By Bill Marx
The Huntington Theatre Company’s Breaking Ground Festival of new play readings turns five this year. The latest lineup runs through Sunday at the shindig’s venue, the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Scripts by Melinda Lopez, Ken Urban, Mat Smart and Nathan Louis Jackson, as well as a new musical by Michael Friedman and Daniel Goldstein, are the dramatic ear candy.
Ilana Brownstein, HTC Literary Manager, relaxes
I figured that it was a good time to pose a few questions to Huntington Literary Manager and BG producer Ilana Brownstein about the health of the Festival and on what separates effective play development programs from flashy wannabes.
BM: Looking at the post-Festival lives of the Breaking Ground scripts so far I see that far more of the scripts have gone onto full productions at the Huntington Theatre Company then at other theaters. Also, a number of playwrights have come back multiple times — Stephen Belber, Sinan Ünel, Ronan Noone, Melinda Lopez, and Ethan Frankel. Is this program essentially about cultivating new material and authors (many with links to Boston University) for the HTC?
IB: The goal of Breaking Ground is first and foremost to be of use to the playwright. We have made an effort to cultivate relationships with writers over the years who can, in some way, call the Huntington one of their artistic homes. Often we’re able to grow the relationships established in Breaking Ground into full productions – either of the BG scripts, or of other plays by those writers.
Theresa Rebeck would be a great example of this. Nicholas saw “Bad Dates” in New York, loved it, and approached Theresa about bringing the play to the Huntington as a last-minute sub-in for a show that had dropped out of our season. The relationship that we built with Theresa around “Bad Dates” led not only to Nick directing one of her plays at Williamstown, but also to Theresa approaching us with an early draft of “Mauritius.” We loved “Mauritius,” and because we wanted to continue to cultivate Theresa as a writer with ties to the Huntington, we included it in Breaking Ground 2006, which led to us including it in our 2006-07 season, and then led the play to Broadway.
In terms of our local writers, the Huntington Playwriting Fellows (HPFs) are guaranteed at least one reading in Breaking Ground during their two-year fellowship, but even beyond that, we are dedicated to maintaining access to developmental resources for the HPFs, which is why you see several of these writers represented in the Breaking Ground history more than once.
I do want to add one more thing on the topic of BG plays moving to other theatres. Sometimes, it’s not the BG play itself that moves on, but the playwright makes a connection to a director or actor new to him/her, which sets up a relationship that catalyzes a new opportunity for that writer. Several times it has happened that a BG playwright has made a connection with a Festival attendee from another theatre, and that has created new opportunities for the writer as well.
So, while we work hard to give these scripts life after the Festival, that’s not the only goal. We also want to give the writers a chance to collaborate with and meet other artists, who may eventually lead the BG playwright into a new exciting project. Lastly, in answer to the last part of your question, I’d say that it is always a plus when a play we’ve developed through Breaking Ground makes its way onto our stages. We have a great track record in this respect, and it’s one of the real successes of our new play programming.
BM: What post-Festival support does the HTC give to a script?
IB: I send out announcements in advance of the Festival to my peers at other theatres, primarily through the listserv of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA), and through personal calls and emails to colleagues whom I think would be particularly good matches for each play. Many of those people then request to read the plays, if they’re unable to attend the Festival itself. In terms of post-Festival support, it depends on whether the writer has an agent or not, and whether the writer is an HPF. If the writer has an agent, I work with the agent to address any requests for scripts that come from other theatres and producers. If the writer is unagented, I try to facilitate connections with other theatres, in collaboration with him or her.
We might brainstorm together to see where the playwright really wants to send the script, and I then make those calls and invite my colleague to peruse the script. If the writer is an HPF, I do all of the above, but in addition I see my role as an all-purpose advocate to that writer. Not only do I focus on helping them get their BG play out into the world, I make sure to do all I can to put *all* of their plays into the hands of other literary managers and artistic directors around the country.
The other kind of support we offer is, of course, dramaturgical. I make sure to debrief with all our Breaking Ground writers and offer feedback on the script and its revisions during the BG process; I also offer to continue to serve in this consulting role as the writer works on refining the script in the following months. This kind of commitment is what helps the Huntington to keep exciting writers in our artistic family, long after the Breaking Ground reading is finished.
