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An Eye for Development

In my search to find employment after graduation and establish myself as a working theatre artist, I recently accepted an offer to be a script reader for a local theater. I felt confident that I could take this project on since I had read scripts as a part of my internship at a large regional theater a couple years ago, and it had been one of the most exciting and rewarding aspects of my job. As a script reader back then, I knew that new scripts would be developed more by the theater in the rehearsal/production process (since it was also then I learned that regional theaters actually love to have a hand in creating an up-and-coming new piece), but I felt tasked with finding a play that was far along enough in the development process to be deemed worthy of the theater’s investment. I knew these plays existed because I had found some. There were a few excellent scripts that I read and staunchly advocated for the theater to produce, usually because they originally and evocatively engaged an issue that I felt had strong contemporary relevance. I had already gotten a sense of what finding a good new play felt like, and so I launched into reading these new scripts with a sense that I had a handle on what I was doing.

However, the theatre I read for now is not a large regional theater; it is small with a specific focus on developing new plays and a commitment to producing local writers (a commitment that they follow through on with every new season). I greatly admire this theater for their mission, and believe that more American theaters need to follow in their footsteps to foster a wider range of artists and stories. When they send along their submitted scripts to readers, they include a helpful note with tips for reading and critiquing the scripts. Part of what is stressed when considering the script is to not look at the play as a finished draft, but instead to comment honestly about the state of the plot, characters, dialogue, etc. As I went along, I felt that I was doing this, but I quickly realized that I was falling into the trap of being skeptical. In order to prove my mettle as a reader, I wanted to show this theatre that I read at least 2 plays a week for school and that I can critique a script like nobody’s business. But that kind of approach is WRONG SO WRONG IT CANNOT BE MORE WRONG. Luckily this revelation struck me before I had actually handed in any reports. The whole point of this small theater is that it recognizes that a new play needs a production in order to help it grow (or if not a full production, it at least needs to be heard aloud and given an outlet for live feedback). Their seasons are opportunities for playwrights to develop their work, not just to showcase raw talent. I had known this going in, but only now did it sink in that this affected how I should be taking in these scripts; what is this play’s potential if not its current state? It was right around this time that guilt started to descend upon me. If I want to work in new play development, shouldn’t I always be looking for reasons why I should produce a script? Couldn’t the process of development include the major overhaul of a poorly written script with a great concept? Shouldn’t ALL plays be given opportunities for production???

Well, the bummer of reality dictates that not all scripts can receive a production, but it did bring up a larger question for me about how to read scripts – and, importantly, decide which to produce – knowing that development is a big part of the production process. I have since been given a lot of good advice on this issue, and collected some helpful mantras surrounding script reading. Here are a few:

1) Leave your skepticism at the door. Begin each script like you’re reading it out of the Norton Anthology of Drama. Believe the playwright did everything on purpose. What choices did the playwright make and why? Do those choices work? What is the playwright’s goal, and is it achieved? Is that goal worthwhile?

2) Know (and check) your tastes. It’s more about the mission of the theatre than it is about me. Maybe I really cringe at plays that employ characters as symbols and find those really hard to read; that doesn’t mean my gut reaction to the play is responding to an actual flaw in the script. In that case pass that script along to a different reader, or if you can’t, note your personal bias and don’t let it affect your critical view of the script as a whole.

3) Ask yourself: would you want to see this play? So maybe the dialogue doesn’t flow that well or the supporting female character is pretty 2-D, but the concept is clear and stellar. If this play was given a chance, would you pay to see a play about these characters? Does the play grapple with an incredibly important theme or question? Additionally, is this the kind of play that fits in with the kind of play the theater is interested in producing?

While it can be incredibly uncomfortable – especially as a playwright myself – to be another roadblock in someone’s desire for production, it is also incredibly rewarding when I do discover a script I can get behind and be a part of the process that brings that play to life. Because that’s what I really want to do at the end of the day: help tell stories that haven’t been told yet in a way that’s original and intriguing. And I know that it’s my responsibility as a developer of new plays to cultivate an eye for scripts that have enough genuine truth that I can put faith in them even though they’re not perfect. Part of this skill, I imagine, will also come with more experience in seeing how (and how much) plays can grow in the development process. I want to cultivate a greater sense of finding that truth so that, when I’m reading new scripts, I don’t miss it, thereby giving the playwright the best possible chance.

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About oliviahaller

Olivia is an actor, playwright, and dramaturg who recently received her BFA in Theatre Arts from Boston University.

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