Obolensky says, “All I ever saw was Noel Coward and ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ I thought, mistakenly, that theater was dusty.”

Students need exposure to living playwrights, or they may never embrace emerging work. “If we don’t teach (new play development) in undergraduate institutions,” Carl warns, “we won’t have a generation of new plays.”

This is in part why New Plays on Campus wants writers in the rehearsal room and why universities are encouraged to bring them back as master-class teachers. “it’s transformative to work on a new play,” Carl asserts, asking, “If every student has access to this experience, how can the American theater not change?”

Grand ambitions like “changing the American theater” are bedrock to this program, and that energy is proving contagious. Carl claims, “In all my years of working in the theater, (this is) the most excited I’ve seen the community about a project.” Indeed, alongside all the writers, almost 20 schools have signed on.

That growth should continue now that support is coming from the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival. Artistic director Gregg Henry says if a student wins a festival award, his or her school will receive a one-year membership in New Plays on Campus. He’s certain this partnership will give young artists “a wonderful dose” of the professional life.

Asked if New Plays on Campus could “change American theater,” Henry chuckles. “I think it is possible … I don’t mean to be Pollyanna about it, but everybody’s going to benefit from this.”

Those benefits could emerge soon. Already the program has brokered its first production — Vincent Delaney’s “Perpetua” at St. Olaf College –and several more are planned. If New Plays on Campus maintains its current level of energy and commitment, America could have dozens more incubators for exciting new work. A few seasons from now, we might even be celebrating the health of the new American play.

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