BM: What do you make of Steven McElroy’s recent New York Times article? He writes that “playwrights who bemoan those long periods of readings and revisions that rarely lead to a production must have been intrigued last fall when the Roundabout Theater Company announced Roundabout Underground, an initiative to help usher plays by lesser-known writers to the stage.”
IB: I think that it’s a real shame when plays are “developed to death,” but I also think that this phenomenon is not as common as it once was. It’s a fun phrase to toss around, but it may not be doing us much good. The advent of innovative development programs at theatres large and small nationwide (not just in New York) is a real boon, and strengthens the American theatre ecology as a whole. That’s not to say that playwrights still don’t have some terrible experiences. They do. There’s bad development out there (just as there’s bad pizza, bad driving, bad whatever). What we can do about it is strive to not be one of those programs.
And ultimately, while theatres with poor development programs are half the problem, the other half are the playwrights who aren’t choosy enough about where and how they develop their work. It’s always flattering to have a theatre call you up as a writer and say, “we’d like to read your play, what do you think?” It’s seductive. But the writer is the first and last line of defense when it comes to his or her script. He or she has to be able to make decisions about what’s best for the script at that moment, and perhaps that play doesn’t need another reading. Is it too many cooks in the kitchen? And at a certain point, a reading is no longer useful – the writer needs to see the play in production.
Of course, it’s also up to the theatres to be honest about what the purpose of a reading might be. Is it secretly an audition for a season slot? Is it a way to justify funds given by a foundation or private donor? Or is it a way for the theatre to initiate a relationship which may pay off down the road, even though this particular play may not be the one that lights their fire?
There perhaps needs to be more transparency on both sides. One of things I make sure to do at the Huntington is to ask one very important question of the writers we court for Breaking Ground: do you need to hear a reading of this play right now? Sometimes, they say no, and we don’t include the play in the Festival. Instead we simply retain its place on our list of scripts under consideration for possible production in a future season. I never want a playwright to agree to a Breaking Ground reading for wrong reason, I want the writer to agree because it’s *useful* – whatever that might mean to the writer at that moment.
BM: What do you think of the growing New York competition? Will that change what you do?
IB: I don’t see it as competition at all. The more theatres that commit themselves to honest and useful development processes, the better it is for the playwright, and for the audience. Will it change what I do? Not at all. There are plenty of wonderful writers out in the world, and there’s no need to fight over who gets to develop which writer’s work.
Furthermore, at the Huntington we’ve made a deep commitment to cultivating the work of local writers, in addition to writers from around the country. The reason for this is that as a regional theatre, I believe we have a mandate to be regionally relevant. The HPF program is one way of doing this. We are able to use the artistic, financial, and institutional resources of the Huntington to grow the quality and quantity of playwrights who call Boston home, and who then enrich the local cultural community with their work.
BM: What do the Breaking Ground scripts say about the strengths and weaknesses of American playwriting at the moment?
IB: Hm. I don’t think I can make that kind of generalization. I can say that the scripts we’ve included over Breaking Ground’s five years have had a wide range of styles and topics; they have had both large and small cast sizes; there have been both musicals and straight plays; and they have focused on incredibly disparate themes. I would say there are plenty of excellent plays being written in this country – the trick sometimes can simply be in finding the right play to match a theatre’s needs at any given moment. That’s one of the things for which play festivals can generally be useful.
BM: Also, are there signs that programs like this, which often don’t get a big slice of the marketing pie, help develop audiences for new plays? Much ink, rightly, goes to regional theaters developing new plays. But what about the task of finding, and holding onto, those theatergoers who want to see untested scripts?
IB: I would say, in my experience, yes – we have cultivated audiences in Breaking Ground who have then attended our new play productions. I don’t have the statistics on this, but my anecdotal evidence is based on the audience members at BG readings who tell me of their own experience in “discovering” how exciting it can be to witness a plays very first public outing, and then following it through to production on our stages. I would also say that our track record of producing plays from BG, and producing plays by HPFs, has built excitement for both the Festival and for our productions of new work.
BM: What have theaters learned over the years about attracting this vital audience?
IB: I can’t necessarily say what theatres have learned, but my experiences have led me to conclude that the best thing I can give an audience is a great story well-told, regardless of its form, style, or genre. It doesn’t even have to be linear, it just has to capture the imagination and intellect in some elemental way. Those are the scripts that, in my experience, rise to the top and demand to be acknowledged.