Ask any theater-maker how to get a new play on the stage, and they might just reach for the aspirin. The process by which theaters produce new work, and early-career playwrights potentially get discovered, has been giving everyone headaches for years.
Gwydion Suilebhan, project director of the New Play Exchange, puts it best: “Playwrights have to knock on the doors of the castle and hope to be let in. And producers in the castle don’t know how to sort through and process, so they shut down and don’t even take submissions anymore. Submissions are dead.” The entire system, and the theater in general, he says, “is ready for an upgrade.”
The New Play Exchange is an online script database, a social network for writers and producers, and a search engine for theater nerds all rolled into one. One of many initiatives of the National New Play Network, an alliance of nonprofit theaters dedicated to the development and continued life of new work, the site has accumulated an impressive 2,300 users since its official launch in mid-January—roughly half of them working playwrights, lyricists, composers, or translators who have uploaded almost 4,000 scripts. Funded in part by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, NPX is made for those ready to produce new theater by embracing 21st-century technology—“Anyone who in any way works on, thinks about, writes, produces, selects, dramaturgs, et cetera, new plays,” as Suilebhan puts it.
“Our goal was to change the ways playwrights and producers connect with each other, to create a neutral third-party space in which those exchanges could happen,” he explains, pointing out that when literary managers approve of 50 new plays but can only produce two in a season, “What do they do with their love of the other 48?” NPX allows those readers to stay abreast of promising playwrights; a writer’s followers are notified whenever he or she uploads a new piece.
Users can also leave comments on uploaded drafts (positive feedback only) and provide public, nuanced assessments rather than a starred ranking or thumbs-up or -down—less simplistic than a Facebook “like” and nicer than a YouTube comment.
Playwrights not only benefit from such feedback and endorsements, they get to promote and discuss their scripts on their own terms. “Instead of squeezing through the dwindling number of submission windows, [NPX] makes you a more empowered agent for your own work,” Suilebhan says. The social network streamlines and amplifies the essence of a writer’s group, giving playwrights the opportunity to test out ideas and weigh the opinions of their peers, with the added benefit of engaging with dramaturgs and literary managers around the globe. There’s always the chance one of those professionals will reach out to set up a reading or even produce a piece.
The ability to tag a play with the appropriate synopsis and metadata also gives theater professionals unprecedented filtering and search tools using specific criteria: genre, themes, production history, cast size, and breakdowns. For actors, this means finding potentially juicy roles. “It lets you hone in on exactly what you want,” says Suilebhan. “Let’s say I’m an Asian-American woman. I go to plays that have those roles, sift through those, get to know the work, see if there’s one playwright I like. [I] might also find, in reading a play, a monologue I might want to do.”
A basic NPX profile, which includes search tools and recommendation writing, is free. Readers and writers pay only $10 per year, while theater organizations, festivals, and universities pay $25. “Our goal was to make those numbers low enough so anyone can get in,” says Suilebhan. “We’re talking about the price of two lattes.”
If you’re in the new play sector, it’s time to get your head out of the clouds—and into the cloud. Visit newplayexchange.org to begin.
Looking for new material for your next audition? Try “The Monologuer” for a customized search!