What If Every Production Were a Premiere?

Much has been made, for a long time now and by many people, about the phenomenon of “premiere-itis.” This is the notion that too many theaters are overly concerned with being the first to produce a given script, when in fact many new plays need the dramaturgical work of more than one production to find their highest states. Let me say from the outset that I wholeheartedly endorse that notion. In my experience, the plus/minus number (as the betting parlors dub it) is three, which is another way of saying that whatever flaws remain in a script after a trio of earnest attempts to develop it for a live audience probably aren’t fixable half of the time.

So let’s for a second play a bit of a semantic game and redefine the word “premiere” so that it means “any of the first three productions of a play,” okay? Okay, good. Now I want you to imagine something: what if, in fact, every production were a premiere using that new definition? Wouldn’t that be, at least for those of us in the new play sector, a very good thing, rather than something to rail against? Yes, I believe it would. But before I explain why, let me extend the rules here a bit. Since I’m the one making them up, why shouldn’t I?

  1. No play ever gets to be produced more than three times, except that…
  2. After a break of, oh, ten years, it can be produced, say, two more times… then once every seven years after that. That’s ANYWHERE in the world. Period.
  3. After the third production, a play can be published, so that people will still be able to read those plays, even if they aren’t allowed to produce them.
  4. But what the hell: we’ll let people do as many staged readings as they want of anything.
  5. And you can live-stream anything, too.
  6. And if you want, you can record the live-streams so that anyone can re-watch them whenever. (I’m trying to throw you a few bones here.)

Got it? Fairly simple. So let’s just think for a second about what might happen if we all agreed to abide by Suilebhan’s New Play Rules. (My rules, my goofy name.)

First: I think we’d start to see the demand for tickets to those initial three productions climb… maybe even through the roof. Nothing makes a resource more desirable, after all, than scarcity. The third production in particular, after all the kinks have been worked out of a script, with the play’s decade-long disappearance looming ahead of it? MAN. You might even have people scalping those tickets on the internet for a profit. Hell… are you ready for this? You might even see productions starting to *extend* more regularly. A three-week run could become an eight-week run or a several-month run under certain circumstances… assuming our programming philosophies got flexible enough to enable changes like that. Wouldn’t that be something? I can almost hear the calls to “Keep it going! Keep the story alive!”

Next, let’s think about what it would do for living playwrights. Instead of 17 productions of David Lindsay-Abaire’s GOOD PEOPLE this year, we’d have three productions; sad days for him, to be sure. But that would open up 14 other slots for the rest of us! Do the same math again for Bruce Norris’ CLYBOURNE PARK, Matthew Lopez’s THE WHIPPING MAN, and the rest of the other ten-most-frequently-produced plays scheduled for the 2012-13 theater season — just those ten plays — and we’d open up a whopping 90-100 slots for other living playwrights to tell new stories. In other words, we’d redistribute the wealth (of opportunity) a fairly good bit.

You don’t like that scheme? You think it’s an artificial mechanism: an arbitrary limit? You don’t want to limit the spread of great art as far as it really ought to go? Well, for the most part, I agree. It’s not feasible. It’s not smart. It’s not even right. (They’re my rules, so I can shoot them down if I want to.) No more right than amending the Constitution to institute, say, a maximum 7-1 ratio between the salaries of the highest- and lowest-paid employees of every company in the United States; the results might be desirable, but the means by which we’d achieve them would just feel wrong to many people.

But I do think we can (and perhaps should) achieve the same end in a very different way. Let’s continue for a second with our thought experiment: a limit on the number of times a play can be produced. How could we achieve a similar result without mandating it artificially? What positive feedback effect could we put in place to steer the theatrical ecosystem in that direction without making it a mandate? I have one idea: re-imagining the criteria under which theaters are able to keep their 501c3 non-profit statuses.

Here’s what I have in mind. In order to help them deserve the tax exemption afforded them by their communities, we mandate that theaters produce works of art for those communities: plays developed in partnership with local audiences and with the particular and specific “environmental conditions” of those audiences and their daily lives in mind. What we do is set a minimum standard: if a theater doesn’t produce at least 30% of its work in that way, it doesn’t get to take resources out of its community coffers: period.

What would that look like in practice? A new play gets commissioned by a regional theater; the terms of the commission center on subject matter relevant to the theater’s community, and the play’s development path includes several points at which members of the local community are invited into the process. By the time the play’s ready to go up in front of a paying audience, it’s become so community-centric that it really resonates locally. Might they play still work elsewhere, in other cities or regions? Of course. But the theaters in those other communities ought to be busy earning their own tax exemptions by doing the very same thing.

So what else happens if we institute that new tax exemption requirement? (In addition to the redistribution of opportunity for artists.) The main change, I believe, is that audiences would come to understand theater as a bespoke art form quite distinct from its main competitors, television and film. Theater’s value proposition would become much clearer than it currently seems to be: “This story was made for you, and you’ve only got a limited time to experience the performance before it’s gone forever.”

Frankly, that sounds pretty damn terrific to me.

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