Monday, May 17, 2010

What can we learn from the Regional Theatre?


Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, John Patrick Bray.

Regional or Indie? Or, what can we learn from the Regional Theatre?

Hello, all. My name is John Patrick Bray.  Yesterday, I became All But Dissertation (ABD) in Theatre Studies at Louisiana State University (I have an MFA in Playwriting from the New School during its Actor Studio Drama School days…).  I need to write/defend my dissertation, and then I’ll be yet another Dr. John from Louisiana (as opposed to another John Patrick that writes plays, some of which deal with faith, and….not faith). 

Really, I’m a Jersey boy. Born in Hackensack, and raised (mostly) just outside of New Paltz, NY. But the past four years in Louisiana have been incredibly informative.  I’m going to go for it and sound like a Hallmark Card: I have legitimately grown as a person, and as an artist. Also, I’ve grown a pair. (By Jove, what does that mean?) I’m going to bite the hand that doesn’t feed me.
While House Managing a show at Swine Palace at LSU (as part of my funding), I heard an audience member talking about her daughter who was in the show; she said “she’s going to New York, and is going to do a small Off-Off-Broadway thing; I mean it’s something, right? At least it’s a start.” I wish I had replied that I did not believe in ladders. Or, I wish I had given a brief history of Off-Off-Broadway, from Caffe Cino, the Judson Poets, La Mama, The Living Theatre, that entire rich origin, all the way up to the first IT Awards.  Or I could have slapped her upside the head with a program. Instead, I told her to enjoy the show, and left, eating my complimentary Snickers with anger, frustration, and a wish to be back in New York.  I sat down, and tried to organize my thoughts. What was it that pissed me off so much? Was it the disrespect to Off-Off-Broadway? The belief that one can move up the theatrical ladder, losing the first O in OOBR, followed by the second O in OBR in order to finally make it to the B? I realized, while being satisfied by the goodness that comes with chocolate, nougat, rich caramel and nuts, that I understood her thinking.  In fact, I didn’t want to smack her with a program. I wanted to smack the 23-year-old version of me.

When I first became involved in the NYC Indie theatre, like many who become involved, I falsely believed that a life in Indie Theatre would lead to a life in the so-called profession: that it would only be a matter of minutes before landing my big Off-Broadway gig, which would lead to a fruitful life in the Regional Theatre circuit. Now, by “fruitful,” I don’t mean “lucrative.” I never imagined that I’d be on the cover of Fortune magazine, linking arms with the likes of Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel, with the words “Playwrights Make it Rich! (And How!)” in bold, blue typeface across our mid-sections.   I did, however, imagine that the world of theatre worked  like the world of commerce. Each production was a rung in the ladder which would lead to the euphoria of credibility, the only thing a playwright really has these days, and productions, something that many playwrights lack. 

I am happy to say that I now understand that there is no ladder. And if there were, I’d chop the sucker up for firewood, and we’d have an old fashioned Pig Roast in New Iberia, along with a crawfish boil (a younger version of me might even snort the sawdust). That ladder would lead to a large sack of boredom, and possibly, the death of the theatrical stage-play. Indie theatre allows artists to take risks, to try something new, to move away from the circuit of development and “test audiences” (i.e., staged readings with actors in stools and music stands! Music stands as far as the eye can see) and the kind of screenwriting rhetoric that has infested the American theatre.  We in the Indie theatre may be below the radar of the larger American entertainment culture, but at least we’re producing by-hook-or-by-crook, and building audiences simply by consistently producing work.  However, what does the Indie theatre have to do with “credibility?”  How can we define success in the shadow of the Regional Circuit? Where can a playwright go to “establish” him/herself in the hopes of being recognized as “emerging” in the profession? (Hell, I’ve been “emerging” for over a decade). 

These days, it seems like in order to gain credibility, a playwright either needs an MFA from Brown or Yale, and from there, needs to be situated with the right regional theatre groups that present workshops/readings of plays, and not necessarily full productions.  The study in Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play by Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss situates this lack of production with regional theatre timidity due to the economics of risk,  while playwrights are losing touch with their would-be audiences by simply “not caring” to adhere to audience (really, producer) desire.  If you read the book, it’s filled with bad news for playwrights, and worse news for American theatre.  After all, if professional playwrights are stuck in development (hello again, Hollywood! I see you brought some music stands), then what’s the point of writing plays? What’s the point of American theatre?

I believe, as Americans, we have striven to do away with credibility. When systems get to overburdened, we reject them and start again. While I am not suggesting “burn professional theatre,” what I am saying is that rather than looking at models that supposedly work, we need to recognize that the Regional model was created in order to give more American writers access to professional theatre – specifically, those who were not based in New York City. Thus, regional.  But Regional theatre has collapsed on itself. Just look at the National New Play Network: if a play makes it at one regional space, it is all but guaranteed a slot at another. How is that democratic? How is that giving access to writers from, you know, the Region? How is that a model that works?

What the American theatre needs is another Little Theatre movement. Something that creates a community, and still maintains its independence from the larger machinery of commercial theatre. Take for example Cité des Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana. Cité des Arts is a theatre that seats about 77 people. It operates under a not-for-profit license, like most of the Regional theatres, however the productions are not professional. They are built by the community, and local college students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Dr. Alex Marshall, for example, has a company called Omni Artiste which presents at Cité.  As part of their mission statement, Omni Artiste produces works that are “dedicated to and propagated by the aspirations and culture of African Americans” ( They produce work by established writers such as August Wilson, and offer opportunities for aspiring local playwrights.  I have also produced/ had produced a few of my own plays at Cité, and have had a wonderful time with them.   Plus, since I’m all but advertising for Cité anyway, the rents are incredibly low and the atmosphere is incredibly friendly.  How do you produce at Cité? It’s easy: you sign up for a time, you produce your show, their on-site tech helps you with your lights and your set, and you strike your show. You pay the rent when the show closes out of your box office. Boom. Done. No development. No runarounds. No homogenizing of plays. Just a straightforward transaction. The website for Cité des Arts should have the banner “Have Theatre. Bring Shows.” 

