Where will the next 'Hamilton' come from now that so many playwrights are in TV?
When COVID-19 hit, Chicago playwright and actor Terry Guest was furloughed for two weeks from the coffee shop where he worked.
"And I thought, when will I ever get two weeks off of work again? Never. So I'm going to write a play," Guest said. "And there was very little pressure at the time. So I just sat down and wrote whatever was on my heart. It ended up taking a little bit longer than two weeks, because I ended up having a little more time than I anticipated."
The play he wrote, The Magnolia Ballet, is the first in a trilogy.
"They all take place in the swampy part of Georgia where I grew up," Guest said. "There's lots of magic there. Lots of ghosts. Lots of mosquitoes."
The play — funny, emotional — is a lyrical piece about fathers and sons, masculinity, sexuality and how the ghosts of the past shape our present identities.
"I like to say that this story is 100% true, even though it's not all fact," said Guest.
Once it was finished, Guest asked his theater friends if they would give his new play a Zoom reading.
"Everybody was sort of like, 'Oh, this is pretty good. This is really good.'"
One of the directors in that reading gave the script to Bill Simmons at The Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis. He liked it and gave it to Chris Handley at The Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo.
"I read it and thought 'Oh my god this is fantastic,'" said Handley.
The Williamston Theatre in Michigan also liked it and — bingo! — they had enough theaters involved to get money for a "rolling world premiere," from the National New Play Network.
If three theaters that are members of the Network agree to produce the same new play they're eligible for $7,500 each, "regardless of their budget size," explained Nan Barnett, executive director of the network. Playwrights also receive funding to travel to those premieres so they can experience their work, "in the hands of different directors, on the bodies of different actors and as reflected through the audiences and critics of all these different communities."
Terry Guest used those funds to travel to The Alleyway, a theater contained in a former 1941 Greyhound Bus Station. When the bus station moved in the late 1970s, The Alleyway shared the space with the local police precinct. Now, the theater occupies the whole building, leased from the city of Buffalo.
The Magnolia Ballet, which opened Alleyway's new season, is a tale of tension and release, identity and shame. One gay teen struggles to come out to his hyper-masculine dad. Another denies his sexuality altogether. But it's also funny, with some awkward dancing to Brittney Spears by the sole white character and irreverent jokes about historical figures — including one imagining the character of Prissy from Gone With The Wind as a porn star.
Chris Jones, theater critic for The Chicago Tribune and The Daily News, compared a Chicago production of The Magnolia Ballet, which starred Guest himself, to Michael R. Jackson's Broadway hit A Strange Loop, saying it was "just as poetically resonant and ambitious," as Jackson's Tony Award-winning play.
Even so, a new play by an unknown writer is not an easy sell to audiences, The Alleyway's Handley said.
"That's what keeps me up at night," he said. "Because it is people of a certain age who are coming to see theater. And the kind of theater that we are doing is truly not something that they probably are interested in."
Handley, one of only two full-time employees at Alleyway, said the theater's survival is dependent on grants and an annual production of A Christmas Carol. He says applying for grants is 80% of his job.
That's because there's not a lot of money in regional theater, especially for those stages that take risks on new work. The pandemic shutdowns made things worse as audiences dried up; two longtime incubators for new play development closed: The Sundance Theatre Lab and The Lark.
Perhaps even more jarring to those in regional theater, the Humana Festival for New American Plays, one of the most important showcases for new work, isn't coming back.
"It's not a sustainable model based on how we've moved into our 21st century," said Robert Barry Fleming, executive artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, which produced the festival for some 40 years.
Humana was a major, expensive undertaking. Multiple plays that had never been staged before were given full productions: elaborate sets, costumes, A-list actors and directors, even original music.
Another factor in the decision to end the festival, said Fleming, is that other theaters got in on the act. "When we began the Humana Festival of New American Plays, that was a very new idea. Now festivals are kind of so ubiquitous so as to be indistinguishable in a lot of ways," he said. Today there are new play festivals in West Virginia, Colorado, Indiana and elsewhere.
But Fleming said Actors Theatre of Louisville is still committed to new work. "It's rooted much more in the community and rooted much more in [the community's] comprehensive health," he said. One example: The Clinic, founded by nurse and choreographer Tara Rynders, conducts resiliency workshops for healthcare workers. Nurses throughout Kentucky have been participating.
Theaters across the country have been doing considerable soul-searching in recent years. "The pandemic exposed a lot of the underpinnings that weren't maybe as stable as we thought," said Barnett. Everything from supply chains to precarious funding models have been getting more scrutiny. Theaters are trying to do everything differently in order to survive.
The problem and perks with TV
Classics — Shakespeare, Arthur Miller — may be sure-fire hits for the older audiences, but new plays are important: they reflect the issues and concerns of society, develop empathy and draw in the younger, more diverse audiences that theater needs. They're also what fuel the commercial theater; many of Broadways plays and musicals started in regional theaters.
Playwrights, of course, are their engine, and there's a deep need for diverse playwrights to produce plays. Yet between the low pay and aging audiences, there's not a lot of incentive for playwrights to work in regional theater.
Theater critic Jones said that many of them are looking elsewhere.
"I think one of the most under reported phenomena is the detrimental effect television has had on the theater," he said.
Television is snapping up playwrights. Law & Order, The Flight Attendant, Maid, Shameless, and The Americans are among the many shows using playwrights.
"I mean, every time I look at credits for a TV show, I see one of my favorite playwrights," said Jones, "and when they're writing a TV show, they're not writing a new play."
One of those playwrights-turned-screenwriters is Tanya Saracho. She's unequivocal. "The American theater doesn't support a living for a playwright," she said.
In addition to writing new plays, Saracho founded and ran a theater company, Teatro Luna in Chicago. She now works in TV full-time. She created the show Vida for the Starz network, and has written for Girls and How To Get Away With Murder.
But she still loves theater. "I always say I divorced my first wife and I miss her all the time. But I'm still not coming back," she said, laughing.
Saracho said theater prepared her for screen work, because playwrights are especially good at "crafting character." And when she's staffing a TV writers' room, "I do look at playwrights a lot because you've had to stand on your own without a writers' room."
Playwright Terry Guest — young, diverse, the kind of playwright regional theaters are desperate for — would also love to work in TV.
"I would love to write anything. I would love to write for Issa Rae," he said. "I would love to write on Succession. Succession needs some gay flavor in there anyway."
The National New Play Network, of course, hopes Terry Guest keeps writing plays for regional theatre. The Network even gave him a special award for The Magnolia Ballet: $500.
Audio and digital stories edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Jeevika Verma.
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