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Michael Nathanson


By Michael Nathanson

Playwrights throw their hands up in the air in frustration. “What do they want from us?” they wonder about artistic directors who won’t program their new plays. Artistic directors shake their head slowly at the exasperation shown by playwrights. “Why won’t they write something great?” That is not to say that the relationship between playwrights and artistic directors is destined to be like oil and water. It is to say, however, that the issue of programming new plays is one that is difficult at best. Happily, or unhappily, as your perspective may be, I am both playwright and artistic director, so maybe I can shed some light.

Theatres are dealing with decreased revenue and audience.  That’s a fact.  We have increasingly fragmented entertainment options to choose from and the theatre can feel like your cranky Uncle Alfie; he’s old, so you’re supposed to go see him but really, you’d rather see a movie.  There’s a prescient line in David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow, written in the mid-eighties,  when the harried movie executive Bobby Gould claims that people want him to make sequels of films that haven’t been made yet.  Artistic directors want to program shows that people will come see.  There is a seductiveness to having a show title or playwright’s name that’s instantly recognizable.  When I programmed Death of a Salesman, I was told by others that the production would be a runaway success.  Being both artistic and Jewish (therefore having a claim to worrying), I was unconvinced by people’s assurances of excellent attendance.  Due to many factors, not least it being a very good production of an extraordinary play, Death of a Salesman was WJT’s biggest hit in eight seasons.  So when you see a season programmed with that which is familiar or known, you know from whence it comes.

And yet.

And yet, at some point, Death of a Salesman was a new play, a script waiting for its first professional production.  Someone took the chance that this script, with its absolutely unsexy title, might be of interest to the general public.  That’s really what any new play needs; a chance.  Theatre is by nature an inherently risky business.  No one really knows what’s going to sell well or not, there is absolutely no guarantee.  But new plays are enough to cause the boldest of artistic directors to start to flinch like Herbert Lom in the old Pink Panther movies.  Perhaps I can illustrate the fickle nature of new plays and their twisty road to “success” with a personal tale.

In the fall of 2001, I wrote a play called Talk.  Satisfied with it, I began to send the play to various Jewish theatres across North America.  It was categorically rejected by all.  My favourite rejection came from a theatre in the U.S. who said they would be happy to program the play once the conflict in the Middle East was settled; else it would prove too controversial for their subscribers.  As you can imagine, I did not hold my breath.

Mariam Bernstein, the Artistic Director of WJT back in 2006, read Talk and decided to program it for the 2007-2008 season.  I was thrilled.  Six years after having written the play, it would finally see the light of day.  The play opened in October 2007, received fantastic audience response and strong critical reviews, and in a state of expectation, I sent it off to many theatres across Canada hoping to draw some interest in future productions.  Cue tumbleweeds and eerie silence.

I was lucky enough to see Talk published in 2009 and even more fortunate to have the play nominated for the Governor General’s Award in Drama this past October.  Buoyed by the recognition, I sent out a new query email to fourteen Canadian theatres.  Within twenty four hours, ten had responded, requesting a copy of the script.  Subsequently, there was a production of Talk in Toronto and there are murmurings of future productions elsewhere.

The current script of Talk is for the most part unchanged from its original incarnation back in 2001.  But thanks to the GG nomination, it has the stamp of approval that makes it feel safe for other theatres to program it or to consider programming it.  The unknown script has become a known commodity.  The play isn’t going to be Death of a Salesman in this or any other lifetime but it now has a chance at a life.

I don’t know how to resolve this tension between new plays and artistic directors on a macro level.  It is my hope that people may come to view theatre as an essential part of their entertainment options.  I love the theatre because it’s an opportunity for us to share our stories with each other and, at its best, there’s nothing like a great play to make one think and feel.

On the micro level, the one thing I can do is program new plays.  With the opening of Alix Sobler’s Some Things You Keep, WJT will be presenting four new plays in a row.  I am passionate about new play development and know the only way we’ll find the next new great play is by taking a chance on it.  

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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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