National New Play Network 2008 annual meeting – Indianapolis

Last weekend I got to sit in on several sessions of the National New Play Network‘s (NNPN) annual two-day meeting.  It was held here in Indianapolis this year, at the Phoenix Theatre.

Thirty or so artistic directors, managing directors, and other leaders from the twenty member theatres from around the country gathered to share highlights and challenges from each other’s seasons, to pitch new plays to each other, to trade fundraising ideas, to evaluate what the Network has been doing since the last annual conference in terms of its ongoing programs, to do some strategic planning, and more.

Ricky Martinez, artistic director of the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, told me that he has been coming to this two-day meeting every year for the past three years in order to be re-invigorated.   I understood completely: being in that room (the Frank and Katrina Basile underground theatre space at the Phoenix) with all of those creative, dedicated, and fiercely talented people (including Martinez!), all talking about plays as if they were treasures (which they are!) was exhilarating.

It made me, just for a moment, flash on that scene from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in which several mafia dons get together to solve problems and discuss their mutual interests.  You know the scene: Vito Corleone says, “Are we not men?”

But at the NNPN meeting there was no undercurrent of menace.  In fact, David Golston, NNPN general manager and director of marketing/PR at the InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told me that this conference reminds him of going to church.  I knew exactly what he meant, too:  you are renewed by your participation in the service itself, and then you get even more refreshment and inspiration from the fellowship afterwards.

At the risk of sounding condescending, I was impressed by how respectful these powerful theatre people were of each other, and how generously and patiently they listened to each other.    To my surprise, there was very little diva behavior.  NNPN president Nan Barnett, who is also managing director of the Florida Stage in Manalapan, Florida, ran many of the sessions.  Only occasionally did she have to remind the group to “Convene!  Convene!” as she gently pulled their auras back to the center.  (That is my own take on what she was doing with her hands.)

This makes sense though: all of these people are connected to theatres that have made it to their 10th or 20th or 25th season while producing mostly new and/or otherwise unusual plays.   It makes sense that these people would have learned a thing or two over the years about how to communicate graciously, how to collaborate, and how to get things done that seem impossible.

One of the reasons this smallish Network is so strong, in fact, is because of the diversity of its member theatres.  They are all professional theatres that are committed to producing new plays, but beyond that, each has its own personality, its own mission, its own way of doing things.  The Network is proof that there are many right ways to make art and build community.

I loved hearing the theatre representatives talk about the lives of their theatres.  At one of the early sessions, we went around the big circle and one person from each theatre shared a little something of interest from their recent or current season. 

Some told about the demographics of their audiences and their audiences’ reactions to individual plays.  Allan Nause, artistic director at the Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon, for example, said that they produced the new play, “The Ghosts of Celilo,” in a 900-seat community center instead of their usual theatre space and still sold out every night to audiences filled with Native American families.  John Pietrowski, artistic director of the Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey (PTNJ) in Madison, New Jersey, said that the post-show discussion of the new play, “Sedition,” by David Wiltse, was as long as the play itself.

Some talked about their capital campaigns.  More than one reported successful opening of second stages.  Some talked about renovation projects.  Nan Barnett told me at breakfast about the Florida Stage’s aquisition of a whole hotel to house visiting artists.

Some told the group about awards that they or their resident playwrights had received.  Others told about new awards that they were giving.  Still others talked about milestones in participation of established recognition programs.  Chris Carlos and Tina Parker, co-artistic directors of the Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas, Texas, said that they had received 375 scripts for their New Works Festival this year.  I was also intrigued by their “PUP fest” – a program that includes six staged readings of plays by youth playwrights. According to their website, “PUP” stands for “Playwrights Under Progress.”

Sharon Gamble, managing director of the Phoenix Theatre here in Indianapolis, talked about how much the Phoenix had benefitted from membership in the Network.  “There are fifty theatres in town,” she said, “four of which are Equity houses, but of those four, only one – the Phoenix – is committed to consistently doing new plays.  NNPN has been very helpful to us finding good, new plays.”

Gamble said that Indy is just a little too far from Chicago to be tapped in automatically to that theatre scene.  “Through meetings like this, through the Literary Managers’ meetings online, and through phoned pitch sessions…it has been well worth our joining this group.”

