Peering into the future of the New Play Sector (esp. New England)

Lisa Tucker and Ed Hoopman in The Nature Plays at Mount Auburn Cemetery (photo by Corinne Elicone.)

(I’m usually a very positive person, but I’ll warn you that what follows is not my usual glass-half-full view of the world. But there still might be a little water left in the glass when this is all over.)

It’s human nature to try to understand the future, and for playwrights the desire to understand the narrative structure of the future is a key to our work. As a playwright, I spend a LOT of time trying to understand how conversations and stories unfold, and as a producer/playwright I study how audiences react to every twist and turn in a play, every quip and sigh by an actor, even how long it takes until the seats at the venue start to feel uncomfortable.

So it’s no surprise that as a numbers geek and playwright, I spend a lot of time thinking about stats associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and how this whole story is likely to play out. To make the whole prediction game more complicated, the pandemic also likely to be accompanied by a deep economic recession, after the economy has ground to a halt due to necessary social distancing.

The state of semi-quarantine isn’t such a huge shift in daily routine for a writer already used to working from my home office, having phone meetings, and coping with extreme uncertainty about whether the work I write might ever be produced. However, thanks to starting my company, Plays in Place, I’ve been able to reduce some of that uncertainty, as I land contracts and commissions for new scripts and productions at museums and historic sites. (My non-Plays in Place work is still just as uncertain as ever.)

Like everyone else, however, I’ve had a number of cancellations and postponements of productions of my work, and I’m scrambling to adjust the four very different Plays in Place projects scheduled for 2020–some are happening, just with different timing. Others remain up in the air.

Sooner or later, this pandemic will come to an end. Either we’ll find a vaccine, or else most people will become infected and either survive and gain immunity, or else die. Without a smart response by the leaders in government, we can expect to endure significant suffering. I’m not convinced that the people in charge are as smart as we need them to be, but we’ll see. They haven’t exactly showered themselves in glory so far.

What happens to theatre when all this ends?  And, what happens to playwrights?

I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t speak for all sectors of the artform. I don’t know much about Broadway, but this article from Mark Harris offers some smart thoughts about it.

Don Aucoin of the Boston Globe wrote an insightful piece about the Boston Theatre scene and possible pandemic fallout just a few days, ago, and it’s worth a read.

There are a multitude of factors that will impact the new play sector, in New England and beyond, but the biggest is how long the shut down will last. I pore over the stats every day, trying to get a grip on that. At the moment, we’re starting to see leveling off of new cases in NYC, and a shift of the curve in Massachusetts. Nationwide, that’s making it seem like we’ve flattened the curve somewhat successfully, but I have a suspicion that the states that were slow to put social distancing and quarantines into place will see a delayed upsurge in cases, and we’ll see a bloom of infections in the South and Midwest, within the next two weeks. If that happens, it will slow the relaxation of social distancing elsewhere, because authorities will get nervous.

For safe relaxation of the shut down, we need three things:  the availability of widespread and fast testing (and accurate, centralized reporting), active and strong quarantine of new cases, and fast and accurate contact tracing.  Without those three things, we might relax social distancing rules, but we’ll likely see a resurgence of the virus in a second wave. Some people will have gained immunity already, but a large portion of the community will still be susceptible, and this time the virus will literally be everywhere (as opposed to when this started, and it was only in a few hot spots).

Once the shut down is eventually lifted, we’ll have to revive the economy. We’re in an unusual situation, because this shut down of the economy was an intentional response, so in theory, we can restart it again (if it doesn’t take too long for that to happen), fairly quickly. No one really knows if that’s true, but we’ll find out.

In the theatre sector, however, we have a couple additional challenges. The economic damage to individuals already living on the edge financially is likely to be severe. At the small theatre level, where much of my work reaches the stage, many of the performers and other collaborators barely survive via a combination of gig economy jobs. Those jobs have all dried up. To recover financially, they might now need to ramp up their focus on making money and have less time for acting/designing/directing. Will we see a significant loss of the talent pool to other professions?

