Beyond Broadway: A New Hope

Would you like to hear something cool? Something exciting going on in the world of theater that you may not have heard about? Then meet Nan Barnett.

“I am the executive director of the National New Play Network, which is an organization of more than 80 theaters across the country, all of which have an interest in the development, production and continued life of new work. We have 29 core members who agree to either import or export a new play to another core member at least once every three years, although most of them do it pretty much every year.”

Do you hear that? 80 theaters. New work.

The National New Play Network's member theaters span the entire US.

The National New Play Network’s member theaters span the entire US.

And!—this is the most exciting part—And! They are not just interested in developing new work, but also in supporting its continued life. So when she says, “import or export a new play,” what she means is they are moving those new works onto second or third productions!

For those of us who are struggling to get our work seen at all, it seems like getting a production is the apex of success. But imagine finally getting your production… and then nothing. No more offers, no more productions. There are plenty of you out there who understand that frustration.

That problem was identified back in 1998 by David Goldman, who was traveling the country seeing new work on behalf of the O’Neill Theater Center. Wanting to help new work actually have a life beyond its premiere, he gathered together a diverse group of artistic directors who shared his enthusiasm, and the network was born.

Today, the theaters participating in the network range from tiny outfits with an annual budget of $50,000, all the way up to major institutions running on $15 million.

And are these theaters paying more than lip service to supporting new writers?

“We have two annual in-person meetings,” says Barnett, “as well as monthly literary online chats, as well as bi-monthly artistic director and managing director online chats. So they’re spending a lot of time working together, thinking together, about the work that’s being done, sharing the work that they are doing, sharing the writers that they’re interested in.” NNPN also funds programs like writer and director residencies, commissions, and travel support for theater representatives to see what new work is being done elsewhere.

This sounds like heaven on earth, right? It sounds too good to be true, so there must be a catch?

Well… yes. There is a catch.

As the name suggests, the National New Play Network is set up to support new plays. Not new musicals.

If you need to leave the room to sob uncontrollably for a moment, we’ll all understand—we’re all theater people here. But come right back, because all is not lost.

For one thing, NNPN has just unveiled a new service that will also serve musical theater writers. It’s called the New Play Exchange.

“It’s where organizations and people who are interested in reading plays have a multi-platformed database to search and access, or find out how to get ahold of it, and then share your thoughts about the work with others—not a thumbs up, thumbs down or a like, but actually sharing your thoughts about the piece.

Olney Theater Center's Rolling World Premiere of COLOSSAL by Andrew Hinderaker. (Photo by Stan Barouh. Used with permission.)

Olney Theater Center’s Rolling World Premiere of COLOSSAL by Andrew Hinderaker. (Photo by Stan Barouh. Used with permission.)

“There are inexpensive annual memberships—probably about $10 a year for playwright and readers, and $50 a year for organizations. You go in and you set up your profile, you start uploading your work. If you would like people to have access to a full script, a synopsis or a sample, or just give the linking information to your agent or your publisher. It’ll have a way for you to be able to attach scores, or MP3 files. And then you tag that script with keywords and metadata that make it searchable, so that anyone who is wanting to read or discover a play can go in and say, ‘I would like to see all the plays in the exchange about global warming, written by a woman now living in Oklahoma that four actors or less and has never been produced.’

“One of the great things about this is you don’t have to ‘find your place.’ You share your work, and the world, and people find it. There are organizations out there looking for new work to program, but they don’t even know you exist.”

The other big takeaway—to hope for? to get started somehow?—is that this would all be doable for musical theater as well.

“I think some of our programs would be really useful for your portion of the industry. Certainly the Rolling World Premieres. We’ve had discussions with the opera world about Rolling World Premieres, and they’re very interested. We are thrilled to be able to share that model.”

What is a Rolling World Premiere, you may ask?

“What happens is three or more artistic directors agree to come together to work on an as-yet-unproduced play. And all of the productions must happen within 12 months of the opening night of the first production. The idea is that they are completely separate productions, with completely separate teams. In fact, if you want to use even a single artist on your team from another production, you have to get permission from us. And then the playwright is in residence and continues to work on the play through the pre-production.”

So, three theaters that all believe in a particular work agree to produce it within a year’s time. Three completely different productions. Three opportunities for the writing team to be present, to revise during rehearsals, to respond to audiences to make the show even better the next time. Can you imagine it?

“I think there needs to be a group formed to support the creation of new musicals. That’s really what NNPN has done with new plays. We’re not an organization of writers, but an organization of theaters with a dedication to new work, and that has certainly proved fruitful for us. I would love to see that happen for musicals.”

But in those words of encouragement is also the fly in the ointment. NNPN is not an organization of writers. From the very beginning it has been composed of artistic directors and decision makers. And that is not a position that most of us are in.

But some of us are. And some of us know people who are. Maybe if enough of us start this conversation then we can get things moving. The musical theater world’s David Goldman is still out there, waiting to reinvent the system—and maybe that person is you.


What is your favorite musical?

I worked on the creation of a piece that only ever had one production, and I really, really loved it, and I’m sorry that it never had another life. So I’m going to pitch it. It is Chris McGovern and Bill Castellino’s play Dr. Radio. And it’s a gorgeous little jewel box of a play that needs to be done.

What is a dream project of yours?

Back in the old days, when I was being a bad musical theater actress myself, I never got to play Peter Pan. And when I finally did get offered it, I had just gotten pregnant! So I would become the thin, petite flower of myself from 1985 and get to do Peter Pan.

As a musical theater practitioner outside of New York, what does success look like to you?

Getting it done. Just taking something off of the page and putting it on the stage. That’s success.

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