April 30, 2010

Expanding the Idea of New Work - Part III

Contributed by Lisa Timmel

Thanks for your thoughts, Charles. You pose some interesting questions. One question in particular really struck me: “Who are we as a theatre that sits between the two [new plays and classics]?” I think we’re always answering that question when we make programming choices. Because we can’t just program the same plays over and over, in a sense, who we are changes from play to play, from season to season. This year we were a theatre that produces American plays from the 20th and 21st centuries. The oldest play in the season was a mere 63 years old.

So if we are what we do let’s define some terms. We tend to think of plays in three main categories: Classic, contemporary and new. Since my entire career until last year was spent working off-Broadway, largely in new play development and production, I personally tend to have a very narrow definition of what constitutes a new play (I know, I know... this series of posts is about expanding the idea of new work. Bad blogger!). If a play comes with impressive quotes from a major newspaper in a major city, then it’s an established, contemporary play. When I first started out in New York, back in what my kids like to call “the nineteen hundreds”, new plays felt like they only moved in one direction: from New York to the regionals. Happily, this isn’t so much the case anymore partly because regional theatres started commissioning and producing world premieres. We now have a kind of non-profit road system for developing and promoting new work.

That said I’ve never worked for a theatre that produced an entire season of world premieres. For one thing, it often takes a production or two for the play to reach its final draft. Even ten years later, Craig Lucas rewrote parts of Prelude to a Kiss. So “new play” has to be a somewhat elastic term in that it can mean a world premiere or the latest fashion coming out of another major theatre city. Why deprive a Boston audience of a really great play just because someone else got there first? It’s also a way of participating in a national cultural conversation.

For me, contemporary plays have been knocking around a bit but are not established classics yet. Sometimes we call them revivals. I would probably have put Stick Fly and Becky Shaw in that category—definitely post-Boston if not before, and obviously Prelude to a Kiss. But how to categorize Fences, a play that is not much older than Prelude? Well, some plays are just instant classics and Wilson’s play, a play that is part of every decent American drama curriculum and revived in several cities every year qualifies. Then there are the capital C classics. Did you learn about it in school? Then it’s probably a classic. Functionally a classic play should in some way bring us back to our cultural heritage.

In the season we’re about to start, as of now it’s more of a mixed bag than last with a stronger emphasis on new plays but a wider range of tone and content. We have two world premieres, two new/contemporary plays, one contemporary play (1980), and two bonafide capital C classics. So who are we now?

- Lisa

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