Notes To A Young Director: The different stages of new play development — Courtney McClellan , Jaz Dorsey , New play development — AAPEX

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Notes To A Young Director: The different stages of new play development

We have just had a most wonderful experience with a new script reading here in Nashville. Carolyn German, who heads up the Metro Parks Theatre Department, had decided that her department would sponsor a year long new play reading series and the African American Playwrights Exchange was given the opportunity to kick that series off with a reading of BILLIE'S BLUES, Hershell Norwood's new play about Billie Holiday. That reading has lead to other offers, so we are now planning a "workshop" for Black History Month.

One of the joys of this past project was getting to work with an amazing young artist named Courtney McClellan. This was Courtney's first directing experience outside of college. When I suggested that our next venture be a "workshop production" she asked me to define the different stages of new play development. I am sharing my notes with her below in case others may find them of value - or for any feedback or critique on any glaring oversights I may have made in my observations.



Here are the predictable phases of a new play development


1. Table read - this is generally at someone's home, around a table with scripts, for the benefit of the playwright and the actors, but no audience.
2. Table read level 2 - same as above but with one or two outsiders.
3. Living room read - the actors are set apart and there is an "audience" of close supporters of the project who will give the thumbs up if the script is ready for a more public audience.
4. Invited read - held in a public space for an invited audience of potential backers and artistic team members
5. Public read - for public audience, actors sitting with scripts. Full narration, no blocking
6. Staged reading - for public, with blocking, minimal narration - what we had at the Looby

Readings are usually free to the public, though often donations are requested. The ONLY reason we didn't ask for donations at The Looby was because we had the use of the theatre for free. Asking for donations would have caused a problem with Metro. Randi Michaels & Ted Swindley could have easily charged for their reading of GUESS WHO'S COMING TO SEDER, which was seen by over 300 people, all of whom I think would have paid $5.00 or even $10.00 to see that reading.

PHASE 2 - Workshopping

Actors off book, basic blocking, some narration, minimal lights, sets and props, suggestive costuming. The idea at this point is that the script has been through a pretty thorough development process and all cuts and tweeks have been made. Now we want to release the script to the actors so we can see the physical dynamics at work in their characters and in the relationships.

With workshops, you usually start charging a small amount, especially since you are normally working in a theatre space and have to pay some rent. The rest of the funds usually go to reimburse folks for their small expenses.

PHASE 3 - Showcases

Showcases are important because they allow you to "produce" the script with out calling it a "production"

Oddly enough, getting your script "Produced" can be death for the script because many producers will not touch a script that has been previously produced. Which makes no sense to me, except that often the first "producers" do sign a contract with the playwright which gives them entitlements with regards to future productions. But you would think that having had a play produced would be an asset, when in fact it can be a detriment.

So in New York, scripts often have multiple "showcases."

NELLIE, the Bernice Lee musical for which I was composer and co-lyricist, had 2 Equity showcases - an Off Off Broadway Equity showcase in 1997 and an Off Broadway Equity showcase (at The Lambs Theatre on Times Square) in 1999.

Using Equity guidelines as, well, a guideline - Equity showcases have a cap on the budget which is set by Equity. When we did the Off Broadway showcase of NELLIE in 99, that cap was $17,000.00 of which I put up half, which is one reason I ain't got no money today.

Sadly, actors are not really compensated for showcases beyond car fare, but money goes into costumes and sets. With NELLIE we spent a nice chunk on getting the music arranged by a young fellow who had studied with Sondheim. Unfortunately he made all of my music sound like Sondheim, which was all wrong because my "muse" for that score was Kurt Weill. But at least it wasn't a production, just a showcase, so those arrangements are not set in stone.

You definitely charge for a showcase - I think our tickets were $15.00 or $20.00 and we sold pretty well, but we still lost money - which in a way I recouped as a loss on my taxes, because the NYC showcase is actually set up as a business and you can take a loss.

Similar to "showcases" are "festival" productions. Festivals offer pretty much the same safety net to the playwright and collaborators in that they do not count as actual "productions" - they are really special showcases where a number of plays are mounted and publicized together with the "validation" of having been accepted into the festival. Playwrights and their collaborators bear the expense of mounting the play and sometimes even the cost of publicizing as well.

By the time BILLIE'S BLUES got to us, it had been through several readings and two "festival" productions, so we were ready to at least get the actors on their feet. Knowing what we do now about our audience's reaction to the script and the cast, another reading would be a waste of time, which is why we need these guys off book, blocked and costumed. I'm thinking that we need to get with Sabine and turn that room INTO Mama's Jam with some embellishments, which is what I want to discuss with you as soon as Sabine confirms our date. Even if we just put up photos of Billie and other famous jazz musicians on the wall ( it is an art gallery, after all)

If our "workshop" were to lead to anything further, I would still position that as a "showcase" so as not to hurt Hershell's chances at a future production by a better financed producer. However, Perlie has put me in contact with a producer in Newport News, Va. who might actually be interested in bringing our cast up there. If that were to happen, then obviously we would find ourselves in "production" mode.

Hope this helps to clarify the different stages of developing a script for it's actual life in the American theatre.

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