I have a radical idea. We will call it The Grand Experiment.
What if the New Orleans’ theatre scene became a giant petri dish for new work? It is within our grasp. New Orleans, as it has proven, is one giant Fringe Festival. What we lack in traditional spaces we make up for with community centers, coffee shops, converted galleries, open fields and plain ol’ abandoned space. We are a far off enough in the provinces to provide cover from the national media’s crucifixion of unfinished product but have enough of a national cache to make any effort a sexy enterprise.
Our community has proven time and time again that we can work against normal time constraints to produce quality work. In other words, our young theatre companies put product up at the speed of light, and they have learned how to do so while still creating the illusion of the first rate. Imagine telling playwrights all around the country the following:
Our town is essentially the subversive, grunge reality version of a Mickey and Judy barn show. Got a play? Can’t get it done? Too big, too ambitious? We do Americana Armageddons, culturally relevant slapsticks, celebrations of women playwrights of color, and continuous soap operas featuring Saints’ fans in drag and a man in a thong. We do site specific Shakespeare on shoestring budgets and make the audiences feel as if they’re watching two years of work funded by foundation money. And throwing caution to the wind, five separate theatre companies have made a joint commitment to doing Taylor Mac’s Lily’s Revenge in the fall.
Imagine what we can do for your play.
What if every theatre company in the city made a commitment to do one world premiere by an individual playwright next season? As groovy as I think collective work is, it is not the same as the presentation of a singular voice through the filter of a rigorous, unified company with a working vocabulary. Such a working environment is a gift to a playwright. The only wheel they would have to invent is the play itself. Much of Steppenwolf’s great original work springs out of those playwrights’ ability to interact with a trained and talented collective who have experience in bringing new work to the stage.
This is where a number of local groups’ experiences with collective work play into this pitch. More than a few theatre companies in town have experience in mounting new work. Cripple Creek, The NOLA Project, Skin Horse Theatre, Theatre 13, Rising Shiners, All Kinds of Theatre, Southern Rep, and many others have put a world premiere on its feet in the last few years. Many of those productions have received good audiences and strong acclaim. To put it bluntly, the theatre community knows how to do this, so it would not be a stretch to simply make a resolution to give a new voice a chance to be heard
What if all the theatre companies took out a joint ad in the highest profile theatre publications advertising this fact? You knew I would get to money eventually, right? An ad does cost money, but it is worth it. If all the theatre companies involved in The Grand Experiment pitched in to take out a page in American Theatre, and similar publications, that laid out the project and invited the next great playwrights to join them, it would do two things. First, it would demand national attention and force the theatrical world to look down to The Mouth of The Mississippi for the art form’s next great trends. Second, it would be a put up or shut up moment. All the bellyaching about New Orleans not getting the attention its deserves would have to cease, and more importantly, if that ad goes up and the community does not deliver, the shame would be unending. Ad goes up, and it is no longer a talking point. It is a point of pride.
What if those same theatre companies formed a joint collective to sift through the submitted work and identify the submissions that best fit their mission statements? Of course, this is not a matter of one ad and a cloud of dust. It would take a great deal of administrative work to pull The Grand Experiment off. Each company involved would have to do a breakdown of its talent pool and its driving purpose to allow playwrights to figure out which company best suits their work. Forms would have to be made and a play bank created to prevent the situation from turning into the theatrical equivalent of a Gold Rush. Such an infrastructure would have to be created in order to serve the companies, so they can serve the writers. It would have to be in place before the roll out. If each involved company placed a point person to work on this project, the heavy lifting could be shared and accomplished.
We could tell playwrights throughout the country that if they are looking to have their work read, workshopped or produced by some of the most talented, hard scrambling, seat-of-their-pants artists in these here United States, then they should… take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields.