When I first moved to Minneapolis in 1978 the Cricket Theater had just moved into the Hennepin Center for the Arts (where Illusion Theatre is now). The Actors’ Theatre of St. Paul made its home at the College of St. Thomas (before building its own theater downtown, now occupied by Park Square Theatre). Around that same time the Guthrie Theater used the Southern Theatre at Seven Corners as its second stage (Guthrie II predated the downtown theater “Lab”), and Dudley Riggs ran his second stage—the Experimental Theatre Café—next door. When I first moved to Minneapolis, St. Paul’s Great American History Theatre worked out of the basement of the Landmark Center, and Theatre de la Jeune Lune still spent six months a year in France.
The Cricket produced new plays, regional premieres and modern revivals. It favored a kind of Off-Broadway aesthetic at the time. The Actors’ Theatre primarily produced plays from the classical repertoire plus the occasional regional premiere. The Guthrie produced some fairly adventurous work at the Southern Theatre in the late 1970s, including early work by David Mamet, Emily Mann and Mark Medoff.
Then there was Brass Tacks Theatre where I served as Literary Director for roughly half of its ten-year lifespan. Brass Tacks produced new plays exclusively. We liked the downtown Off-Off Broadway stuff and tended to produce plays that critics called post-modern.
All of the theaters I mention above (except the History Theatre) are gone now. All to some degree produced new plays. I miss them for that reason alone, but I am not lamenting the past. After all, taste changes and fashions and artists change. Theaters with different aesthetics and approaches have taken Brass Tacks’ place: Emigrant, Frank, Jungle, Mu, Pillsbury House, Walking Shadow and Workhaus are only a few Twin Cities theaters making democracy safe for new plays today—and they all do valuable work.
I left Minneapolis to attend graduate school in 1988. When I returned in 2007 to serve as Literary Manager of the Guthrie Theater, I was thrilled to see that even with so many Twin Cities’ theaters gone, so many have also continued from my early days: the Children’s Theatre Company, Illusion, Mixed Blood, Park Square, Penumbra and Red Eye Collaboration to name a few. All of these theaters—to some extent—still support and produce new work. Moreover, the Playwright Center has grown and continues to support playwrights—locally and nationally—through its many programs. Now it has its own fully-functional theater venue to augment that support. The Minnesota Fringe Festival has emerged in recent years, too; and it focuses public attention on all kinds of new work for the stage.
Having served on staff of several large non-profit theaters around the country—in New York, Washington, DC and Atlanta as well as Minneapolis—I can say that the Twin Cities has nothing to answer for regarding its support for playwrights and new plays. For a metropolitan population of 3 million, it still offers audiences as eclectic an array of new work—and at as high a level of accomplishment—as one can find anywhere in the country, in cities twice as large or more.
30 year old problems
And yet, despite its healthy profile, I sense that the Twin Cities theater scene is experiencing the same growing pains as the rest of the country when it comes to producing new plays. Early career playwrights tell me it’s difficult to break through the logjam for that first, second or third production. Veteran playwrights tell me it’s still difficult to get a second production of a play that has already had a premiere somewhere. We’ve all heard the complaints of plays getting stuck in the revolving door of endless workshops and readings—often at major theaters—without ever being selected for full production. I heard the same complaints 30 years ago. The difference now is that we have a true national playwriting community that has benefitted from 30 years of play development activity. It is more diverse, more sophisticated and more theater-savvy than it was 30 years ago. I take that as a sign that American playwriting is maturing and, yes, growing in popularity and public esteem.
Most interested parties, I’ll wager, would agree that we need to do a better job of getting the plays our playwrights are writing into full production—faster, sooner and more often. And yet the obstacles in accomplishing that goal seem as much a lack of will and imagination as anything else. I reject the notion that there aren’t enough so-called “good” plays out there, just as I reject the notion that there is no audience for new work. There is an embarrassment of riches in both camps; we simply have to get out of the business of picking winners. That’s for an audience to decide, anyway. Let’s stop second-guessing people and start producing plays for them.
Every literary manager I know has a dozen plays they would love to produce right now. These are the folks, you’ll recall, who’ve spent their careers reading and advocating plays for production. Each one has another dozen playwrights whose work they follow regularly—just in case. I have a handful from both categories I’m determined to direct myself. Why are we stalling the best and the brightest? What are we waiting for? The perfect play? There’s no such animal.
Actually producing new plays makes a difference
I understand the financial challenges theaters face. I’d like to see more direct and more consistent sources of funding for theater operating expenses, including productions of new plays, than we see today. I’d also like to see a new generation of for-profit entrepreneurs who could focus their efforts locally as well as nationally—on producing one play at a time. I’d like to see the National Endowment for the Arts underwrite ticket prices for new plays.
But until more direct sources of funding and support arrive, I would argue that we should renew our commitment to new plays by actually producing them. Now. Today. Despite hard times. If that means keeping design and production costs at an absolute minimum—we should do that. If it means that play development happens only in the context of rehearsal itself—so be it. If it means fewer performances—go for it. If it means “lights-up-lights down,” performing in blacks and sitting on cubes—I could live with that. Anything to keep the strategic focus of our commitment to new plays on fully rehearsed plays in front of a paying audience.
Here’s an idea. If every Twin Cities theater that claims an interest in new work actually produced one play they would “love to do, but can’t” next season—I’m convinced the audience would reward them with their attendance and support. Strategically, it’s smarter to set lower financial goals for an untested work, and produce it with passion, than presume that a familiar or popular title will guarantee a much larger monetary goal. Why? Because the audience changes! People aren’t as monolithic and single-minded as theater folks make them out to be. Let’s give them something to care about.
Take the idea one step further. If in every theater town across the country—from New York to San Francisco—non-profit theaters ignored the conventional wisdom, and, instead of producing that one familiar title to hedge their bets against a flagging economy, they produced a brand new play by a local writer—even if the play isn’t likely to be the next August: Osage County. I believe that gamble would have a tangible payoff in audience appreciation and loyalty. If the scenario repeated in subsequent years, over time pressure from the ground up would build a devoted audience for new plays.❦