Commissioning Plays for Young Audiences!

The last session I went to at the AATE/ATHE conference this year was Innovative Approaches to Commissioning and Developing Plays For and With Youth.  Special thanks to Julie Gale, Jim DeVivo, Sandra Fenichel Asher, Gina Kaufmann, Leigh Kennicot, Kristen Leahey, and Carlos Manuel for making this session happen. Since I’m currently exploring ways to commission a new work I was very interested in this session. A lot was said about devising plays with young people, but since my focus right now is on plays for a youth audience that may have all adult actors or incorporate age appropriate casting, I was most interested in the commentary on issues unique to that situation. I thought Sandy Asher’s statement, about a wonderful experience she had developing a new work, was a powerful call for a new model of commissioning that deserved a broader audience. Thanks Sandy for sharing it and for passing along the text!

NEW MODELS FOR COMMISSIONING PLAYS

My Experience

By Sandy Asher

Once upon a time, when I was working with his troupe on a new adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN, Tom Ballmer, Artistic Director of Stebbens Children’s Theatre in Mason City, Iowa, shared with me a dream he had for commissioning new scripts for youth theaters like his own.  It seemed to me a great idea at the time, and an even better one now, a model suited to youth theaters, professional theaters, community theaters, university theaters and secondary school groups as well.

Tom’s plan is simple.  Any three theater groups of similar make-up and interests get together and decide

1)  What they need in a new script, in terms of topic, length, cast size, etc.;

2)  Which playwright they will contact about writing the script;

3) How much each theater will contribute toward the commissioning fee and playwright’s travel expenses;

4) When each theater will produce the play and bring in the playwright.

The benefits to theater groups and playwrights are clear and huge:  The theaters get the kinds of scripts they can and will produce.  They participate in the developmental process with the playwright at one-third the commissioning cost plus expenses.  They enjoy the added excitement and PR buzz of having the playwright on hand during some or all of the rehearsals and/or performances.

The playwright, in turn, earns a commission for writing a play with three developmental productions already lined up, has the opportunity to attend rehearsals and/or performances, and forges new creative alliances with the participating theater groups.

Our field of theater for young audiences as a whole benefits by the addition of new scripts developed through three productions at the very kinds of theaters most likely to continue to produce them.

Tom’s hopes for a new play included the following:

    1. A title that would bring in audiences,
    2. A large, flexible cast with plenty of female roles and roles for teenagers,
    3. Full length; non-musical.

At the time, he had no particular title in mind and no collaborators for a commission.

Just the dream.  Having enjoyed my work with Stebbens Youth Theatre, I left Mason City with a promise to think about a project that might fit the bill.  It was important to both of us that the project be as interesting and challenging to me as a playwright as it was artistically and financially beneficial to the theater.

Over the next few months, we tossed a few ideas back and forth, but nothing excited either one of us enough to proceed.   One day, while I was in my local library browsing the Young Adult collection, a title of one of Avi’s novels all but leaped off the shelf at me:  ROMEO AND JULIET – TOGETHER (AND ALIVE!) AT LAST.   I sat down with the book and began reading.  It was a middle-school story – lots of teenagers – with a hilarious premise and a wealth of comical characters and dialogue.  Its farcical plot grew naturally out of the collision between its modern school setting and the original Shakespearean play, and much of the action took place on a stage.

Granted, it wasn’t a “title” in the “Cinderella” sense of unbeatable familiarity, but it had a title sure to arouse a potential audience’s curiosity.  It had certainly piqued mine!

I knew I had a story I wanted to adapt for the stage and believed it could be the play Tom was hoping for. Tom read the book and agreed.

Could the dream of a joint commission and three developmental productions come true?  As it turned out, Tom was not able to commit to a commissioning fee at that time, but he could manage a full production and travel expenses.

Joe Lauderdale, then at Laguna Playhouse, read the book and offered to share the commission and bring me in for rehearsals and opening week.  Thanks to an introduction from John Newman, David Dynak and Amy Oakeson signed on for the University of Utah’s Youth Theatre at the U as co-commissioner.  Tom would do the third production at Stebbens Youth Theatre.

What followed next was a dream-come-true scenario for all concerned.  Encouraged by the interest of three producing companies, Gayle Sergel, of Dramatic Publishing Company, made arrangements with Avi to acquire the underlying rights to the novel.  I wrote knowing I had three eager and capable directors and an editor ready to read the script and offer comments and encouragement.   Joe scheduled the first production in October of that year with two trips to Laguna Beach for me – one early in the rehearsal process and one during opening week.  Amy and Tom followed with two productions of the continually revised script in February, with me in residence for late rehearsals and early performances.

I should mention here the terrific cooperative spirit among the three groups.  Many theaters commission with a “world premiere” in mind and jealously guard that distinction, even against a production halfway across the continent.  These three organizations were in the game for the development of a play worthy of their young casts and staged their productions in the best interests of the script’s growth.  Nothing that happened in Laguna Beach, Salt Lake City, or Mason City detracted in any way from local excitement about developing a new script and bringing the playwright to the community to work with the company, visit schools, run workshops, and meet with the young people and adults who support each group.

From my vantage point as playwright, this was a heavenly experience.  What normally takes forever – the scheduling and presentation of three developmental productions – took only about a year.  I saw three casts who differed in age and experience; tested the script against production values that reflected budgets large, medium, and small; and revised with insights provided by professional, university, and youth theater experts.  It just doesn’t get any better than that.

The new script at the center of all of this activity has enjoyed many productions since, but it’s not for all groups or all tastes.  That’s why I am offering this experience as a model and encouraging other kinds of theater groups to come together in a joint commission.  What kinds of plays do you need?  Which playwrights would you like to work with?  Can you find two other theater organizations to dream with you?  Can the three of you work with a playwright (preferably an AATE or ATHE member playwright, of course!) to make your dream come true?

Together we can do more and better than any one of us can do alone.

QUESTION FOR THE WORLD: Does this seem like a workable model you could participate in? Have you had other experiences with new play development that went very well– or very badly? What would have to change for more new works for young audiences to be developed and ultimately published?

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