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Are Theater Development Programs Important?

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The theater we see is not usually a first draft of a work. That seems obvious, but very little press attention is paid to just how a show gets developed. One way has traditionally been through theater development programs. These programs are intensive communal experiences, often pairing the artist with a dramaturg and advisors to develop a piece.

"You can't turn out a play that's fully formed--it is a collaboration," said playwright Jennifer Maisel, whose work includes EIGHT NIGHTS, a 2021 Ovation Award-winner for Best Playwriting. "We're starting with the words, but we need to know how the words work."

Unfortunately, in recent years, theater development programs have been dying. Sundance Theatre Program, The Lark and Berkshire Playwrights Lab are three major ones that have shuttered. Others have taken hiatuses or spoken about reformation. There are still development programs out there, but many are facing funding challenges, leading artists to worry about how long they will be able to continue. Of the large fundraising campaigns that have been mounted with a "save the theater"-type banner, very few are for these career-enhancing opportunities. They are often seen as not very important by donors, including those theatrically inclined, even though they significantly impact the pipeline of new works.

"The programs falling off is a huge problem," said David Adjmi, who teaches dramatic writing in addition to being a playwright himself. "What am I going to tell my students? Where do these young writers go when they come out of grad school? You need a place to go to incubate your work that is safe, where it's not results drive."

Of course, not everyone has had a wonderful personal experience developing their work at one of these programs. "I think that the program was great, the advisors were really great, [but] I think the overall experience is like being in a crucible," said Bradford Louryk of developing a project about Lucrezia Borgia at Sundance. "It's like Vietnam for people who make theater. And I definitely came out shell-shocked."

But even Louryk strongly believes in the necessity of these programs. He blamed his negative experience at Sundance on being paired with the wrong dramaturg (then Sundance lead dramatist Mame Hunt), contrasting it with a positive experience at The Orchard Project. The Orchard Project is one of the development opportunities still available to artists, though in 2022 only 2020/2021 class members were allowed to participate.

There probably isn't an artist you could contact that would not support the proliferation of developmental programs because they are not only important to the development of individual new works, but also key to the developing of relationships. That is the softer part -- the fact that these opportunities help guide a career because they offer networking.

"They are where you not only get to evolve the play, but where you get to evolve your relationships in the theater world as a playwright," Maisel stated.


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