In an email after the conference, Gamble told me that the Phoenix was “not part of the inaugural group but (we) were in the second ‘class’ of members to join NNPN, in 2000.”

At some point during the conference, I began to wish that I ran a theatre, too, so that I could apply to join the Network.   I would love to “pitch” my favorite shows to other theatre players.  I am sure that I could easily fall into calling scripts “two-handers” or “four-handers” or whatever.  (I.e. – shows requiring two actors or four actors or whatever.)  And as soon as I finish writing this blog post I am going to learn what it means to be an “SPT5” theatre or a “LORT 3.”

I would love to be reimbursed from the NNPN Travel Fund to attend the annual Showcase, too.  This year it will be held in Orlando, Florida in December.   At the Showcase, in addition to trading pitches, NNPN representatives get to hear staged readings of selected new plays to help them decide if they want to produce them at their own theatres.

However, there are specific and fairly stringent requirements for membership in the NNPN.  This is not a group where you can just mail in a check to join.  The goals of your theatre must fit with the goals of the Network.  I.e. – you do new plays every season and you do them at a high level of artistic quality.  Also, you must promise to “produce a play originally premiered by another NNPN member at least once every three years OR export a play to another NNPN member for a second or third production at least once every three years.”    (For a complete list of the membership requirements and benefits, please see this page of the NNPN website.)

One session of this year’s conference was devoted to reviewing four applications that had reached the stage of needing a vote from the full membership.  Chip Walton, producing artistic director of the Curious Theatre in Denver, Colorado, ran that session because he had been “dating” these theatres for almost a year.  Before leaving the room, a representative from each of the applicant theatres gave a verbal snapshot: their total budget, how many seats in their house, what category of theatre they were in according to Actors’ Equity and/or LORT, and a few words about the kind of programming they do and why they wanted to join the Network.

All four were voted in:

  • The Horizon Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was represented by their literary manager, Caleb Boyd.  He said that the 23-year-old theatre was committed to producing plays that had been written within in the past five years.  They want to pool resources and pool ideas with like-minded people.
  • The Orlando Shakespeare Theatre in Orlando, Florida was represented by their artistic director, Jim Helsinger.  He said that the theatre had grown out of a festival into a year-round entity.  Now when people ask him, “When’s the festival this year?” his answer is “All the time!”  He also said that one third of their mission is devoted to new play development.   I was touched when he added, “Shakespeare was once a new playwright in need of a theatre.  We are developing the Shakespeares of today.”  He loves the NNPN’s rolling world premieres, in which three theatres are rewarded financially for committing to produce a specific new play before it has been produced by anyone and committing to produce it within a certain time from the first production.  This gives continued life to new plays beyond their first productions.
  • The Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, Florida was represented by their managing director, Rebecca Langford, and their literary manager, Cristin Kelly.  They said that they are in their 34th season, they run three(!) theatre spaces, and new play development has always been part of their mission.  They, too, like NNPN’s way of combating “world premiere-itis” by having rolling world premieres at three or more theatres virtually simultaneously.
  • The Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley, California was represented by their new managing director, Ryan Rilette.  He said that he and their artistic director came to Marin from other NNPN theatres, so they know that “with NNPN behind us we can easily say to potential backers, ‘Here are some models for what we are trying to do.'”

And what is the Network trying to do?  Its founder, David Goldman, now director of the National Center for New Plays at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, was present at this conference, but I regret that I did not try harder to get a few minutes with him.  I would have liked to hear more about how the NNPN has developed over the years since he began it with thirteen theatres in 1998 as a way to regionalize new play development in the next generation.  (Source: the NNPN website.)

The organization is definitely continuing to evolve, in any case, and to explore new ways to develop new plays.  It is in excellent shape financially, according to general manager David Golston.  He presented a detailed report to the members during the conference.  The good report is, in large part, due to generous donations from the Mellon Foundation, the Shubert Foundation, and others.  The Network is getting ready to hire a fulltime executive director (or possibly a 30-hour-a-week person at a slightly larger part-time salary than what the Network pays the current part-time manager.)   They are also going to take advantage of a good deal that they were offered on office space in Washington, D.C.  

