Commentary: Changing how new operas are developed and presented

Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, 12/10/12

David T. Little's Dog Days, one of the most exciting new operas of recent years, had its world premiere earlier this fall not at a traditional opera company but at Montclair State University in New Jersey, co-produced by the school and an independent nonprofit, Beth Morrison Projects. Like many others, Darren K. Woods, general director of Fort Worth Opera, was blown away by the piece. He wished he could bring the production to Fort Worth. "It would be a real shame if Montclair was the only place that piece got seen," he says. This represents a significant change in thinking about how new operas are developed and presented. Opera companies that do commission works tend to do so from the ground up. Unless the opera is a co-commission among several companies, it may never be seen again after the premiere. Small organizations, such as American Opera Projects and American Lyric Theater, both in New York, specialize in bringing composers and librettists together, mentoring their collaborations and helping to develop fledgling operas. Beth Morrison Projects, launched in 2005, partners with presenters to commission, workshop, produce and tour new works, including operas, by young composers. In the past, pieces developed in these smaller environments seldom made it to major and regional opera companies. Beth Morrison is hoping [a] regional-theater-style model will take hold for opera. In New York next month, she and avant-garde producing company HERE will mount the first Prototype/Opera/Theatre/Now festival, featuring five tour-ready multimedia productions. She'd like presenters and opera companies to look outside their usual spaces to bring these shows in. "All these cities have black-box theaters," she says. With opera companies taking a broader view of how to foster and present new work, young composers who are inspired to experiment with the challenging form will have more places to try it out, and works with the fiercely raucous energy of Dog Days will have a chance to reach a wider audience.


Commentary: What the US can learn from the UK about new play development

Robert Hedley and Harriet Power, American Theatre magazine, Dec 2012 issue

We headed to London for five months to investigate Great Britain's new-play culture. After seeing 62 new plays and adaptations at venues of every size and mission, and interviewing dozens of playwrights, artistic directors, literary managers, dramaturgs, actors, agents and producers, we found our London cousins have no magic bullet. Yes, it's a writer-friendly culture; yes, new plays constitute a considerably greater portion of the repertoire. But U.K. playwrights struggle [to] make their living writing solely for the stage, few enjoy subsequent productions, many lament the focus on the "hot new writer" at the expense of midcareer and even mature playwrights. And yet! --noteworthy differences, astonishing artists, unusual initiatives and exciting approaches changed our thinking about how [America's] system can better sustain playwrights. 

  • Our London colleagues unanimously champion a development process minutely tailored to the individual needs of play and playwright. Jeanie O'Hare, the RSC's dramaturg from 2005 to 2012 (and now chair of playwriting at Yale), notes: "When writers are fed through a homogenizing workshop system where everyone gets together, reads out his or her work, and inevitably starts taking on each other's voices and styles -- that dulls. My favorite process was David Greig visiting all the real-life locations mentioned in Macbeth, at night, with musicians, actors, fires and ghost stories, then writing like crazy the next day." She's talking about Greig's Macbeth "sequel," Dunsinane, which premiered in 2010 to rave reviews.
  • After our first month of meetings with London artists, we found ourselves changing the language that framed our research, from new-play development (the common U.S. parlance) to new-play production, a telling distinction. Many London-based theatre artists have also worked in the U.S., and all agree: It's easier to get your play produced in London. O'Hare offers this comparison: "Sophistication and nuance are big features of American plays. British plays are very happy to sacrifice sophistication for a rougher structure and a more urgent language. The polishing of the playwright's work then happens over the first few years through productions, in public, rather than in private and in the classroom, as tends to happen in the U.S." Veteran playwright David Eldridge asks this interesting question: "Who says a play has to be perfect?"
  • The RSC's ongoing sensation Matilda the Musical, by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin, made for the most striking play-development success story we encountered. Dramaturg O'Hare's role was huge. She was central to Matilda from the start of conversations with the Roald Dahl estate through seven years' development to opening night. "We set out to create a musical for people who do not like musicals. I consciously did everything that I was advised not to do, and a great deal of my energy was spent sharpening our thinking."
  • The Studio at the National Theatre is widely seen as one of the best places, if not the best place, to develop new work. Writers receive the resources -- actors, directors, design support, specialized experts, space and a salary -- to try things out behind closed doors, without the pressure of performance or even reaching a conclusion. Annually, the Studio offers 25 "attachments" to writers, lasting two weeks to three months. Some projects attain full production at one of the National's three theatres, while those better suited to outside theatres get recommended.
  • What's more, virtually every new play that rears its head in the U.K. gets published. "All of my work is considered for second and third productions because producers can buy it and read it," confirms Anthony Weigh, a playwright and associate artist at the Donmar Warehouse. And publication enables more detailed theatre criticism. "Critical engagement is infinitely enhanced by being able to read the text as you're reviewing a play," remarks dramaturg David Lane.
  • There's a modicum of funding available for both individual artists and companies. O'Hare summarizes what most London theatre professionals believe: "Without the Arts Council, the unsolicited play-submissions system would disappear overnight. We would go back to the bad old days of directors programming their university chum who just happens to have written a play. Nepotism and cliques would close down the industry very quickly. The quality of the work would suffer and audiences would dwindle because no longer would the whole dynamism of society be represented onstage." Writ Large, the 2009 report of the British Theatre Consortium for Arts Council England, provided this revealing statistic: With Arts Council funding, some theatres increased their percentage of new work to more than 70 percent! "Writ Large" also reported that box-office receipts appeared to contradict the notion that new plays don't sell.
  • London has a different critical climate as well. "Here theatre critics are, in contrast to the U.S., part of the industry, so they tend to look for positives when they review new work," maintains playwright Fin Kennedy. Indeed, we were repeatedly struck both by U.K. critics' depth of engagement and tolerance for a new play's weak spots. Every professional we interviewed spoke of theatre as the U.K.'s opportunity to have a national dialogue with itself about contemporary issues and challenges -- a dialogue in which London critics want to participate.
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