"New York is a 'New Play Town' - L.A. is more about the actor," exclaims Chris Smith, the artistic director of Youngblood, a company of emerging professional playwrights operating in conjunction with (and under the auspices of) Off-Broadway's Ensemble Studio Theatre. Even at a time when the straight play on Broadway would seem to be in a state of dire emergency, if one looks at vibrant companies like Youngblood, it's not hard to contemplate the truth of Smith's statement. In fact, one does not have to look much further than Youngblood, established in the 1993-1994 E.S.T. season, to find the new plays of tomorrow. Their latest work, Thicker Than Water, runs through February 6, and marks their third production.
Three productions in seven years may not seem like much, but Youngblood has relied largely on an annual E.S.T. presentation of selected works from the company's collection of young and exciting playwrights. Still, "these are not workshops - the actual production, with no excuses, is the final step a playwright must take," says Smith. This includes full production values, a paying audience, and, of course, critical coverage. For this reason, Youngblood was careful not to mount their first production during their first four years - the general feeling was that they weren't ready. And the goal of Youngblood, according to Smith, is to "nurture merging professional talent," not to create "what is commercial," while at the same time creating artists who can "work in the profession, and who will commit their lives to the profession."
Currently, Youngblood consists of 10 members. They meet each week, year round. Sometimes they are given assignments, while other times they bring in work simply to hear how it sounds out loud. "We have the other playwrights read the parts at first...it keeps it naked that way," explains playwright Crystal Skillman, whose play Tooth is one of the four plays on display in Thicker Than Water. "Actors add a lot, but we need to work out the kinks from a playwriting standpoint first."
While the four plays in Thicker Than Water do not concentrate on one specific topic, all do share a similar one-act structure. Fundamentally sound, the four - Heartbreak of the Last Handwriting, Heights, Tooth and Baby Blue - all consist of just a few characters and deal with sexual relationships, usually either at their beginnings or endings.
In Heartbreak..., for example, Jeremy Soule explores the perilous waters of Internet dating. In Amy Fox's Heights, a love triangle is caused by a man's uncertainty regarding his sexual preference. Skillman's Tooth, the strongest piece of the night, is about a first date between a windbag writer and an insecure and introverted bank teller. Only Baby Blue, by S. Vasanti Saxena, might be an exception: From a story about four people haunted by their familial past, the play entertains the notion of an interesting Oedipal relationship.
When asked if tackling personal relationships are the first steps for a new playwright, Skillman says, "I think it's more a matter of the old cliché 'you write what you know.' Most of [the Youngblood playwrights] are between the ages of 18 to 25, and sexual relationships are a good starting point to study simple human behavior." Skillman goes on to say, "I also think that it is a matter of the limitations of a one-act."
With new plays finding fewer commercial venues in New York in which to be shown, the limitations of writing new plays at all would naturally seem like a factor in Youngblood's work. Skillman agrees, but with reservations. "You realize what you're working with, but you can't let that affect any of your ideas," she says. She points out that producers are often licking their chops to find good, inexpensive new plays to produce Off-Broadway, and there's nothing like a small-cast play with a minimal setting, such as those found in Thicker Than Water, to fit that bill.
Fortunately for the Youngblood playwrights, they are being given this opportunity at an E.S.T. that, after 26 years, has earned for itself a terrific reputation among critics and industry colleagues alike. Even over its own relatively short history, Youngblood itself has graduated numerous working playwrights, including John Belluso, whose full-length play, Gretty Good Time, was presented at E.S.T. last year. To date, they have generated more than 40 original works. Crystal Skillman joined them three years ago, right before Youngblood was preparing to stage their first production - also called Thicker Than Water. "There was so much talent that I didn't mind that I wasn't in that first production," she says. As for how pieces get chosen for production, Chris Smith says that they don't select works for how "good" they are, necessarily, but to "try and create the most eclectic evening to fit everyone's taste."
Youngblood members are selected in myriad ways: E.S.T.'s artistic director Curt Dempster or Youngblood artistic director Chris Smith might be familiar with the writers' work (via E.S.T.'s annual Marathon Festival or Octoberfest); new writers are recommended within the pre-existing Youngblood membership or even by one of EST's 450-odd members. Finally, a writer may simply submit a script that impresses. This was the case for Skillman, who began as an E.S.T. intern before submitting her work. "Young playwrights need to learn how to market themselves by helping out in other aspects," she says.
In the end, the character of Rock from Saxena's Baby Blue might have been talking about the evening as a whole when he theatrically uttered the words, "a glimpse of the future."