Why New Work?

This is the time for regional theatres to announce their upcoming seasons.  Over the last few weeks as I have been conducting a random, unscientific and totally subjective overview of the national regional theatre scene, I find myself pleased by the inclusion of new works by exciting playwrights on many lists,  but disappointed still to see some regional theatres choosing what are, in my opinion, seasons consisting only of less interesting offerings.  New works are still considered risky productions: hard to market, difficult to fill the theatres for plays and playwrights without a prior history.

I think almost all of us who love new plays and musicals love older ones too.  Most good theatre, from any time, touches on deeply rooted, universal themes that speak to the human experience without regard to period or place – the struggles between us and our surroundings, between good and evil among men or within an individual soul; how and best to love, to parent, to live one’s best life, and the myriad stories exploring,  accompanying or incidental to those questions. Many beautiful plays have already been written about them and we have not seen them all.  Whether written decades or centuries ago, some are appropriately considered classics of the theatre and are, and should be, often performed on the stage.

So why do we need new work?  Maybe we should just encourage the production of really great shows and make sure everyone sees them.   If I get a chance to introduce someone to a well done performance of Arcadia or the best of Shakespeare  or Man of La Mancha, I think my heart fills and my blood speeds up as much as first time viewers.    And even after half a century of avid theatre-going, I have not seen all the great plays already written.  So why encourage new playwrights?  Why produce new work?

logo art by Ev Shiro

logo art by
Ev Shiro

We need those classics, yes.  But we need new work, too.   We need those new voices, those new stories, and perhaps most importantly, the new ways to tell the stories.   In as many ways as our world is the same as it was in Shakespeare’s time, it is also different.  There are families now the color and sexes and domestic issues of which were simply not dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy.  The English language, certainly in its Americanized version, has evolved in many ways, not always lovely.   We have, for example, traded a certain potential for subtle wit for a raw honesty that is more colorful and musical and can be effective in a different way.  Developments in stagecraft and technology now allow for continually changing ways to engage, emphasize and interact with an audience.  Not all of these developments are always an improvement but sometimes they are stunningly successful.

If a new play is great (and we all know not all new work is great), maybe it’s particularly wonderful  just because it’s fresh – a blend of today’s language and modern interactions showcasing those classic, universal conundrums.  But maybe it’s more than that.  A good play of any genre often effectuates powerful messaging by engendering  an element of surprise or wonder.  So “newness” – a lack of familiarity with elements in the play (like language or setting or costumes or technology or, well, the list is limited only by the theatre artists’ imaginations!) can set up that potential shockwave, that frisson of new that, at least, gets one’s attention in a special way.   Perhaps the updated lens allows us to see age old issues anew and recognize ourselves in them, or perhaps truly new stories are being found and told.

Photo by Niko Kitaoka — with Les Reinhardt at TheatreWorks

Photo by Niko Kitaoka — with Les Reinhardt at TheatreWorks

If you already love new works, great! Help spread the word – encourage your regional theatre to sponsor writing workshops and play readings.  Attend new works festivals and bring friends.  If you’re new to new works, give them a try.  Go to a play you’ve never heard of by a playwright who is not famous.  Trust your local Artistic Director to have selected something terrific for you to experience.  There’s a special feeling at the end of a new play reading or premiere when you know you’ve just seen a powerful moment in today’s theatre, or possibly even a future classic being born.

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