Central Oklahoma professional, semipro, collegiate and amateur theater companies — along with touring shows and performance-art events — will stage nearly 100 productions this season. But rarely will the presentations be new plays and musicals.
Why so few productions of new work? I surveyed artistic directors of six area theater companies and found them open to new plays and musicals, but conscious — overly, one might say — of that old bugaboo,“risk.”
“Frankly, in our market, a world premiere, a new work that is just emerging on the national scene, or a second or third production of a play that is still developing all have special additional challenges associated with them,” said Donald Jordan of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre.
Jordan thinks audiences and corporate sponsors are reluctant to embrace new work, which may be attributed to the economy.
“When folks are only going to attend cultural events a limited number of times, they sometimes become more conservative in their choices,” he said, noting, however, that CityRep’s production of James Tyra’s new adaptation of “Lysistrata” had the company’s highest attendance average last season, being especially popular with younger audiences.
“Many theaters have established or built their reputations on their relationships with playwrights,” said Tom Jacobson, a Los Angeles-based playwright and former Oklahoma Cityan, citing New York City’s Circle Repertory Co. (Lanford Wilson), San Francisco’s Magic Theatre (Sam Shepard) and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (Tracy Letts). “If a theater wants to appeal to younger audiences — the audiences of the future that will ensure the patronage and survival of the theater — programming new plays is a terrific way to bring in adventurous younger people. Everyone wants to see something new. How cool to be in the audience for the world premiere of ‘August: Osage County’! You could only do that if you went to Steppenwolf.”
Jacobson said theater companies can benefit financially from producing new work, as playwrights grant them subsidiary rights to future income from the plays. This is fair, he said, because the companies took the risk to produce the plays originally.
Artistic directors enthusiastically endorse the idea of staging new work. If you are the next Shepard or Stephen Sondheim, every artistic director in town will take your call.
Some theater companies have new works in various stages of development. Lance Garrett of Ghostlight Theatre Club seeks a major underwriter for workshop treatments and full productions of plays by Oklahoma playwrights. Lyric Theatre’s Michael Baron said the company has “several projects” in development and hopes to produce world-premiere musicals in 2012 and 2013.
Audiences benefit from artistic guidance. Rhonda Clark of Carpenter Square Theatre wants to “build audiences who view new works with excitement and not skepticism.”
One hopes local audiences are adventurous enough to assume their share of the risk by supporting new plays and musicals.
But incubating just any original script is not enough. New work must be worth doing and must be done well.