At the mid-size theatre level, I expect we’ll see some companies fold entirely. Especially companies who held any debt–the loss of revenue for 3-9 months will be too much to bear. Companies at this level who do survive, are likely to see pressure to shift their programming to material they feel is more financially reliable–so well-established titles or else newer work by well-known writers. I’d expect to see lots of Lauren Gunderson plays on stage (and other similarly high profile writers), because her work has such a strong track record. I fear that much of the racial and gender diversity that we’ve seen growing on stage (maybe not as fast as we would have liked) will now slow significantly, as seasons become more conservative.

Large theatres will face the same challenges. I’d expect to see layoffs at the large theatres, the impact of which will ripple downwards, because often the people working admin and staff jobs at LORT  companies are the same people who run smaller fringe companies. I expect to see programming of new work also tighten up a lot at big companies over the next few years. Smaller shows, more well-known titles.

All of which is pretty bad news for playwrights (like me) who don’t already have a strong national presence. Paid gigs will be a lot harder to come by. Theatres are an oddly conservative bunch, when it comes to programming. If the stock market cratering continues, they’re going to have a much harder time with fundraising because philanthropy will dry up, or else it might shift to poverty relief programs if the recession drifts into a depression.

For playwrights looking for paid, professional productions of their new work, opportunities are going to become far fewer, and the competition stiffer, as playwrights continue to write new work (and MFA playwrights keep graduating), and writers who were semi-famous are now forced to compete for crumbs with those of us who aren’t even close. Theatre productions are going to return–and they all need actors, directors, designers, ushers–but a resurgence can easily leave out emerging playwrights.

I think we can expect to see a steady amount of new play development–places like the O’Neill, Seven Devils, Great Plains, New Harmony, Play Penn, have a good shot at continuing their work, if they can weather the financial storm. Larger companies will still have a desire to have their hand in the new plays world, so might shift that energy to either continuing or expanding play reading and development programs.

Where we might see a boost is at the small theatre/fringe level. We’ll lose some small companies, because the skeleton crew that staffs them will need to either get other jobs or relocate to cheaper locations, but the urge to create is strong. I believe that once we become comfortable gathering in public groups again, people will have a strong urge for the connective power of theatre. And there will be a LOT to say. In many expensive cities, we’ll see many small storefront businesses driven out of business. Theatre folks are an opportunistic bunch, and if we see a sudden opening up of space and lowering of rent in non-traditional spaces, we could see a resurgence of small, innovative, new-work focused companies. That’s perhaps the most optimistic/hopeful part of this whole situation.

I think we’ll also see a steady presence of short play festivals at small companies, and perhaps at larger venues, too. Barrington Stage, Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and City Theatre have seen strong audiences over the years for their festivals. Cast size can be flexible, design costs are often low, and it’s the chance to work with a bunch of playwrights at a lower risk.

My own work is highly linked with the fortunes of the museum world, but they’re facing the same problems as everyone in the “gathering economy” (museums, public art performances, sporting events) of no revenue for months and challenges in fundraising. My niche is small but might be deemed as extraneous by some of the clients I’d hope to bring in as partners. We’ll see. I’m fighting to keep it going.

For Equity actors, this all becomes a very challenging situation–smaller casts means fewer jobs and recent changes to Equity eligibility enables people to join with fewer points. Competition for union acting jobs will grow fiercer. One big question is whether this might push Equity actors in cities outside of NYC to demand the creation of Showcase contracts that would allow smaller companies in Boston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, to hire Equity actors. It would allow them to keep their skills sharp, while waiting for larger venues to return to normal casting levels.

I so appreciate the creative, powerful, supportive energy of our theatre community that we’ve seen over the past weeks of this crisis. I’m confident that we’ll see more of it, and theatre folks are great at finding ways to create and express themselves. But I think it’s also important to go into the coming years with our eyes wide open to the challenges that are likely to face people writing new plays. And maybe we’ll find some solutions that will fund and encourage more professional production of new plays. (One can hope.)

I’m curious to see what happens next. I’ll keep writing plays, but I might need to hone my skills as a handyman just in case this whole theatre thing doesn’t pan out.

IMG 8574 - Peering into the future of the New Play Sector (esp. New England)
Robert Najarian in The America Plays, photo by Corinne Elicone

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

The post The Art Of Gary Choo appeared first on Halcyon Realms – Art Book Reviews – Anime, Manga, Film, Photography.