New Plays Program
by Jim Farrar (1986)
1986 marks the tenth anniversary of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. What started out as an idea with no real precedent in the state has become an institution, a quality repertory company that our city should be proud of and whose level of excellence is recognized far beyond Idaho's borders.
The point to be made here is that the city of Boise can and will support good theater. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival would have failed if its audience wouldn't have kept coming back year after year. They were successful, in part, because the founders were able to see and then fill a cultural void in the city.
I see another void and another opportunity.
I propose that Boise State University establish a program to develop and premiere new plays by regional writers and students on a regular basis. I believe that the talent (or at least the interest and enough writers willing to try) to make such a program work successfully can be found here in our own back yard and, more importantly, that these writers should not be forced to leave the intermountain region in order to learn their craft. The bulk of this report, then, details the reason why I think such an undertaking is indeed workable and why it should be done by a university instead of a local theater group.
Theater Arts at Boise State: Departmental Philosophy
According to Stephen Langley, professor of theater arts at the City University of New York, college theater programs in the United States can be divided into two basic schools of thought: those which endorse a humanistic approach and teach theory, and those which advocate and emphasize vocational training. In short, one aims to provide appreciation; the other aims at preprofessional training (1:168). Langley suggests that the first prepares the graduate for a career in educational theater, usually as a teacher, while the latter serves more as a springboard into the world of commercial or non-university affiliated theater.
Langley's assessment of college theater in the United States seems, in a broad way, essentially correct. A quick glance at Boise State's theater arts curriculum indicates an admixture of these two philosophies. Degree candidates in the theater arts program at BSU are required to take a wide variety of courses in both academic and vocational theater, though the emphasis is admittedly on vocational theater. The 1985-86 university catalog lists twelve theater arts classes that are vocationally oriented and only six that are humanistic or theoretical in scope. It should be pointed out, however, that students graduating from the program are required to earn credits in both areas, which at least gives the degree a semblance of balance between theory and practical application of technique.
Plays chosen for production at Boise State are more a result of consensus than they are anything else. According to Robert Ericson of the theater arts department, plays are chosen and announced well in advance of the academic year in which they are to be produced. The season generally consists of four plays: two in the fall and two in the spring. Faculty directors first submit the name or names of any play that they would like to direct during the academic year to the department chair, at which a time vote is then taken on the titles that have been suggested. The schedule is set when each director is assigned a play.
Admittedly, this method does allow for the production of new plays, though they are rare and the department has had a tendency in the past to treat them like an experiment or an anomaly, instead of an integral part of the production schedule.
The New Plays Program
Last November, an article appeared in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle which succinctly described the beginning playwright's dilemma. It said, in part, that
(T)he poem, the novel and the essay connect to a reader one-on-one, a single voice to a single listener. A play, by contrast, is a resolutely social activity. Plays do not exist, in a very real sense, until they have occurred in a theater with an audience present. For many playwrights, and for producers of new plays, that private-to-social passage is the most difficult, delicate aspect of their art. Most playwrights and theaters are justifiably terrified of going straight from script to production. They need a transition, a way of getting a play partially "up," of testing it without exposing it to unfortunate scrutiny (3:36).
Now compare this statement to Stephen Langley's assessment of most vocationally-oriented college theater programs:
Hundreds are being graduated with BA and BFA degrees in theatre who have been led to believe that they are prepared far a career in theatre (either educational or professional) but who, in fact, grossly lacking the practical knowledge and experience desirable for any theatre career. Characterized by a limited concept of the humanities, these students also possess a limited understanding and negative regard for the professional arts. Equipped neither as scholars nor as practitioners, quasi-professionals in educational theatre collectively represent a serious and influential threat to the development of high artistic achievement in America and the type of appreciation needed to support it (1:168).
What these two statements indicate is that neither the playwright nor the would-be theater professional is, at present, being offered an appropiate environment in which to learn and develop his craft.
This certainly holds true at Boise State. For the most part, theater arts graduates from BSU gain little or no experience in new play development during the course of their studies, which, if they plan to pursue a professional career, is precisely the type of training that is required in order to compete for jobs in the commerical and regional theaters.
The same holds true for playwrights just entering the system. They're faced with a frustrating double-standard when trying to get their plays produced (or even read!) by a professional organization. Most theaters just can't afford to take a chance on an unproduced writer. For obvious reasons, they prefer authors with a proven track record. The only available options, then, for a beginning playwright are a limited number of contests and a scattering of workshops, most of which also tend to demand that the writer have previous experience. An on-campus program focusing on new plays would provide them with that experience.
Since the program is concerned with developing scripts by local writers , I would suggest that two major sources be considered. The best, and probably the most fruitful, course of action would be to establish a playwriting program on campus. Making playwriting a part of the university curriculum has several major advantages, the most important of which is that it would generate a constant supply of scripts.
A playwriting class was offered as a special topics course for the current (spring 1986) semester. Fifteen people enrolled, which seems to indicate that there is enough interest on campus to justify its existence as a regular university course.
For a playwriting class to be successful, however, I believe that an interdisciplinary approach to the subject must be taken. Playwriting is, first and foremost, writing, putting a story down on paper, which is obviously a concern of the English Department. The problem becomes, then, a matter of which department, the English or the Theater Arts, should administer the course.
One alternative, perhaps the best, is to bring in an authority from outside the university. Many schools use artists-in-residence to augment existing programs or to create new ones and, as far as playwriting is concerned, most colleges teach the subject through the English department. What's important here, though, is not so much what department the playwriting class would be listed under but, rather, that the class be established in the first place and a fully qualified instructor (or instructors, as the case may be) be found to teach it.