I think what America needs is more of this “Have Theatre. Bring Shows” mentality. If the industry has dictated that the only way to consider yourself a success as a playwright is to have one of your works shepherded and homogenized by a never-ending series of readings, which, as Steven Dietz has argued, become less theatrical and more suited for radio audiences, then it is time for us to fail. And fail big. The biggest nightmare in a capitalist system is that of rock-bottom misery, and I think it is time to embrace that misery, and hold it close.

Off-Off-Broadway has been able to establish itself over the past fifty years, and has adapted with the times. While I salute OOBR (after all, this is my home) and the various amazing independent theatres that comprise this community, I ask you please, do not follow in the footsteps of other theatre organizations. Be independent. Be free. Fail big.

This summer, I’m moving back to my hometown in upstate, New York and will work on (and hopefully finish) my dissertation. I will miss Louisiana, and that Little Theatre, Cité. The simplicity of “just” producing is something that is being lost. It is my prayer that Off-Off Broadway will not follow the self-imploding model of regional theatre, and will continue, for better or for worse, producing shows that push the boundaries of theatricality, using our small stages (or any other space) and our tremendous imaginations.  At the end of the day, the Little (Indie) Theatre is too big for music stands, and too high for a ladder. Let’s keep it that way.

By John Patrick Bray (ABD, MFA)


  1. I couldn't agree more, John. Here (Norfolk, VA) we're seeing this play out and pay off in a huge way.
    Local theatres have opened their doors to indie producers and a brand new audience has emerged.

    It has energized the theatre scene by bringing artists together in ways the rigidly structured let's produce a season model didn't allow.

    Art and artists are not defined by a ZIP code.

  2. Hi, Donna,

    Thank you so much for your comment! I'm glad to hear that this is happening in Norfolk. I know it sounds a bit "Field of Dreams" (i.e., "if you build it, they will come"), but I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the next step for the theatre arts. Thank you so much for sharing!


  3. Hi John Patrick,

    I'm not sure I understand your comments above about the National New Play Network, of which I am the Executive Director. The Network was formed in 1998 to unite small- to mid-size theaters outside of New York to provide an alternative to the NY-to-the-regions route for playwrights, and to harness the power of those individual theaters and their communities for the greater good of the Network members and the field.

    The Continued Life of New Plays Fund, which I think you may misunderstand, incentivizes theaters in our membership and outside of it to take risks with new plays that don't yet have any pedigree. When three theaters (two of which must be members) agree to produce the same new play before any rehearsals have taken place, those theaters are given a grant to enhance collaboration amongst them for the good of the playwright and the productions. The result has been, since 2004, nearly 100 productions of 25 new plays, many of which have been by writers without major New York pedigrees. Some of those plays and playwrights come directly from the communities in which our member theaters are located; as an example, Tom Gibbons - who lives in Philadelphia - wrote a play called PERMANENT COLLECTION. The play went through the Continued Life of New Plays Fund because InterAct in Philadelphia introduced it to other Network members. Tom's play has now been seen in more than 20 productions across the country, earning him some money as is deserved, and introducing various communities to the work of a writer who they would not otherwise know. And I believe I'm right in saying that the show has never been produced in New York.

    Another example of a program that helps local playwrights in regions which we do is the Playwright Residency program. Through this program, a recent graduate of the New School named Andrew Rosendorf became the NNPN Playwright in Residence at Florida Stage in 2008. (He had interned there years before.) He has since settled there, and Florida Stage has announced it will produce his newest play to open their season (and new multi-million-dollar theater) this fall.

    I hope this comment gives you a better sense of how the National New Play Network is striving to change the way theaters and the field develop and champion the continued life of new plays.

    Jason Loewith
    National New Play Network
    Executive Director

  4. Hi, Jason,

    Thank you for your comment! It certainly clarifies what the NNPN is. Your comment, which has provided rich examples, also brings several questions, and I was wondering if you would mind answering them?

    I am curious about how the NNPN and the professional theatre in general defines "regional"; I think that is the term that I'm questioning here more than anything else. The idea of "branding" has come up a lot in these blogs, particularly for those of us in the independent world (OOB vs. Indie theatre).

    My other concern has more to do with access to the NNPN, which is my concern with Humana, the O'Neill, and other agencies that are intended to help/work with the American playwright. My question here is how do you define the American playwright? Is the playwright someone who has earned an MFA from either an Ivy League or upper-tier institution? Or, can an American playwright be someone with no experience whatsoever?

    I also know of a professional theatre in New Jersey that has recently closed its open submission policy and only considers plays that have been part of the NNPN, and my concern is that this is the route the professional theatre is taking. What makes it more difficult is that a number of theatres (and I am speaking of professional theatres that I have come in contact with; not necessarily affiliated with the NNPN) only accept submissions from agents, and playwrights in the 21st century are finding it more and more difficult to secure one (this is true for award-winners whose agents have retired, not just the emerging writers). I think this has more to do with questions of access and defining the role of the American writer.

    Another question I have (if you're willing to answer): when is a play no longer considered "new"?

    Would you be willing to discuss this with me further either in this forum or via interview for my dissertation? I think this would further my understanding of the role of the playwright in the American theatre.

    Thank you for your time and for your thorough response,