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Getting Your First Play Produced

Playwrights, artistic directors, and other experts discuss the challenges of getting a new writer's work onto the stage.

Randall David Cook
If your name is Neil Simon or Jon Robin Baitz or Theresa Rebeck, getting your new play on the stage is fairly easy. But for the hundreds of emerging playwrights looking for their big break every year, simply getting their play in front of an audience is a much bigger challenge. "It is really hard to get that first play produced Off-Broadway," says Randall David Cook, author of Sake With the Haiku Geisha and Fate's Imagination.

"You need to stay focused on the work and not compare yourself too much to what's going on around you," says Mark Snyder, author of As Wide As I Can See, which had a recent production at HERE, and A Decent Stretch, which is being produced on April 28-29 by [the claque]. "Just like every writer is different, I feel that one of my big revelations is that every path to getting your work produced is going to be different."

Indeed, there are many different routes to take, from blindly submitting your play to a major producer and hoping it gets rescued from the slush pile, to hooking up with an established theater company willing to work with young writers, to sending your work to the country's major festivals, including the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center Summer Festival and the Humana Festival.

Michael Barra
No matter which direction you choose, Michael Barra, artistic director of the Gotham Stage Company -- where Cook is now the resident playwright -- asserts that it's about getting onto people's radar. "There are only a few companies in New York that are willing to take chances on emerging playwrights," he says.

In fact, as Cook's experience demonstrates, it is sometimes the most unexpected route that yields results. Cook had never even taken a course in theater or writing, when he chose to write his own first play, Southern Discomfort. A friend in the business offered him a chance to mount a staged reading, which usually requires little or no rehearsal and minimal cost (actors often work for free). Such events are often attended by literary managers, agents, and other industry professionals, and are often the first step to getting a production.

The Southern Discomfort reading was fortuitously attended by producer Daniel Selznick of the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and the work got picked up for their play development series, Octoberfest '99. Since then, it has been produced regionally, including a recent production in Cook's home state of South Carolina.

Mandy Hackett
(© David Gordon)
The Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater seeks out playwrights who don't have agents and who have never had their work produced. The burgeoning program, now in its third year, received 600 applications for 10 spots in its first year. One of its tangible goals is to bring writers together with directors and actors for a staged reading of their play.

"As we all know, working in the theater doesn't come alive until you have the audience in front listening to your work." says Mandy Hackett, Associate Artistic Director at The Public Theater. "You can't put a price tag on that experience of learning when an audience checks in and when an audience checks out."

While it's tempting to simply self-produce one's work, the cost of getting your work in front of an audience can be a big obstacle -- from the renting of the theater (which can run as high as $10,000 for a run at Theatre Row) to finding sets, costumes, as well as paying everyone working on the show.

Indeed, the need for austerity has spurned some imaginative solutions. Early in his career, Snyder connected with the Hand Theatre Company. "They pride themselves on throwing only one bag of trash away for every production," he notes. "Everything else is either borrowed or reused or recycled."

Other young playwrights, such as Megan Sass, have found their own smart ways to get a show up quickly and cheaply. In coming to New York City, Sass hooked up with a bunch of fellow alumnae from the Syracuse University Theatre Department. "We did a couple of readings together, and Syracuse University allowed us to present them at an alumni center so the space didn't cost us anything," she explains.

Monet Hurst-Mendoza is currently awaiting a fully staged production of her play Veil'd by the Rising Circle Theater Collective and Queens College in May, but she had previously self-produced her plays. "We started a company called Bare Bones Ensemble, based out of Fort Greene, which is where a bunch of my friends lived. There is a huge open space there that is open to the public, so we got a permit and put on some plays."

One reason Hurst-Mendoza was so determined to get a production is, especially as a female playwright of color, she believes audiences need to see her work. "I am telling a story from a perspective that is not really heard on stage very much, and that's important," she says.

It is that unique voice that is exactly what producers of emerging writers often look for, experts say. "A lot of young writers write about something they know, but some of them can put it in such a distinct way that you can feel you're there," says Barra. "And all of us respond to that."