The theatrical corner of the blogosphere's been in a chatter about the pros and cons, well, really, the cons, of the way new play development works. A few weeks ago Richard Nelson wrote about "the damage this culture of 'development' has done and continues to do to my profession" in the Dramatists Guild magazine. (Although what he really seems to be writing against is bad dramaturgy - unhelpful, vague comments about crap like the chracter's journey or motivation. But he doesn't distinguish this as bad, and rather makes it seem like the status quo. Which I really hope it's not, and if it is, it shouldn't be.) Then Lyn Gardner wrote against the UK's adoption of "a new play development culture - based on American models" in the Guardian, here. Mark at Mr. Excitement News has been following this thoroughly (and has been my source for all this stuff), and inciting much discussion here and here. David Cote writes about Gardner's article here. Isaac at Parabasis joins the fray this morning (not his first contribution on the subject). He starts thusly:
As someone who describes her work as "new play development," this is obviously a touchy subject for me. I have to say, first of all, that I strongly disagree with that playwright-oriented workshops are infantalizing. As a dramaturg I find that a little offensive, and I think it's wrong. Bad workshops can be infantalizing, but so can be bad direction, bad teaching, bad anything. I also disagree with Isaac's claim that "it's created a lot of problems including a culture where writers are encouraged to do work that is interesting at its core but fundamentally doesn't work, writing (in other words) that's good to workshop." Good workshops create good plays. (I should note that I agree that "it keeps artists tied down to projects long after what was vital about them has been lost," but writers can do that on their own with too many revisions.) But this isn't about attacking what Isaac has to say (hi Isaac) - it's about joining the discussion.
We all hate the new play development process, apparently. I'm no fan of it myself-- I think it's created a lot of problems including a culture where writers are encouraged to do work that is interesting at its core but fundamentally doesn't work, writing (in other words) that's good to workshop. Again and again and again. Not to mention that it keeps artists tied down to projects long after what was vital about them has been lost. And the large numbers of directors who get replaced once workshops are over and it's time to produce plays (if you get so lucky).
There are good workshops out there. I've directed one or two. Sometimes, they're really helpful. To me, those times are (A) if you're pretty sure you want to eventually do a full production and (B) if you as a director and production team are using them as a workshop for your own work as well. Otherwise, when all the emphasis is on the writer and the script, it (frankly) infantalizes them-- they become the little kid in the room who you all need to help do their job.
First of all, I think this rejection of development really needs to be clarified. Are playwrights actually saying they don't think there should be dramaturgs? I don't think so. Are they saying that all revisions of a play should either be done by the playwright alone, or in the rehearsal room? Perhaps. (Which is something I disagree with, and I'll get to that in a minute.) Are they saying that the problem is that so many theatres develop plays with no intention of production? I think so. So saying that the new play development process is bad is way too general and vague.
First, to get the last point out of the way, I have mixed feelings, in the general, philosophical sense, about dramaturgical/editorial input for writers. (This is something I put to the side when I work, because it's the sort of existential question that I don't have the time, energy, or experience to deal with yet.) For the most part, and I think this is because I work with a really good dramaturg, the input I've seen has been beneficial - proper dramaturgy is about helping the playwright make the play what they want it to be - maybe the analogy is that of a coach watching an athlete - a pair of outside eyes that can see what's going on, give pointers to the artist/athlete to get them where they want to be. I've seen dramaturgs and playwrights run into trouble when the dramaturg's notes are guiding a play in a direction that isn't where the playwright wants the piece to go - but eventually the dramaturg or playwright realizes this, and says something, and they back up and try a different direction. I've also seen, and been part of, collaborations where the playwright and dramaturg are in perfect step, and it's a really thrilling collaboration. If novelists need editors, and gymnasts need coaches, then playwrights can't be said to not need dramaturgs. (I know I'm collapsing all outside input into the role of dramaturg - it comes just as often from directors and friends. This is for simplicity's sake, not actual oversimplification in my understanding.) In the dramaturgy class I took in college, I think the main tactic was one of asking questions. It's not the only way to do it, but it's the essence of the dramaturg's role - not to tell the playwright what to do, but to facilitate the writing and revision of the playwright's play.
But then there's the quesiton of whether or not there should be a development period before the rehearsal period. With the time constraints put on rehearsals, I have to say yes. I've seen plays go into rehearsal with everyone knowing there's script work to be done, and there's not enough time, or the work's more that we thought, and the end product is a play that isn't finished, isn't ready. I'm not being over-safe here - the play needed more rewriting. And I've seen plays go through scores of rewrites and readings, with dramaturgical discussion throughout, and they come out brilliant. Not safe, or watered-down, but the best realization of themselves. With work still to be done in rehearsals, sure, but infinitely better than they would have been without the dramaturgical workshop.
But I don't think that's what this backlash is really about, which is why I think this argument needs to be clarified - saying you're against development can sound like you're against rewrites, against any and all outside dramaturgical input. Which some people might be, and that might be the way some writers work best, but I think they're in the minority (or possibly wrong). The other aspect of this argument is overdevelopment, the practice of theatres giving readings and workshops for plays they never produce.
This can have a negative impact on what would normally be a 'healthy' dramaturgical process, when theatres want to develop work, possibly towards production, and playwrights start rewriting and revising towards what that theatre wants. The only notes anyone should take are notes that make the play better, not notes that make the play into what a particular literary manager or dramaturg wants it to be. It's up to the playwright to stand up for him- or herself, and for their play, and to be able to identify the dramaturgs who are the best fit for them and their work. I've seen great plays get ruined by bad notes, and I've seen plays blossom (I can't think of a less gay word for that) with the help of a particularly insightful dramaturg. There's good and bad.
But back to overdevelopment. Yes, it's a problem. It's partially financial - the grants and financing situation that's already been mentioned, of theatres getting funded for development work more than production. And it sucks when theatres develop plays that they don't do. It sucks that some theatres are too scared to do the new, edgy plays that they love working on. But when I've seen that happen it's because there's a passionate dramaturg who has edgier taste than the artistic director. Or there's a play that they're (seriously) considering for production, so they work on it, and decide not to do it. Theatres can't do every show they consider, or even every show they want. (Over-safety in programming is a separate issue. It sucks, but it doesn't mean development is bad.) Would you rather the literary manager not work with these writers at all? If the dramaturg is good at what they do (and they should also be up-front about the theatre's likelihood of producing the play) then the development, even if it doesn't lead to production, makes the play better. Because it's not the dramaturg making the playwright's play better - it's the dramaturg facilitating the playwright's improving of his or her own work.
There are bad dramaturgs out there. There are literary managers and artistic directors who give notes towards what they want, rather than towards what the play needs. This doesn't mean development is bad. There are bad directors out there, too - that doesn't make direction bad. Dramaturgs shouldn't be bad, but sometimes they are, and literary managers shouldn't give notes towards what they want the play to be (so bad!). And playwrights need to be able to identify the right people to help them with their work, and to be able to sort through notes, to see what is helpful and what isn't, to see what strengthens the play and what diverts it from its development. Playwrights also need to decide when development is helpful and when they need to wait for a production. The aim, everyone's aim, should be helping the playwright fully realize their vision. That's what development is for.