Whenever a new play opens, the audience hopes to be entertained and moved, often knowing less about what it took to bring a new work onto the stage. The fact is, most plays have undergone years of rewrites and edits before audiences ever get the chance to see them.
After recently seeing the breathtaking Broadway revival of West Side Story, I found myself wondering, “What’s new?”
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the past. West Side Story, in my opinion, is the greatest musical of all time. But I still yearn to hear new voices.
In pursuit of that yearning, I decided to check out the second annual PlayShop Festival produced by the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop. While I didn’t get a chance to see all the plays, I did see Joe Byers’ Noori and the Infidels, a satire about retirement in the shadow of the American dream.
The Philadelphia Theatre Workshop is a promising new company that strives to nurture young playwrights and bring their works to life.
“It gave me a chance to solve some script problems in a production context,” Byers said. “I got a lot clearer about how fiercely I love this play.”
Temple playwriting professor Seth Bauer knows something about new plays. In addition to teaching a class about new theatrical works, Bauer is a playwright himself. His latest endeavor, Karma Cookie, opened March 5 at the Adrienne Theatre. The play follows two brothers and their karmic journeys to find themselves.
“It’s kind of an existential romp,” said Bauer, 38, who said the work is his largest production in Philly.
Although developing plays and getting theaters interested in pursuing them is never easy, both Byers and Bauer have had their works produced around the country and internationally. Byers’ play, Veils, has been performed in India.
New York City is a daunting place for anyone hoping to launch a play. The bright lights of 42nd Street and the intellectual off-Broadway theater snobs can certainly conspire to obliterate any confidence you once had in your work. Still, both Bauer and Byers have had successful productions in New York.
In fact, Bauer views Philadelphia as a more difficult theater keg to tap.
“There’s something tricky about Philadelphia,” he said. “It seems to take a while to be embraced by the theater community. While in New York, strangely within a few months, I started getting my plays produced.”
This is why companies like the Philadelphia Theatre Workshop are so important. Experimental theater groups give writers a chance to develop their works in an environment that discourages commercial greed and encourages creativity. Many projects around the country offer similar assistance, including the Summer Play Festival in New York City and various city Fringe Festivals.
“The work they enable is not constrained by the grind of the commercial production process,” Byers said. “The work they enable holds a raw mirror up to our world and challenges us to see ourselves.”
The fact of the matter is, wherever you are, writing meaningful plays is difficult, and getting a work staged is even harder.
Playwrights say the key to success is to stick to themes and stories close to your heart yet relevant for the masses. From new writers to Woody Allen and Neil Simon, there’s comfort in the familiar.
For Bauer, it’s about exploring existentialism and the individual.
“I address a lot of existential questions and crises, like, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’” he said. “I tend to confront justice but not so much politically.”
On the other hand, Byers seems to focus on issues concerning the LGBTQI community. Noori and the Infidels, for example, centers on a gay protagonist and his parents’ attractive, exotic and impressionable butler.
Even after a play has been produced, a playwright’s job is not done. Byers plans to continue developing Noori and the Infidels, along with other projects.
“Not all of the changes I made to the script in Philly will stay in,” he said. “I think the PlayShop has transformed me into something of a samurai. I’ve been slashing away at the thing all week.”
Seeing a play through from start to finish can be a long and exhausting process, but when a playwright’s words are finally being spoken on stages lining Broad Street or Broadway, it’s indescribably rewarding.
“It’s sort of like an architect finally seeing the building,” Bauer said. “You spend years working on it, and then, actors and directors come in, and in a very tiny amount of time, they make decisions. It’s like an Amish barn-raising – all of a sudden it’s up there, and everyone can see it.”
Max McCormack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.