A new stage for playwrights

Playwrights are increasingly staging their shows on their terms as networking via social media and more creative approaches give them the ability to take control of their work.

Richard Fleischman/the Workhaus Collective
A Minneapolis performance of ‘The Hollow.’

It used to be that after the creative process of writing a script, a playwright had to market his or her work to theaters and producers in hopes that it could be performed before an audience. Even after acceptance, a play could be drastically revised to fit the artistic vision of the producer or director. But with networking made easier through social media, and an unpredictable economy that has fostered new creative approaches, a growing number of playwrights are finding ways to stage their own works on their terms.

In Washington, D.C., five have banded together as The Welders to fund productions of each other’s work; their first show is planned for March. On the opposite coast, a playwright who has been producing his own work for more than a decade is planning to take matters into his own hands by performing his work solo.
“It’s a movement,” said Gwydion Suilebhan, who along with four other playwrights and an executive director formed The Welders last year. When word began to spread about their project, Mr. Suilebhan says, e-mails arrived from California, Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere from artists starting similar projects, both sharing and seeking advice.

In part, the collaborative efforts sprang from necessity. The long recession has made traditional theaters wary of taking risks with unproven playwrights. Christina Ham turned down a chance to join Workhaus, a Minneapolis collective, when it was launched in 2006. Back then, she thought self-producing was for people who otherwise couldn’t get their work on stage. She changed her mind in 2010, and her first full-length Workhaus production, “The Hollow,” was performed last year.

Larry Dean Harris, who cofounded his first collective more than a decade ago, is taking the “playwright in charge” model a step further. He will perform an autobiographical piece, “Witness to the Bizarre,” in Los Angeles this year. Mr. Harris, who leads Dramatists Guild self-producing workshops, recalls that years ago, he would e-mail friends to solicit donations for a show. Now, writer-producers have crowdsourcing. On just one recent day, Harris said, he received Kickstarter appeals for four projects.

Actress Karole Foreman in Long Beach, Calif., contrasts the fulfillment of getting together with friends to stage a cabaret show with the anguish of watching veteran producers maul a musical she wrote. Now, she’s completing a new musical, and plans to produce it herself. “The opportunities are just limitless,” she says.

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