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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
How’s this for a deal? If your theatre company produces Christopher Wall’s new play Dreams of the Washer King, then the Playwrights Realm will give you $10,000. At least. With no strings attached.
Why’s that? Well, that requires some back story.
Founded in 2007, the Playwrights Realm is an Off-Broadway theatre that’s committed to supporting playwrights. Most obviously, they produce new plays, and from now until June 26, they’re world premiering Dreams of the Washer King, a surreal drama about interconnected characters who revisit a major event from their past.
Yet while they’re happy to mount the show, the theatre’s founders aren’t satisfied with the typical model of “find a play, produce a play, move right on to the next one.”
Artistic director Katherine Kovner says, “We’ve really been challenging ourselves to find ways to live up to our name, to really be a home and resource for writers.”
To that end, the company only stages one show per season, which arguably lets them maximize the effect of their limited budget. For instance, they pay their artists on a contract usually employed by larger, wealthier theatres, and if they were staging three plays a year, then they couldn’t do that.
Plenty of companies have single-show seasons, of course, but The Realm uses that model to ground their most significant innovation: the Next Stage Production Fund.
Launching with Washer King, the Fund will help ensure that after the Realm premieres a play, it gets a second production.
Here’s how it works: Before and during performances, Realm staffers contact theatres they think will be interested in a play. If another company stages it, then the Realm will give them money to support that production. (At present, the cash comes directly out of the company’s operating budget, which is largely funded by private donors.)
This payout---which currently stands at about $10,000---comes with no expectations. “It’s not about taking our production and moving it somewhere,” says producing director Stephanie Ybarra. “It’s not about a co-production. Your production and our production stand on their own, and the money we give is free and clear.”
Obviously, this kind of incentive could do wonders for a play’s longevity. Playwright Christopher Wall says, “It was a wonderful surprise when they first told me about it, because the truism among the playwrights I know is that the only thing harder than getting a first production is getting a second production.”
And indeed, after talking to writers, the Realm created the Fund to battle “premiere-itis.” As reported in Theatre Development Fund’s study Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play theatres often believe that they must be the first company to mount a show, assuming that will give them cachet among their audiences, their funders, and their industry peers.
Because of this attitude, many plays languish after their debut, despite the fact that multiple productions often teach writers how a script truly works on stage.
More and more theatre professionals are aware of this problem, and Ybarra says her colleagues have responded positively to the Fund, even if it takes them a few minutes to grasp what it does. “It’s such a different idea,” she explains. “Even talking to my own dear friend who manages a theatre, she was saying, ‘So, co-production?’ And I said, ‘No, I just want to give you the money to do the play.’ Helping people to wrap their minds around this idea has been the most challenging thing. From there, they’ll read the play, they’ll make the decision on their own.”
It’s that decision, of course, that really counts, and so far, no one has signed on to give Washer King another production. But someone might. And even after it’s closed, Kovner and Ybarra will keep promoting it.
And no matter what happens with a particular script, playwrights’ long-term careers may benefit from having the Fund on their side. “I don’t currently have representation,” Wall says. “I can write letters to people I haven’t met, but I think it will be a lot more persuasive coming from a theatre that really knows me.”
Note from the author: In writing this story, I initially neglected to mention other programs that tackle premiere-itis, but in the interest of keeping this conversation broad, I want to inlcude them here. The National New Play Network's Continued Life of New Plays Fund, for instance, supports three companies who collectively decide to produce a play, and last year, The Lark Play Development Center teamed with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to secure multiple productions for Lloyd Suh's play "American Hwangap." If I have missed any other similar projects, please let me know, and I will gladly make mention of them here.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
(photo: "Washer King" cast members Ben Hollandsworth and Reyna de Courcy; photo by Erik Pearson)