Note: a significantly streamlined version of the following blog post appears on HowlRound. I offer this more in-depth analysis here for those who might be interested—including, but not limited to, those who have contributed significantly to the effort to build software solutions for the new play sector.
There are, roughly speaking, two kinds of technological innovations: tweaks and disruptions.
A tweak is a technological change that allows us to do something we already do in a slightly new and usually improved way. The shift from the manual to the electric typewriter, for example, was a tweak. The basic action of typing didn’t change, but it required less force to hit each key and to return the carriage: a small but definite advancement.
The move from the electric typewriter to the use of word processing software, likewise, was also a tweak … at least with regard to typing, which became even easier: no need to hit a carriage return at all. For deleting, on the other hand, it was a disruption. Instead of simply crumpling up a piece of paper and starting again or breaking out a bottle of Wite-Out, we could hit the magic “backspace” or “delete” keys. The paper business took a small hit, and the correction fluid industry was thoroughly decimated.
Generally speaking, disruptive technologies affect us in more profound ways than tweaks do. Think about the paradigm shift behind the move from the landline to the mobile phone. This was a genuine disruption: the one-to-one relationship between a phone and a house was replaced, in less than a generation, by a one-to-one relationship between a phone and a person. Everything about how we communicate with each other has been overhauled as a result.
(This is not to denigrate the tweak, mind you. Malcolm Gladwell argued in The New Yorker that the real genius of Steve Jobs was his ability to tweak technology, and I largely agree with him.)
Of late there has been a great deal of conversation around the need to apply technology to solving the problems of both playwrights and literary departments. What I have heard, in both participating in and leading those conversations, is a desire for tweaks. Nice things to ask for, to be sure… but I think we can do better. Much better.
I think, in fact, that the time has come for a major technological disruption. And I have a plan.
There are two things you absolutely have to do when you build new technology. Forget to do either of them, or do them poorly, and you will fail.
First, you have to know the people you’re building a solution for inside and out. What they care about, what they need, what makes them ache, what they dream about, how they work, who they are demographically, how they think, and what kind of relationship they have to technology. For starters.
In the new play sector, we would like to think that we know ourselves well, but if there is anything I’ve learned in a decade and a half of digital communications work, it’s that self-knowledge is a rare skill. We tend to think that everyone in our cohort is “just like us.” It’s almost never true.
I would even go so far as to say that we really have little idea who the 10,000 playwrights in the United States are. Hell, I don’t even know if that 10,000 number is accurate, though I’ve seen it quoted (and quoted it myself) in many places. The same is true of the country’s artistic directors and literary managers; I don’t even have a guess as to how many there are, let alone the kind of in-depth understanding of them we really ought to have. Does anyone?
Second, you have to figure out what single, well-defined problem you’re trying to solve with technology (and then never lose sight of that problem). It’s easy to get distracted, trying to solve a million things at once, but a clear focus is the only way.
This is where I think we’ve really been falling down in the new play sector. We’ve been talking about “streamlined ways for playwrights to promote their work and submit it for various opportunities” and “more efficient ways for literary departments to manage the flow of scripts.” I don’t think we’ve been dreaming big enough. Those are small technological tweaks; we can be disruptive, but only by solving the single most intractable problem of the last few decades: the divide between playwrights and theaters. Nothing else has as much potential to revolutionize what we do.
How do playwrights and theaters connect? What’s the real challenge here? And what’s really getting in the way, in practical terms? I’ll begin with three assumptions:
- That there are about 10,000 playwrights living and working in the United States.
- That each of those playwrights is generating what he or she believes to be one “finished” script per year, on average.
- That nationwide, theaters are producing approximately 1,000 new plays per year.
(We need more accurate data for all three of these criteria before we start building anything, but these rough numbers are good enough to speculate with.)
With those three assumptions in mind, a challenge becomes clear: how do we collectively filter the most appropriate 10% of those 10,000 plays into those 1,000 production slots? Forgetting for the moment how deflating that “placement percentage” might seem to playwrights, and how overwhelming the thought of sorting through 10,000 scripts a year to find one or two to produce might seem to theaters… I think it’s a fairly accurate assessment.
So… how have we been trying to solve that problem until now? Historically, we’ve relied on rather straightforward technology: playwrights submitted scripts to theaters, who worked tirelessly to review and consider each one and respond. It hasn’t, to be blunt, worked.