Seth Rozin, producing artistic director of the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (and the author of “Black Gold“!) led a strategic planning session.  The members talked about, among other things, how, and even if, the organization should grow larger.   There were several opinions on this topic.

The members ate lunch both days at the theatre, but on Saturday night, shuttle buses took everyone to a reception at the home of Phoenix board members Livia and Steve Russell.  I was sorry I could not attend that!  On Sunday morning, Phoenix board treasurer Mark Gastineau served a yummy breakfast in his gorgeous, light-filled home within walking distance of the Phoenix. 

The final session of the conference was devoted to pitches.  Mike Dorrell, dramaturg for the Salt Lake Acting Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, ran this session.  One representative from each theatre got to speak briefly about a maximum of three new plays that they had already worked with on some level (e.g. – workshop, staged reading, very recent full production, etc.) and which they thought might interest the other theatres. 

Nan Barnett, NNPN president, said about the pitch session as a benefit of NNPN membership, “If you do it right, you can plan your whole season without reading a single play!”  Everyone laughed because a) they would never give up the chance to read new plays for themselves and b) they knew what she meant about this excellent return on investment for Network members.

There were many, many exciting plays pitched.  I wish I could see them all!   I will just mention four that made me look up from my note-taking and say, “Hey!” or “Hah!”

Hey! – Justin Shaw, marketing director for the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri pitched our own James Still’s new play, “The Velvet Rut.”  Still had mentioned this play to me when I met him last month!

Hah! – Both David Jobin, managing director of the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, California, and Zak Topor, managing director of the Actors’ Express Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, mentioned “Octopus,” by Steve Yockey.  Topor said that this unusual love story (“one night of passion…with a sea monster”) needed 300 gallons of water a night.  Later he told me more about this intriguing technical requirement and how his theatre had managed to recycle the 300 gallons from performance to performance.  I laughed out loud, trying to imagine where they put all that water every night until they needed it again!

Hey! – The people from Artists’ Rep in Portland pitched a new play by Marc Acito.  I loved Acito’s hilarious first novel, How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater.  I am currently reading the sequel, The Attack of the Theater People, which just came out from Broadway Books in April.  I would love to see (or at least read) his new play, “Holidazed,” which is about a pagan homeless girl who is taken in by a family during the crazy, holiday-filled time of year.

Hah! – When everyone else had had a chance to pitch, Mike Dorrell talked about “Billion Dollar Baby,” by Julie Jensen.  He said it was a one-woman show (a grandmother) about the conspicuous consumption aspects of child rearing.  Doesn’t that sound like a funny and fun show?  Or maybe I am just partial to one-person shows.

I like one-person shows because they remind me of oral tradition storytelling, which I love for its intimacy.  However, Nan Barnett said that theatre directors love one-person shows because they are relatively affordable to produce.

“What else do you look for in a script?” I asked her.

She told me that at Florida Stage they host three post-show discussions per week(!), so she and her artistic director are always looking for plays that lend themselves to this.  I.e. – plays that are worth talking about.

When I asked David Winitsky, producing director of the Playwrights’ Theatre of New Jersey (PTNJ), the same question, he told me that some theatres’ missions require them to look for plays that have political or other specific content.  “But for us?  Good writing” (is most important.)

I was sorry that no one from the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC was able to make it to the NNPN conference this year.  I wanted to tell them how much I had enjoyed the world premiere of “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” by Sarah Ruhl, while I was on a business trip there last summer (pre-blog.)

At the end of the NNPN conference, just before he drove back to Chicago, Scott Vehill, co-artistic director of the Prop Theatre invited me up to see their production of Seth Rozin’s “Black Gold” this fall. 

I would like that, very much.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

2 thoughts on “National New Play Network 2008 annual meeting – Indianapolis”

  1. Hope,
    Here’s a ‘didja know?’

    The Phoenix Theatre was incorporated April 14, 1983. They worked through the summer organizing, raising money, finding and fixing up a facility and rehearsing their first production “WARP,” which went up in October.

    Twenty-five years ago this summer.

    Thought somebody should know!

    Darrin Gowan

Leave a Reply