Recently, I witnessed a particularly difficult descent into what some playwrights not so affectionately dub "development hell." A promising young New York playwright, fresh out of grad school, was invited to spend two weeks with a veteran director and dramaturg developing her play for a new works festival. Each day, the playwright processed the suggestions and ideas of the director and dramaturg into rewrites of her script. By performance time, after a fortnight of intense "development," this budding playwright’s work had been diluted into a generic version of her original quirky vision. The playwright survived; her first professional play sank like a stone.
This scenario, and variations on the "play development" theme rampant in contemporary American theater, is a leading cause of why playwrights scuffling for productions often wake up screaming. Or at least break out in unexpected cold sweats and waves of nausea. It was also the prime motivation behind Brooklyn playwright Rob Handel’s forming of 13 Playwrights, Inc., a playwrights’ collective that has since become known as simply, 13P.
Concerned that this carousel of readings and workshops—which artistic directors often give playwrights the dubious honor of riding—was taking distinctive, individual voices and spinning them into a bland chorus of processed uniformity, Handel decided it was time for playwrights to take matters into their own hands. "I wanted to see how we could change the rules of the environment," he says of the spark that first gave the group life.
Handel’s new "rules" were direct and simple: 13P would be a playwrights’ collective where the playwrights would be in charge. Each writer would serve as artistic director for his or her own play, choosing the director, the cast and, to some extent, the venue itself. This would provide a freedom rarely afforded playwrights anywhere these days, and one that can be especially empowering to young playwrights just finding their professional footing.
"I’m about the least established playwright possible," notes member Julia Jarcho, who, at 21, is also one of the group’s youngest. "Getting sucked into the workshop-and-development apparatus could be a real danger for me."
In the summer of 2002, Handel mentioned the beginnings of his idea to friend and fellow playwright Madeleine George while both were participating in the O’Neill Playwrights Festival. George in turn mentioned it to some friends and fellow playwrights she knew and admired around town. Soon the ranks had swelled to thirteen of the freshest, most distinctive new voices in New York theater, including three veterans of the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, two Manhattan Theatre Club Fellows—in George and Lucy Thurber—two Princess Grace Award winners, a Helen Merrill Award winner, a Whiting fellow, a Jerome fellow, and this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner, Sarah Ruhl.
Officially incorporated last September, 13P’s first production, Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist, is scheduled to open April 17 at The Culture Project at 45 Bleecker Street in Lower Manhattan. The group plans to produce approximately two plays per year, making the commitment both long-term and long-term energizing.
"So often, the power is taken away from playwrights when their work is produced by a theater," says Kate Ryan, one of the group who met Handel and 13P through mutual friend George. "Playwrights are often thought of as the figure in the back of the room who sits silently with a pen and speaks in whispers to the director, if at all. Playwrights can be knowledge-able about and experienced in directing, design, casting and acting. They can also be excellent communicators. Why shouldn’t they be able to oversee a production of their text, if they want to?"
"It makes you take full responsibility for the play, and the production lives or dies on your vision alone," adds fellow playwright Gary Winter. Colleague Ann Marie Healy agrees, adding that 13P’s mission "reminds everyone that they can and should demand an ability to work without compromise."
This lack of compromise and aggressive, take-no-dramaturgs stance fairly reverberates from 13P’s initial group publicity releases, with statements such as "We don’t develop plays. We do them." and "The playwright whose work is being ‘developed’ is a guest. 13P owns the house."
Is this confidence, hubris, or just a new and different way of looking at the role of playwrights in contemporary theater?
"This is a group who had as teachers playwrights who used, particularly, language in unique and compelling ways," says Handel. "Our teachers were Paula Vogel and Mac Wellman, Erik Ehn and Chuck Mee. They helped create a new kind of theater writing in response to the strongly visual, director-centered theater that had emerged during the 1980s."
Wellman’s influence is especially strong in 13P, with several members among his former students at Brooklyn College, including Erin Courtney, who, after completing BC’s MFA program in playwriting, now teaches there. "Mac is continually inspiring to me," she says.
The group also shares a healthy disdain for the status quo "development" mentality rampant in American theater, a restrictive mindset largely responsible for the homogenized tone in much of what is produced on American stages. "American theater today is a joke," member Young Jean Lee says bluntly. "A live-action, pretentious, vastly inferior replication of TV and movies." Washburn is particularly rankled by theaters "sticking unqualified Hollywood stars in fabulous roles that should go to fabulous, hard-working stage actors." Winter Miller who, as number two on the roster will see her 13P play produced this fall, believes that too many theaters are driven by the bottom line and towards restaging proven hits at the expense of experimentation and diversity. "It has to do with commercial appeal and financial success," she observes. "It’s the same old song, and the lyrics are white and male."
And what of 13P’s bottom line? How will these thirteen eclectic "new songs" be financed over a proposed span of six to seven years in a perpetually risky and chronically money-starved market?
Again, enter Rob Handel.
"A big part of my enthusiasm for, and confidence in, this project came from Rob’s experience in arts administration and development," says Madeleine George. "I was enormously cheered by the fact that he’s so good at running things."
Handel is indeed that rare hybrid of the committed, working playwright infused with the business savvy of a successful fundraiser. As director of the three-person development team for the Mark Morris Dance Group, Handel secured the capital necessary to fund MMDG’s new $7 million dance center in Brooklyn. "Rob knows how to raise money," George continues. "He does it professionally, and that was a deal-sealer for me."
13P’s mission to produce thirteen plays over the better part of a decade by a contingent of distinct and gifted young playwrights who have the vision to forge new directions in American theater is ambitious to say the least. Does the group feel a responsibility that reaches beyond the collective itself?
"First, I hope we get through all thirteen," says Sheila Callaghan. "I also hope we empower other writers to gang together and self-produce instead of waiting for other theaters to validate them."
Kate Ryan agrees, adding, "I’d like to see 13P put on thirteen amazing, full-length productions that are adequately funded and well-attended. I’d like to see these productions be positive examples of the power that playwrights can have when they take control of an artistic project."
The most positive example 13P may end up setting is that validation for talented playwrights need not be limited to acceptance by large, mainstream theaters confined to producing the same short list of plays by an even shorter list of playwrights. While writers willing to step up and take charge of their own work and their own professional destinies could indeed find the increased responsibilities demanding, the rewards could well be equally exhilarating.
"I feel quite inspired by many of the theater people around me in New York," notes Ann Marie Healy. "I see people making their own way and finding their own opportunities. Often the best work can be seen at these more underground venues. My favorite theater moments have all come from dirty basements and bars where the magic of chance was present."
For more information on 13P, visit www.13p.org
13P’s current production, THE INTERNATIONALIST, by Anne Washburn, plays at 45 Bleecker Theater, $15, Apr 17-May 8, Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm, May 1 & 8 2pm, Apr 19 8pm
For tickets: 212-868-4444, or www.smarttix.com
Brook Stowe is a playwright and the editor of the annual New York Theater Review.