Another alternative, one that could be used in conjunction with, or independent of, a playwriting class, would be to solicit scripts from outside the university. The major advantage of this is that it adds depth to the program by giving those who must select the plays to be produced a wider variety of scripts to choose from.
If scripts are to be solicited outside of a playwriting class, however, it will undoubtedly become necessary to find volunteers to read them and decide which plays are suitable for production. This could present something of a problem if a large number of scripts are submitted. One possibility would be to establish a playreading committee composed of students (perhaps earning independent study credits) and faculty members from both the theater arts and English departments. This, of course, would depend on the number of submissions. A similiar mehtod could also be used for determining which plays written by students in the playwriting class are worthy of production. The primary concern, in either case, is making sure that each submission gets read, preferably by several people.
Very rarely is a new play ready for production as written, even after several drafts. In commercial theaters new pieces by experienced writers are given several read-throughs before the play goes into rehearsal. Any problem with the script, anything that doesn't work is corrected at this time and, if necessary, the play is completely rewritten.
For amateurs, the workshop is the equivalent of the read-through. If new plays are to be produced successfully at Boise State, workshop readings and rewrites will be a necessity for any piece under consideration for production. The reason for this is that too many scripts that read well on the page fail to come to life on stage. Just as many, perhaps, are eminently theatrical in ways that might not be readily apparent. David Copeland, director of play development at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C., says that during a workshop reading "the text comes in through the ears, the way it was meant to, not through the eyes (3:36)."
Actually, something similiar to what I'm recommending already exists at the university as a group called the New West Players, an organization composed mainly of Boise State theater arts graduates, that meets once a month in the Morrison Center to read through anything that anyone cares to bring along. Past readings have included new plays, short stories, poems, and other plays that have been produced elsewhere. It's a good idea, and it seems to have developed a loyal following.
The workshop method needs to be incorporated into the new plays program, perhaps as an adjunct requirement of the proposed playwriting course, or at least as a university supported program. I would strongly recommend that all new plays under consideration for production be required to be read through at least once in a workshop setting such as the one described, with both the playwright and director in attendance.
Producing the Plays
Once a script has been readied for production, I see no reason for a director not to treat it as he would any other play. By no means am I suggesting that Boise State contradict its educational obligation to its students by abandoning its past policy of staging classics. There is room for both new and old in the program, something to be learned from each. If only one new play is produced each year, that would be one more than what current policy provides for. Perhaps there could be one premiere each semester, which would balance the four-play season with two new plays and two previously produced plays being done per year. This would be a schedule similiar to the one used by the Yale School of Drama. Of some 107 productions in fifteen seasons, 52 have been world premieres (4:159).
Another idea would be to stage these plays as part of a festival, perhaps during the summer or during the first or second part of the season, with several plays being done in repertory. Yale University, for example, introduced a "Winterfest" series in 1981, an annual event which features four new plays by emerging playwrights, in rotating repertory (4:160).
Financing the Program
Producing two new plays in a four play season will not affect the current budget. If a workshop program and a playwriting class is added, however, then extra money will have to be raised to finance them. State funds would probably not be forthcoming, so it's almost a certainty that the university will have to find other sources of revenue in order for these programs to become a reality.
Grants and contributions are the most reliable means of financing such an undertaking. At the Yale School of Drama, for example, $740,000, out of an operating budget of $1,261,000, came from either grants or contributions during the 1980-81 fiscal year (4:159).
Sources of grant money could possibly include the Rockefeller Foundation, the Idaho Commission for the Arts and Humanities, private donations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and so on. The list of organizations that are willing to donate to theater arts programs is surprisingly long. Quoting again from the article in the San Francisco Chronicle that was mentioned earlier, we find that never before have there been more play-reading programs--and more grant money to support them. (R)eading programs are an ongoing, important adjunct to mainstage productions (3:37).
I might say at this point that this is an area which obviously needs to be investigated further before any definite policiy can be formulated on it.
One thing that concerned me during my research and the subsequent drafting of this proposal was whether or not a program such as this would violate any copyright laws, especially if the university does choose to solicit scripts from the outside. I am happy to report that it won't. Federal law states that common law copyright commences when a written work is created. It is terminated, however, by any publication, dedication to the public, or when the owner registers his material with the Federal Copyright Office, at which time statutory copyright is established for an initial term of twenty-eight years (5:101).
If a piece is part of a school-related project, however, both the school and the author can claim the common law copyright. If the piece is protected by statutory copyright, then a written agreement is usually reached between the two parties, though, similiar to common law copyright, there would be strong arguments for the school to claim partial copyright priveleges, especially if the play had been rewritten during the university's association with the author (5:107).
I would assume that most submissions to the program would not be protected by statutory copyright law. But even in the event that they were, the university would not be in any danger of violating any laws by producing the play.
As Idaho's capitol and largest city, Boise deserves a program such as the one I've desribed. It is, in other words, a proposition in which everybody wins: the community, because residents will be able to enjoy another kind of theatrical experience, one that has never really existed here before; the participating students and writers who will gain a better working knowledge of how a play is created, from its inception to its fruition on the stage; and, finally, the university itself.
One of the problems that I ran into when researching this report was, frankly, a lack of information on the subject. Though I consulted more sources than are listed here, these are the ones I used. The others that I found were quite dated, if not inaccurate.
1. Langley, Stephen. Theatre Management in America. 2nd ed. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1980.
2. Ericson, Robert. Personal interview. 24 April, 1986.
3. Winn, Steven. "The Preproduction Test of a Play's Power."
The San Francisco Chronicle. 24 Nov. 1985. pp. 36-38.
4. Ross, Laura, ed. Theatre Profiles 5. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc. 1982.
5. Hurst, Walter E., Johnny Minus and William Storm Hale. Film-T.V Law. 3rd ed. Hollywood: Seven Arts Press, Inc. 1976.