It’s been about five years now, by the reckoning of my email account, since I first put into writing the simple idea that we ought to have a worldwide database to 1) Put new scripts into when we’re done making them, and 2) Dig new scripts out of when we really need to find some. I call that a simple idea because it still strikes me, just as it did back in 2010, as both obvious and inevitable: somewhere between “Of course we need that” and “Why don’t we have that already?” The half-decade between that email and the launch of the New Play Exchange, however, has been about as simple as the Hamiltonian equation that describes a system of coupled pendulums. (Yeah, that’s a real thing; I used to be a physics major, and that was the damnably difficult question I had to answer in order to pass a particularly baffling seminar’s final exam.) My first email led to a year of meetings and countless hours sketching out an early, rough prototype… followed by a year of utterly failing to raise enough money to build the thing. As a veteran of the dot-com startup era who survived two brutal years of 80-hour weeks and multiple rounds of layoffs only to watch a very promising company crumble, I should perhaps have quit, but instead I made what football fans call a Hail Mary pass and published my entire idea on HowlRound. My hope was that someone somewhere would manage to build the database, with or without me. There was a very lively conversation, both in the comments on the blog post and on Twitter; a few people were skeptical, but most were very enthusiastic, and I thought perhaps something might come of all the excitement… but then the world fell silent. I feared the worst.
As it happened, however, the world was anything but silent. (Hubris on my part, perhaps, to have thought it was.) Conversations were indeed happening in earnest, particularly at the National New Play Network: not about the New Play Oracle I detailed on HowlRound, mind you, but about a centralized literary office. The staff of NNPN—an alliance of theaters dedicated to the development, production and continued life of new plays—was dreaming about a literary manager who might be able serve the entire network, or even a team of literary managers to serve the entire country. They asked themselves what sort of tools that team might need, too, and eventually they circled around to the notion of an electronic literary office, including a database of scripts… which brought them, to my great joy, back to me. My email account tells me they reached out to me two-and-a-half years ago in the hope of picking my brain… and that a few months later they did me the great honor of hiring me as the Project Director for the development of the New Play Exchange. (Exchange, by the way, is a terrific improvement over Oracle; all credit due to Jason Loewith, NNPN’s former Executive Director, for the assist.) We spent the next year, pretty much, flying all over the country, talking to anyone and everyone about our little database project—playwrights, literary managers, dramaturgs, artistic directors, directors, agents, publishers, you name it—and then, our blueprints fully-fledged and thoroughly discussed with our colleagues throughout the new play sector, we chose a development partner and started building the darn thing. Now, after eighteen months of agile product development, quality assurance, user demos, content creation, and beta testing with scores of generous users, here we are, ready to launch.
What we’re about to reveal to the world, I should note, is a lot bigger and more ambitious than the database I wrote about in HowlRound back in 2012. It’s the product of hundreds of minds, talking and thinking and challenging each other’s ideas about how to serve the new play sector. It’s the beginning of an attempt to replace the submission model—which is very badly broken, as we all know, and well beyond repair—with a new paradigm built around sharing and discovery. At the same time, the New Play Exchange is also a great deal simpler than it will be down the road; we’ve deployed the foundation of what will become, in time, a multi-faceted platform, but there are a great many features we have yet to build. Our hope is that the current iteration of the New Play Exchange will at least offer an alternative means by which playwrights and producers can connect… and that in time we’ll earn a significant role in the regular business of the new play sector at all levels, large and small. To get there, though, we still have a lot of work to do: more conversation, more testing, and more ongoing, always-in-beta development. If it’s another five years’ worth for me, personally, it’ll never be enough, because the New Play Exchange is a seriously big dream-come-true for me—just as it is, I think, for those of us who make and produce new plays—and I never want it to end.