In fact, as soon as we established that solution, we started to tweak it. Theaters tried to clarify what kinds of plays they were looking for so that playwrights didn’t just send them whatever was new. They started using submission “windows”—brief months during which they’d open the transom—rather than reviewing plays all year. They replaced script submissions with query packets and script samples. They began relying on agents as submission intermediaries, asking them to find the most promising among the 10,000 playwrights. And if those filters weren’t enough, agents started applying their own: relying on certain credentials, like degrees from the right graduate programs, to decide who to represent. At this point, the technology we’re relying on has been held together with spit and band-aids for decades. It barely even works any more, if it even works at all.
What’s one unintended consequence of our bad technology? Playwright/theater alienation… which is, we should not forget, the problem we are trying to solve.
And yet… we’re reluctant to admit that we really do have a problem. In fact, when one prominent organization came out and said “This isn’t working, so we’re not doing it any longer,” they were roundly criticized. I’m speaking of course, of Arena Stage. Frankly, I credit them immensely for being willing to say that the emperor has no technology. The first step to solving any problem, after all, is admitting you have one. Moreover, I think they also deserve some credit for clearly outlining the technology they plan to use to find their one or two new plays a year from the 10,000 that are being produced: putting playwrights on staff (and committing to produce their work) and attending new play festivals and reading series around the country.
Let’s ask ourselves for a minute, though, whether that technology might be extended to address the challenge we identified: filtering 10% of the 10,000 new plays a year into 1,000 production slots. For Arena’s method to work, we’d have to get at least 500 or 1,000 playwrights onto the payrolls of theaters around the country. And we’d probably need to establish an even more robust network of new play festivals and reading series to make sure that more plays got exposed. Two daunting tasks, to be sure… but let’s assume for the moment that they’re achievable.
What would happen, then, to the other 9,000-9,500 playwrights? Would it prove to be ridiculously hard to break into the employed group? And who would be responsible for selecting which plays would be heard in those reading series and produced in those new play festivals? How would we ensure that a diversity of voices—all races, genders, ages, localities, and so on—would end up being represented? (We’re doing terribly at that last one right now, as you might have noticed.)
My guess –and this is just a guess—is that Arena’s solution will probably only end up working for theaters of Arena’s size and scope. This is not to say that they shouldn’t rely on it. It is to say, however, that the new play sector shouldn’t consider Arena’s methods a replicable panacea. There are too many obstacles (many of them financial, but some of them also logistical) to smaller institutions hiring playwrights and traveling to festivals. It doesn’t seem to scale.
We need technology that works for everyone… or at least for a whole lot more of us. Remember: you have to know the people you’re building a solution for. Arena isn’t representative of the new play sector. They are an edge case: a demographic stand-out. We need to be thinking about the average theater doing new work. We need to know who they are and build technology that’s suited to their needs.
In the last twelve months or so, I’ve had conversations about technology and playwright/theater alienation with many of the institutions across the country that have been publically thinking about it, from the Playwrights Center to the National New Play Network. I’ve also talked with countless individual artists and arts administrators in venues both virtual and brick-and-mortar. I’ve seen people trying to create plug-ins for Arena Stage’s New Play Map. I’ve seen enterprising software developers building customized systems for script distribution and sales. I’ve met with groups working on standardized back-office script-tracking software for regional theaters. I know of at least a half-dozen ways in which various folks have tried to crack the same nut from different angles using different tools. And here’s the problem: none of these people are talking to each other. None of them are collaborating.
The problem that needs to be addressed, however you look at it—the alienation between playwrights and theaters, or the need to filter 10,000 plays into 1,000 production slots—is everyone’s problem. It doesn’t belong to playwrights. It doesn’t belong to theaters. It belongs to the whole new play sector. Because of this shared ownership, I would suggest, we are only ever really going to solve it by working together.
Of the various software outlines I’ve looked at and the various products I’ve investigated, I haven’t seen any that are genuinely holistic—that are designed for us all. I’ve seen solutions for self-producing playwrights, for small membership groups of playwrights, for small theaters, for large theaters, for theaters that are members of certain service organizations. I’ve daydreamed about finding the right Lego pieces that would let me snap them all together into one Franken-software package, but it never seems to happen that way. I just can’t find the right pieces when I need them.
