Playwright Isabella Russell-Ides

Video: New Play Panel

Excerpts from a discussion on the importance of DFW theaters producing new work by local playwrights. All videos added.

published Friday, March 9, 2012

In January, I wrote a story about what looked to be an exciting trend for local theater in 2012: New plays by DFW or Texas-connected playwrights having their work produced by area theaters that are not usually devoted to full productions of new work from local writers.

That was the important distinction for this trend.

Organizations such as Hip Pocket Theatre and the Ochre House are all about new plays from their resident writers; it's what we expect. But while local heavy-hitters such as Kitchen Dog Theater and Stage West have never shied away from new(er) work from the national and international pool of writers, it's rare to see so many plays from area playwrights getting fully staged productions on those and other stages (and not just readings and workshops).

My story led one of these playwrights, Larry Herold, whose The Sports Page is running at Stage West through March 18, to put together a new playwrights panel that was filmed by Fort Worth-based filmmakers Adam Dietrich, Elliott Gilbert II and Mark Hovland. (Dietrich was once a Hip Pocket regular, and co-founded a theater company in Fort Worth called The Butterfly Connection that championed local writers; the group has now turned its focus to film.)

The panel consisted of Dallas writers Herold, Jonathan Norton (whose My Tidy List of Terrors was wrapping up at the South Dallas Cultural Center at the time of this panel), Isabella Russell-Ides (her The Early Education of Conrad Eppler was at Echo Theatre in February) and Austin-based Kevin Kautzman (his play Coyote had just opened at Nouveau 47 Theatre). I was the moderator.

We gathered on a cold, Saturday morning in early February at the Omni Hotel in downtown Fort Worth and had an engaging, two-hour conversation about their work, the challenges for playwrights and the big question: Can Dallas/Fort Worth (or any Metropolitan area) have a thriving theater community without local writers who are being supported by the theaters and their audiences?

The five video snippets you'll see (produced and directed by Dietrich, edited by Hovland and Gilbert, with cinematography by Gilbert) are only a small part of that conversation, but it's one that we should keep having. Some of the productions from my original story have already come and gone, but there are more coming up and some that I didn't mention, such as Thomas Ward's wonderful International Falls, which is currently playing at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival.

In the first video, Herold, Norton and Russell-Ides discuss what it means to them that the theaters have invested money and time in their work. In the second one, the panelists talk about the challenges of getting your work produced. In the third, Kautzman and Russell-Ides discuss the "workshop mill." In the fourth, we ask the question if it's important for DFW playwrights to be known outside of their community. And in the fifth, how do playwrights submit their work to theaters?







 Thanks For Reading


ToscasKiss writes:
Tuesday, March 13 at 2:16AM

Thanks for doing these discussions. I hope more local theater companies dig in to the serious work of presenting (even commissioning) totally new works, like Undermain does, and good and promising local authors. MY TIDY LIST OF TERRORS at the South Dallas Cultural Center was of such high quality, in writing and production, and was thought- and heart-provoking. In a thoroughly different vein, quite a few years ago Lyric Stage commissioned (I think--anyway, somehow caused to be created) a new musical of the Cinderella story, by Luigs and Warrender, which was so charming and fun, it should be better known, and widely performed. Lyric Stage has done so many new, sometimes world-premiere musicals, and I miss that, much as I enjoy their big productions of classics. I hope to see all these playwrights' works soon.

Jonathan Norton writes:
Wednesday, March 14 at 10:08AM

Big thanks to Larry, Adam and Mark for making this all possible. Let's keep the conversation going!

Brad McEntire writes:
Wednesday, March 21 at 2:24AM

Great videos. Besides the topic of conversation being interesting, these are really well put together. High production value to the filming and editing. Good job TheaterJones and the team behind them. As far as the discussion itself, I think the present just seems to be one of those times when Dallas is experiencing a lot of new work at the same time. Maybe because the playwrights are proactive locally or maybe because there is a bump in local opportunities. My own observation is that these things kind of work in cycles and every few years this sort of thing occurs.

Why a temporary convergence doesn't ever seem to form into a full-fledged movement is sort of the sticking point. Perhaps "New Work" is too vague a term. Each play is as individual as the artist that creates it. That the common denominator is that the works are receiving their first or second (how novel...) full-scale production is a very, very loose string to tie what is really a group of disparate plays together seems, I don't know, sorta arbitrary.

On the other hand, no matter the artist or the subject matter of their individual pieces, playwrights - local or otherwise - do kinda share the same struggle getting their work out in front of their first few audiences. They still have to go through the gate-keepers (theatre companies and their artistic directors). Or do they? I suppose the assumption that this is "how it is done," meaning the play development/new works programs currently in place in the American theatre, is perpetuated precisely because both playwrights and artistic directors alike continue to buy into this system.

Lastly, it should be addressed that the goals of the two parties are not always in line. Playwrights (and this is a sweeping generalization) are primarily concerned with building a career and getting their individual pieces shown at the sorts of places that can help that happen. They are not necessarily building an idiosyncratic audience specifically for their own work. Otherwise, they'd control their own work straight through to production to make sure it gets to that specific audience. Essentially any audience will do, as long as they, the playwrights, are fairly compensated with a high-quality production, respect and some money in their pockets. Theatres are businesses, nonprofit as they are, that are following a mission to serve a specific audience/ section of the community. To secure the life of the institution they demand a body of work that fits with their mission statements. Again, this is a huge generalization, but theatres just need vehicles for their particular brand of service and to some extent, it is arbitrary where these vehicles for expression come from. Older and established plays just happen to be less trouble (again, generally), thus easier, to come by. The theatres don't "owe" it to playwrights to help them build their careers. Each party is sorta on a separate wavelength...

Anyway, that's my two bits.

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Video: New Play Panel
Excerpts from a discussion on the importance of DFW theaters producing new work by local playwrights. All videos added.
by Mark Lowry

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