Thrill of the new

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 30, 2012 - 12:16 PM

On a small scale, new plays are thriving in the Twin Cities, while tried-and-true remains the rule for bigger theaters.

The play was so new that some of its pages had been rewritten just hours earlier. That didn't matter a bit to the standing-room-only audience at a recent Monday night staged reading of Aditi Kapil's "Brahmani" at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. In fact, that was a big part of the appeal.

"You feel like you're in on something at the beginning," said Karen Spruth, 48, of Minneapolis, who attended with friends. "You get to be there at the creation of what could become the next Tony winner -- to hear these characters speak for the first time and to have input with the playwrights, director, everyone. It's very exciting."

New-play fans have had a bonanza to choose from in the Twin Cities lately, and not just at script-in-hand readings such as those at the nationally prominent Playwrights' Center. Fully staged new works have premiered in recent months at Children's Theatre, Pillsbury House, Park Square, Mixed Blood, Illusion, History Theatre and others.

While heartening, the flurry of risk-taking comes with asterisks. Many new plays are minted at smaller theaters that may not have much impact on the mainstream.

"Theaters of size here seem reluctant or timid to get behind new plays and playwrights," said Jeremy Cohen, who moved to the Twin Cities from Hartford, Conn., in 2010 to head the Playwrights' Center. "That contrasts with cities like Chicago and Seattle and San Francisco, and it's a shame."

Elephant in the room

With its $26.2 million annual budget and its new three-theater building on the Mississippi, the Guthrie is by far the region's biggest theater. A recurring complaint among small-theater types is that the Guthrie doesn't do enough new plays. While it has presented new work in its new location, notably the premiere of a Tony Kushner play in 2009 and a stage adaptation of a Louise Erdrich novel in 2010, it has devoted more stage time and resources to classics, well-known 20th-century plays and what it deems crowd-pleasing comedies, such as the recent productions of "Charley's Aunt" and "Hay Fever."

"Developing work is a slow process of commissioning, workshops, finding time on the season, but the Guthrie is very committed to doing new plays as part of our mission," said director Joe Dowling, whose staging of Donald Margulies' 2010 drama "Time Stands Still," has been well received. "We're about to do a new play by Christopher Hampton as part of a festival in the fall. We co-commissioned 'Buzzer' with Pillsbury House Theatre. And we're announcing new works for next season. We are part of an ecosystem. We want to encourage what other theaters are doing, not duplicate or colonize them."

The Guthrie is doing an adaptation of Louis Jenkins' poems starring Mark Rylance next year as well as a new drama version of an opera by Hampton.

Chicago has several companies that compare to the Guthrie in terms of reputation, including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens and Court theaters. All do new work and have created a rough aesthetic for what one might consider a "Chicago play." "It is daring, gritty and swings for the bleachers," said Cohen, who came of age as a writer and director at the Goodman. "We are in the midst of defining ourselves as a community now. But it's hard to create an identity around revivals of midcentury plays by white male playwrights."

Why new plays?

Why do new plays at all, when the process can prove agonizingly slow? Why not just reach into the theater canon, which stretches back 2,500 years, to serve up well done, audience-pleasing classics?

"Playwrights, like all artists, are engaged in a conversation with their peers and with this time," said Cohen. "Otherwise, all art dies out. We live in an incredibly passionate, smart community. Valuing art is part of that."

Play development is risky and time-consuming, capable of turning new plays into old ones. Many of the plays read at the Playwrights' Center may never get a full production, and end up in a limbo that Cohen calls "the dreaded parking lot."

Playwright Marcus Gardley's "Dance of the Holy Ghosts," which had a reading at the Playwrights' Center in January, has been in the works for nearly 10 years.

Cohen is trying to change that by bringing in theater leaders from around the country to connect to some of the center's 1,200-member playwrights. Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage, flew in for Gardley's reading. Pier Carlo Talenti, literary manager of Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, flew in to hear Kapil's play, which was commissioned by Mixed Blood.

"I've been following Aditi's work for a few years," Talenti said. "This is daring and exciting. I have asked to see her next play."

There are places where adventurous new works are the main attraction. At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., the Binger Center for New Theatre last week received a landmark $18 million grant from the Minneapolis-based Robina Foundation to support the creation of plays and musicals throughout the country. In New York, Twin Cities native Oskar Eustis is artistic director of the Public Theater, which produces about a dozen new plays a year in addition to some Shakespeare and classics.

"We need more American theaters to get serious about new plays, but we don't need three years to develop a play," he said.

The desire to help whip a work into its most attractive shape is understandable. The work has to attract audiences, which can be difficult in big houses. Eustis said that he understands that many regional theaters must be concerned with filling seats. The Public produces in several theaters in the 100- to 300-seat range. It also has an 1,800-seat venue, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, at which all tickets are free. (By contrast, the Guthrie's mainstages are 1,100 and 700 seats, respectively.)

"I reject attempts to get us an 800-seat auditorium, because in an 800-seat auditorium, you can't fail," said Eustis. "If a show fails for us, the economic consequences are negligible."

Attracting audiences

The Playwrights' Center's popular Monday night readings notwithstanding, marketing new plays is difficult for a simple reason: No one knows much about them.

"I've always been amazed that there's an appetite for new plays at all," said esteemed playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. "I've never known what it's like to say, 'I want to see something tonight and I'm going to choose a play over a movie, TV or concert -- and a play that I've never read, seen or heard before.'"

Although the Twin Cities area has a reputation for being a theater mecca -- "you guys are a cauldron of work," said Talenti -- conversations with playwrights revealed pride and insecurity. Many of the writers moved to the Twin Cities because of fabled foundation support. Once here, they stayed. The Workhaus Collective, a playwright-led company whose mission is producing new plays, is made up mostly of members who moved to the region on fellowships.

"I am happy for the opportunity to hear my work onstage," said Workhaus member Christina Ham, whose reading for "The Tiny Soldier" was a recent standing-room-only event at the Playwrights' Center. Her play "Crash Test Dummies" is up in a premiere at Red Eye Theater. "We're facing the toughest economic climate since the depression, so new-play development in this environment is seen as risky," she said. "Theaters don't want to be the first ones to take a chance on a new playwright. It's like the playground in fourth grade, so it's nice to get some playground validation."

There is no way to know if that new play will grow up to win a Tony Award or languish forever in a desk drawer. Either way, many Twin Citians are eager to see what develops.

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