So here’s what I propose instead. (Remember I said I had a plan?) I propose that two major new play organizations—one representing playwrights (the Playwrights Center?) and one representing theaters—co-lead a sector-wide technology project. Funded (I hope) by foundations interested in overhauling the new play sector (of which there must be a few) the project will follow a simple five-step process:
1) Define the problem. (I adhere to my own rules.) Assemble a representative group of, say, 10 experts to spend a day or so defining the problem we’re going to address. Do it all publically, and get input from far-and-wide using blogs and Facebook and Twitter, and publish the resulting definition for everyone to see.
2) Get to know the people we’re building for. (Again, I follow the rules.) The core group working on the project should spend a few days with playwrights at all career levels getting to know exactly who they are and what makes them tick. Then they should spend a few weeks meeting with representatives from a diverse cross section of theaters doing the same thing, either in groups or one-on-one. At least 30 playwrights and at least 30 different literary managers and artistic directors, though 50 of each would be better.
3) Sketch a solution. The core team should spend about four weeks together detailing exactly what the technology ought to look like. What features are people looking for? What do they want to be able to do? Where are the opportunities for innovation? How can technology address the core problem as we’ve identified it? (Below I’ve outlined my rough guess at what the right solution would look like; it or something like it might serve as a starting point for discussion.)
4) Take it back to the people. Show the whole sector the complete set of sketches. Make good and sure that everyone at every level gets to see it. Go back to the same groups of 30 and show it to them. Get their feedback. Post the sketches on the web and take comments. Hold video town hall discussions about them. And incorporate everyone’s feedback into a final set of blueprints for a solution that’s thoroughly tested and ready.
5) Design and build the thing. Again, one would hope there’d be foundation funding to do this. (My guess at the cost, having budgeted projects of this scope for a decade: $250,000, give or take $50,000.) Better yet, though: release the specs under a Creative Commons license. Assemble an interested group of open source developers to build a platform freely. You won’t get exactly what you’ve asked for that way, but you might get something close… and a few innovations in the bargain.
In any event, keeping the system up and running will no doubt be a costly endeavor, with annual licensing fees and server space and people to keep the wheels turning, for whichever non-profit organization (or consortium) “owns” it, so we should all expect to pay some small fee—$5 a year for playwrights, $50-$500 for theaters, depending on their size?—to keep it running. That’s something else to figure out along the way.
For what this new technology is going to do for us, it’ll be well worth it. Read on.
Okay, so… what IS this technology going to look like? What’s it going to be? It’s time, I think, to share my straw man. (Apologizes for the gender-specific term there—I couldn’t find a non-gendered alternative.)
What I believe we really need to build is a centralized new play database: one master repository of information that serves a variety of distinct purposes and user groups. Want to give it a sexier name? Let’s call it the New Play Oracle (for now—part of the fun later will be naming the thing for real).
Many new entries in the New Play Oracle, as I see it, would be made by those 10,000 playwrights: one entry every time a play gets created. (And yes, the system would allow for work created by more than one author.) The entry would contain all the standard components we expect in association with a script: a synopsis, a character breakdown, a development history, a sample of the dialogue, and even (assuming the right level of security) a copy of the full script. Fairly straightforward, no?
A playwright would also have the option of assigning a script to a variety of categories (genre, for example, and running time), and tagging each entry with any number of script-specific keywords. Playwrights would be able to update every entry at any time, too: adding a production history after the play gets produced, for example, or even production-specific images and links to online reviews.
In addition, each playwright (or play-making collaborative) would have an individual artist entry in the New Play Oracle, complete with a bio, a resume, a photograph, contact information (or his/her/their representative’s contact information), and so on.
At the same time, anyone whose job it is to review scripts—a category in which I think we ought to include everyone from volunteer script readers to literary managers to artistic directors—would also have a window into the New Play Oracle under the heading of the organizations they’re associated with. For example: if your job is to read and consider plays for Theater A, then logging into the New Play Oracle will give you access to the entries for every play ever considered by Theater A
You’ll be able to enter your coverage about the plays you’re reading, update a detailed history of the theater’s relationship with the playwright in question, “forward” the script on to others in your organization for review, assign the script to your theater’s own custom categories, and add your theater’s own custom-created tags.
