The Absurdly Long Lead-Time In Theater

99Seats has a discussion going that sort of started out talking about playwrights rebelling against structure when they’re young, only to embrace structure as they gain experience.

But then it took a turn into something that I’m personally even more interested in: the absurdly long lead-time in theater, which I believe is behind all the “is theater relevant?” discussions:

If I read an interesting news story and I want to write a play about it, chances are it’s going to be, at best, two to three years before that play sees the light of day. In that time, there will be a Law & Order episode, a CSI episode, an SNL skit, a 30 Rock reference, a novel, a YouTube video and a feature film all about the same thing.

Exactly. And this is what leads to situations like with my friend who wrote a play about the mortgage crisis, which would have been fantastically relevant and cool if a theater could have gotten it up right away, like Caffe Cino might have done back in the day.

(For example, Caffe Cino produced 11 plays between August and December 1966. Four months; 11 plays. You would have to assume at least one of those was pretty timely, having been written, what, a couple weeks before it went up?)

Instead, the best case scenario for my friend is that his play gets into some development festival next summer, where it’s seen by someone who wants to slot it into their season the year after that, and three years from now it gets staged as a period piece.

I’m convinced this is a big reason why so many great theater writers head off to TV. (Money is probably the main reason, but you’d be surprised how often playwrights write about their TV job being way more creatively fun than theater was.)

They write something and a few months later it gets produced. And people react to it and engage with it while it’s still timely. How could slow-moving theater ever compare?

The key may very well be for playwrights to seek out small and nimble theatre companies run by people you admire. Maybe you’ll give them a play you’ve just written and the A.D. will say, “Great. Let’s do it next season.” Which is pretty much how my next production came to be.

Anyway, it’s a good, quotable post, especially when it gets to “theatre’s popular culture gap” and misguided attempts to reach a youthful audience by “having a bunch of references to Lady Gaga or Lindsay Lohan.” Which I mention just because I want to end with this quote:

In general, theatre sometimes acts like a high school principal trying to connect with the students by wearing his cap backwards and dropping references that are three years out of date.


8 Replies to “The Absurdly Long Lead-Time In Theater”

  1. Couldn’t agree more.

    The Magic in SF used to produce waaaaaay more work than it currently does (or has in the last 10 years).

    How do you think Shepard got through so much material?

  2. Another aspect is that when work is done often and quickly it changes the way audiences approach it.

    Today, a play that has been “developed” over long period of time and then presented in a season that is only 5 plays long, has a lot of pressure on it to be more than it might be, artistically and financially.

    The disappointment is sharper because it’ll be another 2 month before the audience goes to the next show when it’s reminded again of how ponderous theatre can be.

    But let’s say, for argument that a show is loved. Even this can be detrimental since it’ll still be 2 months before someone sees the next show – rather than capitalizing quickly on the bump the show gives the theatre.

    Overall, the current system with its long lead times discourages the idea that the theatre is a place to explore.

  3. Not to mention that a piece of work that has taken three years and many different workshops and previews and readings and whatever is likely to be stale anyway, whatever the subject.

  4. Malachy: A great point, something I never even thought of. And it works that way for the playwright, too, doesn’t it? You develop something for a really long time and when it finally gets a production, you have way more emotionally invested in the thing than is probably healthy.

    Your point also reminds me tangentially of when I used to do improv: Audiences were amazed that we were making things up off the top of our heads, but I imagine that if we had gone backstage and planned things for even a few minutes, it would change expectations — a mini-version of the point you made. Never thought of that.

    Joe: I do have to say that it’s not always the case; I don’t want to imply that revisions are bad or anything. Sometimes things take a long time to gestate or need just the right moment in a workshop or reading to make all the problems come clear. But things can definitely be overdeveloped, as you’ve probably read many places besides here. For me, the big problem is the subject matter: one often feels a pressure to pick subjects that aren’t very timely and thus not as relevant to the moment if one knows the play won’t appear for several years.

    Look at me using “one” instead of “you”; I never do that. One gets formal when one responds to commenters, one supposes.

  5. Tim, thanks for responding to 99’s post with this – I am especially drawn to the Malachy’s contribution of how a long-lead time creates the Masterpiece expectation from an audience. I thought it was interesting that this conversation juxtaposed with some of the ideas happening over at the Collective Arts Think Tank – except they are pushing for even longer lead-times (and in a compelling fashion). I tried to synthesize my thoughts on both subjects on the Flux blog:

  6. Chicago doesn’t have a problem with this. Because there are an abundance of young, hungry companies who are willing to work for no money (and able to scrape together the relatively cheap space rental fees), the lead time can be as short as a writer wants it to be. If a playwright’s ultimate goal is to have their work produced (and not to make a lot of money from it, or get “famous” from it), the opportunities are there. If that playwright is shooting for a production Off-Broadway, or at a major regional theater, the answer is obvious: don’t write something with an expiration date.

  7. My suggestion is, find a place that doesn’t do plays (a coffeehouse, cafe, bar, church, art gallery, for instance), and convince them to let you do a play a week to draw business on their off nights. Get yourself appointed Master of Plays and then you can do your own shows as fast as you write them–and anybody’s else that you like.

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