A new play doesn’t generally come to the stage white hot out of the playwright’s printer directly into the actors’ hands, nary a change to be made, a story fully realized for the stage. No, the genesis of a new work is a lot more difficult, complicated, and costly than that. It requires careful shaping, care, and a lot of support to see the light of day.
Some theatres have large programs to create and foster new work. They build audiences that understand how a new play functions and have an appetite for that process. Long Wharf Theatre has had a long track record of developing new work, and Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein regards it as an important part of the institutional agenda. However, since the economic downturn in 2008, the theatre has had difficulty getting its new play apparatus up and working. In his mind, it’s a real problem.
“I am convinced that receptivity to new writing represents the very best of remedies for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual stagnation. And what better form than the theatre: live, immediate and visceral,” said Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.
Not only is Long Wharf Theatre’s charge the re-examination of classic plays, it is to add to the theatrical canon by seeking out unique and innovative voices, and giving them a platform for their work. In the recent past the theatre has supported the work of Julia Cho, Noah Haidle, Laura Jacqmin, and Heidi Schreck, all considered at the time up and coming playwrights. “In order to be doing work that reflects our community and our world here and now, we need to be finding people who are writing now,” said Elizabeth Nearing, Long Wharf Theatre’s literary manager.
Finding and creating new work is an expensive proposition. Most plays have several workshops before a production, theatrical laboratories, so to speak, where a playwright can hear how a play sounds without the pressure of full performance. To give an example, a one week reading of a play could cost over $10,000, depending on the number of actors involved and the needs of the play. A musical tends to be more expensive, with a month long workshop running over $100,000. “It gives the playwright a sense of what the play is like off the page,” Nearing said. “The benefit of a new play development program is that it can be tailored to each playwright and what they need. Many plays have a long path towards being concrete. A play is a living breathing thing and each one is different.”
In many cases, the best way to assure that Long Wharf Theatre always has new work in the pipeline is to commission writers. It’s a way to take an exciting new voice and create a long term relationship with them, giving them the freedom they need to reach the full blossom of their creative impulse. “We want to give the playwright a place where they can feel at home and be supported,” Nearing said.
Using the theatre’s 50th anniversary as a launching pad to the future, Long Wharf has created the Lord/Kubler Fund for New Work to help generate the resources to fund the process. The fund is named in memory of Ruth Lord and Betty Kubler, two of Long Wharf Theatre’s beloved founding trustees who were driving forces behind the theatre for decades. The fund will be invested with the Community Foundation forGreater New Haven. Thanks to the support of Betty and Ruth’s friends, and other local organizations over $1 million has already been raised.
It’s a good beginning, but more is needed to for Long Wharf Theatre to continue its role as an innovator in the field. “Long Wharf Theatre continues its commitment to enriching the lives of our patrons, our city and our country by producing compelling and challenging new ideas and voices on our stages,” Edelstein said.
— Steve Scarpa