(I should be clear about something here: no one who doesn’t work for the organization in question will see anything entered into the system this way… especially not the playwright. This aspect of the New Play Oracle is merely intended to help theaters maintain a solid institutional knowledge base about the plays and playwrights they’ve considered and worked with: to streamline and simplify the new play review and consideration process.)
Note that I haven’t mentioned anything about submissions (open or otherwise) yet. The New Play Oracle works even if scripts are only being solicited directly from playwrights or agents or written by staff playwrights or discovered at festivals, per Arena’s model. In fact, all I’ve described so far are tweaks to existing technologies. Playwrights already create synopses and character breakdowns and script samples and store them on their hard drives. Theaters already track the scripts they review; they just do it in custom databases and in spreadsheets.
The real disruption is yet to come.
So if the New Play Oracle has an entry point for theaters, there’s really no reason it can’t have one for development programs and reading festivals and contests as well, right?
Imagine that a development program, for example—one that takes submissions—could create its own entry in the New Play Oracle. The entry would include all the standard contact information, a description of the program in question, a set of keyword tags to make the program searchable, dates on which submissions will open and close, and (hopefully) a date by which decisions will be rendered. Most importantly, the New Play Oracle would allow each development program to indicate what submission materials it wanted to see from playwrights—synopses, character breakdowns, bios, and so on.
And this where the real magic happens: given that development programs will be selecting from the same contents that playwrights will already be uploading, the submission can actually happen via the New Play Oracle itself! The playwright can search for upcoming opportunities, sort them by a variety of criteria, find one that seems appropriate, and submit one of his/her/their plays with the click of a button, given that all of the necessary submission materials are already in the database.
Furthermore, the development program can use a slightly-modified version of the script-review-and-assessment interface we’ve given to theaters to track their submissions. (By the way, yes, there would be some sort of Kindle plug-in for those who read scripts electronically.) And when they’ve made their decision, they can even notify the people who submitted by using the New Play Oracle… because it would only make sense to integrate basic communications tools into the thing, too.
But what if instead of relying on submissions, or only on submissions, the folks who run development programs did a few searches as well? Imagine the director of a new play development program consulting the New Play Oracle and looking for unproduced scripts that meet a variety of criteria: playwrights residing in a certain state, playwrights of a certain gender, plays on certain subjects, plays of certain lengths, plays added to the database within the last year, and—this is particularly important—plays that have been tagged by their authors as “needing development.”
The consultation might look like any other search; results could be filtered in a variety of ways. The program director could skim synopses and descriptions and tags and read sample and then, with the click of a button—thank you, New Play Oracle—ask a playwright or two (or more) for permission to consider their work for an upcoming program.
Now we’re starting to see a disruption.
But what exactly is the nature of that disruption? Stated simply, I think the New Play Oracle would facilitate a sector-wide paradigm shift from submissionstoward searching.
Instead of the old technology we’ve used to funnel some subset of our 10,000 plays into (far fewer) annually-available slots—playwrights and their agents submitting their work far and wide—the holders of those slots will begin using new tactics and technology (like the New Play Oracle) to seek and find appropriate scripts and artists.
(Isn’t that largely what Arena has done, by the way? Switch from submissions to searching? The new paradigm may have arrived already without us realizing it!)
Yes, it’s true that theaters intent on maintaining an open-submissions policy could use the New Play Oracle to accept and consider scripts. My guess, though, is that the increasing ease of submissions enabled by the New Play Oracle would result in an overwhelming number of playwrights sharing their work with theaters. After all, what would it cost a playwright: the click of a button? (That’s the hidden reason behind requiring printed scripts and esoteric formatting and byzantine submission requirements—it minimizes submissions artificially.) I predict that if we had a working New Play Oracle, almost every single theater would abandon the concept of open submissions entirely (though agented submissions might continue) and embrace a searching-based model.
But what would that mean, exactly? For starters, it would transform the way in which responsibilities for bridging the playwright/theater divide are assigned. Instead of reactively responding to inquiries, theaters would be proactively looking high and low to ensure that they found the best work for their audiences and communities and artists. Instead of proactively sending work around, playwrights would react to inquiries and ensure that their work is accurately represented and “discoverable” by the world at large. More importantly, they’d be freer to focus on making their work better.
