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New Ways to Make New Plays

Date: May 01, 2009


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By the time it hits the stage, a new play has been tended by many hands. There are playwrights, of course, but also artistic directors, marketing staffs and dozens of others who join forces to make a script successful.

This creates a complicated system of new play development and production. Driven by its commitment to the new American play, Theatre Development Fund conducted a six-year study to learn exactly how that system works.

The results were surprising, troubling and almost always enlightening. They needed to be shared.

That's why TDF is publishing its first book, Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play (available here). Written by Todd London and Ben Pesner with additional research by Zannie Giraud Voss, the book uses surveys, interviews, panel discussions and raw data to spark an honest conversation about the art and business of American playwriting.

By frankly addressing topics like royalty payments, the quality of new work and the sense of community in regional theatres, Outrageous Fortune makes an urgent declaration: America's new play system is in trouble, and it needs help right away.

"Many of the issues in the book have been looked at or written about or alluded to in the press," says London, who is artistic director of the playwright development center New Dramatists. "But there's never been a study that collects the experiences of theatres that produce new plays and playwrights who write those plays. To me, the comprehensiveness is the story."

When readers see all that information in one place, they may start a fresh discussion about new plays in America. For Victoria Bailey, executive director of Theatre Development Fund, that would be ideal. "One of the things I think the study makes clear is that there's a tremendous desire on both the part of the artists and the part of the institutions to make changes," she says. "But there's no conversation about how to do that. They're not talking to each other. They're not saying, 'Maybe we should embark on this together.'"

Bailey, who was involved in the production of new plays at Manhattan Theatre Club before joining TDF, has been deeply involved in the research for Outrageous Fortune, and she says it has allowed her to rethink many of her own assumptions about what works and what doesn't. "I've realized there are no villains in this," she says. "But there's a building sense of something being broken despite everyone's best intentions."

Of course, a book can't fix anything by itself. Both Bailey and London stress that Outrageous Fortune should be just one part of an ongoing effort.

"We believe that with the right material in front of them, everyone can take stock and work together to address the problem," London says. "The problem is not specific, and it's not local. It's general. Everybody has to participate in the solution, and the first step is, 'Let's all look at everything together.'"


What Are People Saying About “Outrageous Fortune?”

A look at the cheers, jeers, and conversation created by TDF’s first book


Some of them are cheering, and some of them are jeering, but at the end of the day, plenty of people are talking about Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play.

Published late last year by TDF, the book fuses interviews, surveys and analysis to explore how playwrights and not-for-profit theatres see the present and future of playwriting in this country. Perspectives veer from hopeful to grim, and they are passionate across the board.

More than anything, the book, which was written by Todd London with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss, asks readers to continue the conversation it starts. It has always been TDF’s belief that Outrageous Fortune should only be the beginning of a nationwide dialogue about the state of plays and playwriting in American theatre.

Currently, that dialogue is being spearheaded by journalists and bloggers across the country. On his blog Parabasis, Isaac Butler—a director, designer and occasional contributor to TDF’s online magazine—has invited theatre bloggers to dissect the book chapter by chapter while also detailing his own reactions.

Butler’s invited writers include Mead Hunter, a Portland-based script consultant and former literary manager who praises the book for “its demystification of the commissioning process” but argues that literary managers should be included in the research, and playwright Matthew Freeman, who wishes quotations weren’t anonymous but supports some of the book’s arguments about how a playwright’s career should be defined. Butler himself uses the book to explore whether the theatre relies too much on artistic directors and other top administrators.

The traditional media have also joined the discussion. In The New York Times, Patrick Healy asked several playwrights and artistic leaders for their responses, and the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones, though he agreed with some of the points the book raised, wondered if playwrights weren’t merely whining.

All of these responses are valuable, since they ask us to take a closer look at new American plays. We invite you to join this conversation yourself. You can purchase a copy of Outrageous Fortune here, and once you’ve read it, you can send your thoughts to Mark Blankenship at In a future story, we will feature as many of those responses as we can. We look forward to hearing from you. 

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor