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TDF's "Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play" examines the "collaboration in crisis" between playwrights and those who produce their work.
Written by Todd London with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, the book is the result of a six-year study with playwrights and artistic directors from across the United States. December 21, 2009 - Publication date: Tuesday, December 22, 2009.

Theatre Development Fund, the not-for-profit performing arts service organization, announces the publication of OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY. The book was written by Todd London, who is the Artistic Director of New Dramatists. It was co-written by Ben Pesner, and the research consultant was Professor Zannie Giraud Voss.  OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE examines the lives and livelihoods of American playwrights today and the realities of new play production from the perspective of both playwrights and not-for-profit theatres. 

The study, drawing on six years of comprehensive research, reveals a “collaboration in crisis” between the people who write plays and those who produce them.  It represents the most comprehensive field study in the history of the not-for-profit theatre to analyze new play production practices and the economics and culture of playwriting in America. Set against a backdrop of dwindling audiences for dramatic work, OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE makes clear the urgent need for new conversations and practices if the American play is to flourish.

On Tuesday, December 22, the book will be available for $14.95 online at www.tdf.org/outrageousfortune and at The Drama Book Shop at 250 West 40th Street in New York City.

 “The genesis for this study came from one of TDF’s founding trustees, John E. Booth,” said Victoria Bailey, TDF’s Executive Director. “He challenged TDF to undertake a study of the American playwright to determine how TDF and others could ‘be most helpful in facilitating and encouraging the work of promising playwrights and the performance of their works.’ OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY is the result of that challenge. This study is complex, revelatory and, in many cases, disturbing. It flows from careful research, both quantitative and qualitative. Much in this report may be painful to read. One of the clearest messages I’ve received throughout the course of this study is that language is failing us. Writers and those who produce their plays are not talking honestly with each other. Nor are they speaking honestly with their audiences or with funders. We must learn to speak together and to listen.”

“The book is an attempt to paint the most comprehensive picture possible of how plays get written and produced in America,” said Todd London. “It looks at the ecosystem of (mostly not-for-profit) new play production in detail. The picture that emerges is complex and contradictory.  On one hand, we have a playwriting profession that is larger, better trained and more vital than at any time in our history.  We also have a profusion of highly professional theatres with a deep commitment to new work. On the other hand, we have a profound rift between our most accomplished playwrights and the theatres who would produce them, an increasingly corporate theatre culture, dire economics for not-for-profits, dwindling audiences for non-musical work and, perhaps most troubling of all, a system of compensation that makes it nearly impossible for playwrights to earn anything resembling a living.  By telling this story—with firm statistical and anecdotal evidence—we hope to stimulate both conversation and action in the theatre field.  In other words, we want to find ways to build on the existing energy in the field and to help open up more opportunities for playwrights and more channels for fine plays to reach the stage.”

This study involved extensive surveys of 250 playwrights and nearly 100 not-for-profit theatres, most of which specialize in new play production.  Once the data gathered in these surveys was analyzed, TDF held a dozen roundtables with artistic directors, playwrights and experts in the field of new play production in five cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco) across the country.  These meetings were followed by interviews with leaders from across the profession: artistic producers from the not-for-profit and commercial theatre, playwright educators, dramatic literary agents, entertainment lawyers and the leaders of new play development centers.  Partial findings were presented at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and at Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference.

Key findings in OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY include:

1) PLAYWRIGHTS VS. NOT-FOR-PROFIT THEATRES: The relationship between playwrights and producing not-for-profit theatres is collaboration in crisis. The two groups studied are deeply divided in how they view each other, the audience and the successes and obstacles of the field of new play production.
 
2) ECONOMICS OF PLAYWRITING: In economic terms, it is virtually impossible to make a living or sustain a career as a professional playwright in America. The royalty system of payment that grew out of the commercial theatre has proven ineffective in the not-for-profit world. Commissions are too small to pay for the time it takes to write plays and rarely lead to production. Large grants to individuals continue to dry up. Substantial bodies of work regularly go unproduced. Mid-career is the crisis point for playwrights, and the new play ecosystem has nothing in place to help playwrights through it.

