As theatrical models go, the example of a New York company called 13P, founded by a group of 13 “midcareer playwrights” seeking to break out of the cycle of “endless readings and new play development programs” by instead actually putting them on, is hugely instructive.
Not only does it reflect the genuine disenchantment and frustration that playwrights feel when they are put on the “development” treadmill that takes plays out of their own control and puts them into the hands of literary managers, dramaturgs and directors, but it also created a different kind of approach to the way the company was run.
It never sought to turn a profit — or pay its members much — but more importantly, it never sought longevity. The project ended last Friday when the last of its members Sarah Ruhl saw a play into production and it played its final performance.
One of its founder members Rob Handel, who created the programme with Madeline George ten years ago then recruited 11 other playwrights to join them on it, told Time Out New York in a recent interview that it had accomplished its task: “The main philosophical point we wanted to make has been made. You fix a play in rehearsal — for 3,000 years, that’s been a good system.”
And interestingly, its a philosophy that has proved contagious: both Roundabout and Lincoln Center Theatre have now developed programmes that get new work into production and in front of an audience fast.
As the Time Out feature points out, the mission and the method was identical for each playwright, who would take up the artistic directorship of the company in turn, “so that in a sense, the company would transform 13 times; then, no matter what, it would implode.” But, as it went on to say, “The implosion model is very tricky. By definition, 13P spent no effort in building a structure that pays decently. ‘We had to avoid the situation of becoming an institution that wanted to survive,’ says Handel. Staffers volunteered their time. Executive producer Maria Goyanes admits to serious fatigue in the middle of the project. Handel, a nonprofit fund-raiser by day, went back to square one after each closing night. Despite the company’s growing cachet, it had to pay artists token amounts; directors received fees as low as ‘hundreds of dollars,’ says Goyanes.”
Creating art on your own terms necessarily involves a cost - to yourself. But better to pay yourself a lot less (or nothing at all), goes the thinking, than to sell out in other ways. And for emerging playwrights and administrators, it has stood them in good stead for their futures: Goyanes is now an associate producer at the Public Theatre in New York, while marketing director Caleb Hammons, who began as a volunteer with the company straight out of NYU, is now a producer at Soho Rep. He tells Time Out, “There hasn’t been a single thing in my career that hasn’t come to me because of 13P.”
And Sarah Ruhl, arguably the best known playwright of the 13 writers that made up the programme and whose In the Next Room was seen on Broadway (and recently received its UK premiere at Bath’s Ustinov Studio), wrote in the New York Times last week about how she used her own slot, the company’s last, to stage Melancholy Play, which she calls “an older play (and let’s be honest, a weird play) that has never been done in New York.”
She decided to do it differently: she gave it to a composer Todd Almond, “and asked him if he heard more music in it, and he said: yes, he heard it almost sung through with a string quartet and a piano. I said: great! Let’s do it at 13P. So we embarked on a brand new musical with absolutely no infrastructure for development, no funding for music or microphones.”
They received some enhancement money that duly enabled them to pay for musicians and for microphones, but it also meant that the run was necessarily limited to just 11 performances: “we couldn’t afford to pay rent for a space and a string quartet for a longer run. This means no ‘previews’ in a traditional sense; no time for the composer and writer to tweak the new creation after hearing it live in front of an audience. We will hear the piece one or two times with a full string quartet, and then offer it to the audience.” So that led to another decision: “It didn’t feel fair to me to burden the production team with the pressure of reviews when we were already embarking on something so insanely ambitious given our resources.”
So critics were kept away. As Ruhl also states in the New York Times, “I was also interested in 13P’s effort to redefine success for the playwright: success, in this case, I think, is simply getting the play up. Heaving it up, throwing it up, seeing the thing, rather than trying to perfect it with months of development or previews. I felt like closing the play to reviews was in that spirit of simply seeing what the thing was and offering it up with some good will to the audience… I am no scientist, but I think of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, whereby the viewer changes the actual molecules of the event. In this case, I didn’t want the gaze of the reviewers, or the anticipation of the gaze, to change the event before we’d figured out what the aesthetic object was.”
Critics threatened to change the nature of the event itself and intimidate its creators; and with such a short run, of course, they weren’t exactly needed for publicity purposes. But critics aren’t just an extension of the publicity process; they’re also part of the public engagement with a piece of art. And Ruhl claims she’s not trying to censor the press: “I believe passionately in a free press, and should reviewers ultimately choose to buy a ticket, I will welcome you to the theater, as I am enthusiastic about living in a democracy with a vibrant free press. I have no wish at all to be adversarial.”
Yet just as a fool and his money are famously easily parted, critics try not to do so; though, as it happens, I’d stress that I’ve bought my own tickets twice over on my current trip to the US: once last Saturday to see Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya (it was the final performance and I couldn’t see why they should let me in on a sell-out show); and secondly for British comedian Simon Amstell at a downtown venue, partly because they were just $20 each and partly because I couldn’t find out who was handling his PR, so just bought them instead.
But for Ruhl, the relationship between press and artists creates what she calls a paradoxical situation for the work that that the latter create: “The press desires more bravery from artists, and yet in their very calls for bravery, end up at times eliciting timidity because of artists’ fear of public opinion.” So rather than risk the opinions of invited critics, it elicited a different kind of timidity not to invite them at all.
I wonder if a different term of engagement might have been sought: not unlike Hampstead Theatre Downstairs in London, who usually do not hold press nights for their new plays but are happy to welcome the press informally if they wish to come but do not write about it, perhaps 13P could have done the same to extend a welcome to critics, but ask them not to write.
I applaud 13P for its stated mission of not developing plays but actually doing them. But as a critic, I can only wish that my New York colleagues were drawn into the conversation; I am having one now, of course, about their stated ethos, but I never saw the work itself. That’s not to say I would have done anyway, but it would have been good to know that the possibility was there.