So here’s where things really get disrupted. In a submission-based paradigm, playwrights are incented to find agents to represent them in the submission process. Agents hold special keys that open certain mail slots into which only agented scripts can be dropped, and they earn those keys by having a reputation for only representing plays and playwrights of “merit.” Agents work for playwrights, and get paid by playwrights, but they really serve the submissions-based system: they act as filters, funneling a small subset of those 10,000 plays into the 1,000 available production slots.
But if the new paradigm is all about searching, are agents even necessary? Or do we really need search consultants instead? Hired by theaters—big theaters might have their own, and mid-size theaters might hire freelancers, and smaller theaters might assign the work internally—their job would be to consult the New Play Oracle with a particular theater’s creative needs and aesthetic preferences and community interests in mind and return a filtered, qualified set of results for review and consideration. Does that sound a little bit like a literary manager’s job, or part of it? It does to me, too, but I think it’s really a new position that deserves a new title. We’ll have to think of one. This is, after all, a disruption.
It may be true that agents still have a role to play. We may enter a period in which submissions and searching models operate side-by-side, and that period might last forever. Who’s to say? But if we are going to embrace the paradigm shift, then we really need technology to make it work well. We cannot simply rely on the ability of Arena Stage and every other theater to travel around the country finding plays and playwrights. We need something, I would argue, like the New Play Oracle I’ve just described.
(This may be the time to mention that we already have a kindred system in place: the New Play Map. The map does a great job of focusing on and solving one key problem—making visible the enormous new play infrastructure in the United States and thus addressing the culture of scarcity in the sector. As admirable as it is, however, I think the usefulness of the map is ultimately undermined by its under-developed answer to the other key question: who is this for? “People who make and produce new plays” just isn’t a specific-enough answer for software development.)
So, what else might the New Play Oracle do for us? A great deal, I believe. The next major shift it could enable would stem from the ability of the system to handle blind submissions… or, to be true to what I’ve suggested, blind searches. Imagine if theaters looking for work could choose to hide certain criteria from search results, like age and gender and race and degree status, or any other personally-identifiable information. They would easily be able to consider work on its own merits, at least on the first pass, which might help minimize concerns about elitism in play selection and go part of the way toward establishing more of a meritocracy.
At the same time, theaters could actually use those data points to proactively find work by historically under-represented artists. Set “women playwrights only” or “playwrights of color only” as a search criteria and BOOM. No one need ever say again that they couldn’t find diverse work. Because the real secret genius behind the New Play Oracle—the thing that would make it really transformative for the sector—is that it serve as a low-cost way to expose playwrights who are currently hidden and make their plays more broadly discoverable.
Did you turn your nose up at the term “low-cost” in that last sentence? Does $250,000 really seem like that much to you, or even $300,000, or even $300,000 plus $50,000 of annual maintenance and upgrade costs plus $150,000 of soft costs I haven’t even thought of? Let’s put the total bill $500,000 in year one and $200,000 thereafter. We’ll amortize the original investment over ten years and call it $250,000 a year. (Someone better schooled in economics than I am can adjust either my math or my terminology, but I know from experience that I’m not too far off.)
To me, $250,000 is probably far less than we’re currently spending to keep the current system alive. Do the rough calculation with me. Add up all the money that some larger and mid-size theaters are currently spending to build and maintain their own custom databases. Throw in the hours of data processing required to keep those databases populated with basic information—hours that would be distributed, essentially, among the nation’s 10,000 playwrights. Throw in the money that playwrights are currently spending to print and mail scripts (because we’d be moving to a mostly-electronic submission process); if the average playwright spends, say, $50/year, that’s the whole cost right there! The New Play Oracle would, I speculate, represent a significant cost savings for our sector, though of course a more in-depth cost analysis is warranted.
The absolute best thing about the New Play Oracle, though, is that it would be shared by virtually every member of the new play sector. Playwrights and members of literary departments, to be sure… but with a few tweaks to make some of its information public, directors could consult it when looking for new plays, members of the press might get to know playwrights better before writing about their work, and marketing directors might find information useful in promoting a new play. Heck, even theatergoers might use it to follow the developments of their favorite playwrights. In time, the New Play Oracle might become common ground on which we would create together across disciplines on different endeavors.
How else are we supposed to overcome the alienation we’re trying to address? Certainly there are other non-technological solutions, and I don’t mean to suggest that the New Play Oracle will address every concern we’ve got. But it would be a start—and a really big one—and I think we should start making it happen right now.