Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The New Play Exchange: Some Brief Recommendations


Earlier this year, I joined the New Play Exchange, a platform that may end up radically changing the new play sector of the theater industry.

Under the old model, playwrights would submit their work to theaters and hope to get someone interested in the work they had labored upon. On the other end of this submission process developed a class of of theater professionals whose duties included the appraisal of new theatrical texts -- often known as dramaturgs or literary managers. For playwrights, the experience is something I have elsewhere called "the dramaturgical black box." On top of this process is the natural tendency amongst those making the selections to privilege the cohort with which they are affiliated, meaning that often attempts to reform widely perceived biases within the system reaffirm the privilege of social capital that comes from attending the right school with the right people, writing plays that neatly fit into the right genre, living in the right metropolitan area at the right point in one's career, and receiving prestigious fellowships and awards (often chosen by other people with associated with the right schools.) In short, the social capital of the people associated with the play often ends up being more important than the play itself.

The New Play Exchange serves as an alternative model in which playwrights upload their plays to a database, affix metadata about the genre, themes, and cast breakdowns. The metadata then allows directors, dramaturgs, and producers to search out and discover plays rather than wait for one to come in over the transom, or rely primarily on their professional cohort.

Other metadata are recommendations posted by users. Since most of my current writing about theater has been in my capacity as a critic, I have not yet posted a great many recommendations to the New Play Exchange, but I will share those I have posted thus far, and soon, I will post some of the recommendations I've received.

This year, I reviewed two plays by Cassie M. Seinuk. Last week it was Wax Wings' production of her Eyes Shut. Door Open. which is described as a modern update to the Cain and Abel story (my full review can be read here.):


Seinuk knows her mythology, and drawing upon not just Genesis but also Greek and Norse mythology. Her allusions to and repetitions of mythological violence elevates Eyes Shut. Door Open. above the popular plot formula of dark domestic secrets revealed at a family reunion.

I reviewed her earlier play, From The Deep (full review here when it was presented by Boston Public Works:

From the Deep manages to be psychologically realistic despite being set in a rule-bound imaginary space. Seinuk deftly acknowledges the political and social realities off-stage without taking the focus off of the struggle that Ilan and Andrew face as they attempt to maintain their sanity.

Asher Wyndham is something of a New Play Exchange hero, having, as of this writing, written fifty-eight recommendations, including four for my plays. While his play Allegra Gray is still in development, I was impressed with how he dealt with the ethical conundrum faced by his protagonist:

ALLEGRA GRAY treats the protagonist's decision to either keep or abort a pregnancy as a very personal drama: As a local celebrity, she is forced not only consider how her decision will affect her family, but her career, and ability to live in her city, as she becomes the target both of well-wishers and advocacy groups unafraid to engage in public shaming. Wyndham's play avoids simple moralizing, rather dealing with how individuals must navigate the myriad balance ethical demands they can only face on their own.

I was particularly interested in reading Trish Harnetiaux' play, If You Can Get To Buffalo because of its setting. LambdaMOO is an online community founded in 1990 that predates Facebook, Myspace, and even tribe.net, and Friendster -- and in which I had participated since 1996. If You Can Get To Buffalo is adapted from Julian Dibbell's 1999 book My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World and his 1993 Village Voice article, "A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society". Both Dibbell and PBS talkshow host Charlie Rose appear as characters in Harnetiaux' play:

Speaking as a long-time denizen of LambdaMOO (though my time began a few years after the events of 1993), I find that "If You Can Get To Buffalo" captures the creative approaches to identity (and in many cases, ethics) that marked the milieu -- as well as the trouble that people had articulating just what life was like in this new frontier -- not just to those for whom the internet was still unexplored, but even to those who were experiencing it daily.

Having seen a reading of an early version of Meron Langsner's Burning Up the Dictionary in 2011 and later, in a full production by Vagabond Theatre Group, I had this to say:

"Burning Up The Dictionary" very cleverly tells its story of a couple negotiating the intimacy of their private language after their break-up. Particularly smart is the final scene actually forces the audience to question whether they may need to reevaluate their understanding of what had been said and done; it's not a plot twist, so much as a semantic twist.

Up next: Recommendations I have received and if I have learnt anything from them.

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