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Can This Artist-Led Producing Model Help Theatre Evolve?

By: Gerard Raymond
Date: Oct 05, 2023

How playwrights are taking charge of their own productions with The Pool


With the theatre industry in a post-pandemic crisis, many companies are finding ways to collaborate—the number of co-productions alone is staggering. But scrappy Off-Off Broadway artists have long known the power of pooling their resources. That's why two stalwart playwrights, Susan Bernfield and Lynn Rosen, came up with the concept for The Pool, a playwright-guided model that helps dramatists get their scripts from the page to the stage on their own.

It started in 2017 after Bernfield, who is also the artistic director of the indie theatre company New Georges, noticed an increasing number of playwrights were seeking her help to realize their projects. Bernfield herself had an unproduced play waiting in the wings as did her friend Rosen. "We were chomping at the bit, itching to make them happen," Bernfield recalls. So, they decided to share producing responsibilities. After inviting a third playwright, Peter Gil-Sheridan, to join them, they plunged into their new venture: The Pool, a pop-up theatre company.

Baked into their vision was that every iteration of The Pool would be handed off to a new set of playwrights who would get the benefit of the founders' knowledge without their oversight. After a pandemic delay, The Pool Plays 2.0 debuted in fall 2021 with works by Kate Cortesi, Brenda Withers and Emily Zemba. They in turn passed the baton to The Pool Plays 3.0 cohort, Jessica Charles, Andrea Stolowitz and Naren Weiss, whose shows are running in repertory at 59E59 Theaters October 8 to 28.

The process for choosing each trio begins with interested playwrights uploading scripts and mission statements to a shared folder online so they can connect with likeminded peers and self-select the new group. Members from the previous Pools are available throughout as a kind of brain trust to provide mentoring and support when requested.

As a Black queer theatre-maker with degrees from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and the University of California, Berkeley, Jessica Charles realized that self-producing was the best way to get her work out there. "It is so sad, especially because as a younger woman playwright of color, I keep running into people who feel Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage" are representation enough. Fittingly, Charles' play Antiquated F*ckery features two aspiring Black queer theatre performers thrown into an identity crisis as they're constantly dismissed as too Black or not Black enough. Even though she insists the piece isn't autobiographical, the conversations between the characters resonate with Charles' own experiences.

Naren Weiss penned the history-inspired dark comedy Two Brown Porters, about the time when the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond, currently adorning the British crown, was temporarily misplaced in Delhi in 1850. "I started thinking about what might have happened in that 12-hour window when the diamond was lost from British possession," says Weiss. "Can you imagine a world when the fate of India at the time has fallen into the lap of a train porter in Delhi?"

In The Berlin Diaries, playwright Andrea Stolowitz delves into her own family's history as she explores the fates of ancestors lost to the Holocaust based on names listed in her great-grandfather's 1939 diary. "I discovered we had a vibrant family life and uncovered the mystery of where everyone went," she says. Although the three plays are starkly different, they share commonalities. "They all deal with our lived experience and identity," Stolowitz notes, with each featuring two performers playing multiple characters.

The idea of playwrights self-producing isn't new. However, The Pool cofounder Bernfield says "it was kind of prescient" that they launched the initiative in 2017 because the theatre landscape has changed so drastically since then. "Right now, there is much more presenting than producing," explains Bernfield. "The onus is really on the playwright to learn how to produce."

"Producing does feel like an extra burden, for sure," admits Stolowitz. "But it is also quite empowering. I'm not reliant on a theatre to bring my work to life." Charles agrees and adds that her mentality as a playwright has been shaped by foundational female dramatists such as María Irene Fornés. "She taught me that as a woman in the theatre, you have to know everything. So, when a man tells you it can't happen, you can tell him why and how," says Charles. "This is that process for me. I'm getting to know all the ins and outs and figuring out where American theatre is right now."

For Weiss, learning to produce mirrors how start-ups work. "I think very often we artists forget to think about the business side of things," he says. "All three of our plays are ambitious for different reasons. For a single person to try and get this off the ground is a Herculean task. But to have colleagues that you really trust, who are looking after your piece as you look after theirs, definitely makes it possible. If you have other people who are carrying the load with you, it is a lot easier to write freely and then go into production."

Weiss, who's also a busy actor, appeared in The Pool Plays 2.0. He says becoming a producer enables him to treat fellow performers the way he would like to be. "My preferred method is to straight-up offer the person the role without an audition, because actors love to know that their work has been noticed and appreciated over several years," he says. If an actor is new to him, he puts the performer in a reading and pays a stipend. He thinks actors deserve at least subway fare when they audition. "It tells actors that I'm giving my hard-earned time and money in the hope that they give me their hard-earned time and energy," he says. "If one independent artist with zero money can do this, there's no excuse for institutions not to do the same. I think by putting creators in charge, you allow them to build a culture that feels sustainable and kind."

At a time when theatre-makers are reassessing how the industry functions, The Pool offers an intriguing, artist-led way forward. The Pool 3.0 participants have even committed to writing a handbook for their successors. "I'm looking forward to handing off a really vital and supportive organization that will allow the next group to have an even easier time," says Stolowitz. "How this will grow, we are not even sure yet. But we have hit on a model that gives playwrights the ability to pool resources and produce together."


Top image: David Greenspan and Rebecca S'manga Frank in The Berlin Diaries. Photo by Helen Hylton.

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Gerard Raymond is a Sri Lanka-born arts journalist based in New York City who's a member of the Drama Desk and the American Theatre Critics Association.