3) PREMIERE-ITIS: When it comes to new play production, an emphasis on premieres—by artistic directors, the press, boards of directors and funders—is the operating principle. This "premiere-itis" means that plays rarely get the continued life they need to reach the kind of artistic completion that results from second and third productions. It also means that playwrights can't earn from their plays in an ongoing way, as there is often no income stream because of the field's "one (production) and done" practices.

4) DOWNSIZING OF THE AMERICAN PLAY: New play creation and production in America has downsized in every way: cast size, size of venues for new plays, expectations of artists and audiences alike, and even ambition.

5) DWINDLING AUDIENCES: Our theatre is losing the audience for new plays at both ends, as current, mostly homogenous theatregoers age and die and as younger and more culturally diverse audiences fail to take their place. Playwrights blame this on the conservatism of the theatres' leadership. Artistic directors believe that playwrights aren't writing for their theatres' actual audiences.
 
6) THEATRE BECOMING THE LOST ART?: Under all the division and concern over the state of new play creation, development and production is the widespread fear that theatre as an art form has been pushed to the margins.  Writers and artistic producers alike are looking for ways to move it back to its place at the center of the conversation that is American culture.

7) HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: There is enormous, field-wide energy and commitment to new play production. New play activity is almost certainly at an all-time high in the not-for-profit theatre.  Some of this activity, geared toward new and better practices, holds the promise of improving the systemic problems explored in this report.

TDF plans to hold conversations in eight cities throughout the country shortly after the New Year.  With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we will return to the communities where we did field research as well as several new cities.  We will share the findings with theatre communities across the field and moderate discussions about them.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

TODD LONDON is in his fourteenth season as the Artistic Director of New Dramatists, the nation’s oldest center for the support and development of playwrights, where he has worked closely with more than a hundred of America’s finest playwrights and advocated nationally and internationally for hundreds more. In 2009, he was the first recipient of Theatre Communications Group’s Visionary Leadership Award “for his work to advance the theatre field.” A former managing editor of American Theatre magazine and the author of The Artistic Home, he has written, edited and/or contributed to eleven books. London won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for his essays in American Theatre and a Milestone Award for his first novel, The World’s Room. Under his leadership, New Dramatists received both a special Tony Honor and the Ross Wetzsteon Award from the Village Voice Obies. He currently serves on the faculty of the Yale University School of Drama.

BEN PESNER has been writing about the theatre since 1987. Currently the manager of creative services at The Broadway League, he is also content producer of TonyAwards.com. For the Tonys, he has scripted numerous special events and edited the Tony Awards Songbook. A former editor of the Dramatists Guild Quarterly and literary manager of Young Playwrights Inc., his extensive involvement in the not-for-profit theatre community has included associations with Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, Circle Rep and Lincoln Center Theater, among others. He has authored and edited numerous publications for theatres, service organizations and charitable foundations, and has written for American Theatre, Playbill and other magazines.

ZANNIE GIRAUD VOSS (Ph.D., IAE, Aix-en-Provence) is Chair and Professor of Arts Administration in the Meadows School of the Arts and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and an affiliate professor at Euromed Management in Marseille, France. She also served on the faculty at UNC–Chapel Hill and was Managing Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company; subsequently she was a professor at Duke University, where she was Producing Director of Theater Previews at Duke. Voss is a consultant for Theatre Communications Group, co-authoring their Theatre Facts since 1998. She has published articles in numerous marketing journals and serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Arts Management.

THEATRE DEVELOPMENT FUND (TDF) has played a unique role in strengthening live theatre and dance in New York City for the past 40 years. This not-for-profit service organization’s programs have filled over 76 million seats at discount prices (with theatre lovers who would normally not be able to attend live performance) and returned nearly 2 billion dollars in revenue to thousands of theatre, dance and music productions. Best known for its TKTS Discount Booths, TDF’s membership, voucher, access and education programs, as well as its Costume Collection, help to make the unique experience of theatre available to everyone.

For more information and to purchase OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE NEW AMERICAN PLAY, go to:  www.tdf.org/outrageousfortune.

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This book represents the most comprehensive field study in the history of the not-for-profit theatre to analyze new play production practices and the economics and culture of playwriting in America.