What Makes Sanctuary Different — and Necessary

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The Issue

Theatre people regularly intone, “The Theatre is Dead,” with a knowing wink. Like all humorous clichés, it contains truth. But with between 15-25 productions opening a week across the United States, how can it be said that theatre is dead?

First, let’s look at what’s currently onstage.

  • 70% of play productions in the United States are revivals of works by playwrights who died more than thirty years ago. (25% of this 70% is restaging of Shakespeare).
  • Of the remaining 30% - ostensibly the modern work – 75-80% are revivals of scripts by living writers.
    American Theatre’s August 2002 New Work issue notes that more new plays onstage are follow-on productions of recent material by an established writer after financial or critical success in a major market. Bankability figures highly in the new plays market.
  • Fewer than 4% of play productions are plays by lesser-known new but worthy playwrights.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the economics of theatre permitted the premieres of hundreds of plays each year. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, 45-60 new plays are premiered in the US professional theatrical markets each year and fewer than ten truly succeed.

The Potential

When you ask people who love theatre, many will say the most satisfying theatre tends to be adventurous work by a bold new playwright, a new voice discovered for a generation.

Millions of dollars are spent each year workshopping plays and staging them; still it remains rare for groundbreaking voices to make it to the stage. The medium cannot move forward without these breakthroughs, yet theatres are not supporting our most intrepid young writers as well as they could.

Constrained by large budgets and led by non-writers, today's major theatres -- even those dedicated to new writers -- are institutionally afraid of risk. Staging work that appeals to existing tastes, they fail to take the form past current horizons, giving the boldest new voices sustaining grants in lieu of crucial productions. This starves the theatre and its writers of the excellence, daring, and progress needed to remain vital and relevant. American Theatre Magazine reports that companies are more likely to produce work that has been successfully staged elsewhere, even than plays developed in their own workshops, reflecting a crisis of artistic self-confidence.

This puts the power of wider exposure for plays in the hands of smaller theaters.  But as playwrights have succumbed to the specialization endemic to modern theatre, they less frequently start companies or become producers and artistic directors, leaving these roles to non-writers. So even among smaller theatres, plays are largely picked to satisfy the interests of the directors and actors who run the company.  And the boldest new scripts, which might break ground and so require unfamiliar staging and performance techniques, often go unproduced. In this manner playwrights (through self-selection) fail to curate of the future of the Theatre by abdicating the power and responsibility to produce material they believe in.

To regain the opportunity is a privilege requiring hard work, which Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre is willing to undertake.

What about development workshops?

Before the Twentieth Century, the most common producer was the playwright. Playwrights are uniquely suited to recognize powerful new material for the stage. The script is their product. Today they typically lend their talents to development workshops – there are dozens of these scattered across the United States (New Dramatists, Chicago Dramatists, NY Play Development, Austin Playwrights, Philadelphia Playwrights, etc.). These companies nearly always eschew production in favor of readings and discussion.

The workshop process typically leaves play development just short of its most essential step - production. Not even the most brilliant among us can learn aeronautical engineering with paper models in a classroom. Dramatists grow based on feedback from the stage. Without it, they learn to write for the page alone. The playwright’s capacity for identifying and developing groundbreaking scripts is thus rarely paired with the power and responsibility of production.

Over the past ten decades, writers have deviated from their historical position in theatre, retreating from direct involvement with producing entities, and ceding control to third-party producers, thereby leaving the artistic future of playwriting to others whose understanding of and dedication to the most bracing new writing is not the same.

While self-production occurs, very few writers have the stamina to sustain it over time, and fewer still band together. The economics of theatre tend to prohibit the dramatist from bankrolling their own productions. Very few exceptional companies have bucked this trend.

But great theatre existed before large budgets, and can exist now without them. Big budgets become a trap – stifling artistic innovation, biasing choices toward the least fiscal, artistic, and institutional risk. Throwing lavish sums at one potentially popular play is more financially but less artistically expedient than dividing the same money among three daring new works. The best counterbalance for the big-budget impulse is the passion for innovation, which producing groundbreaking plays represents. Because of playwrights’ passion for their discipline, they are well suited to create an operations model that puts producing daring plays first.

In that model, playwrights must create new theatres with small budgets, dedicated to original plays and run by writers, in order to nurture new voices, produce their best material, and demonstrate that it can succeed.

The Opportunity

Large sums are spent yearly on new-play development. The combined annual budgets of Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, New Dramatists and similar companies are in the tens of millions of dollars range.

But to have an impact on the theatrical community, the presentation of new plays need not be a high-budget endeavor. New plays need only receive great productions with talented collaborators and with an appropriate level of public and media outreach. Thus with maximum impact per dollar, a company can maintain its openness to risk, while providing the theatre community and public with new plays of value.

The Solution

Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre, a focused, slim, writer-managed theatre - once a commonplace but now a rarity - provides a fresh model for developing playwrights. Sanctuary is a writer-run play development organization offering development bound to the single most important step in that process - production.

In response to field-wide problems with development and production of innovative new work, Sanctuary has created a Definitive Mission, Distinct Structure, and Focused Scope to address them. Theatres built on the model of Sanctuary will develop not just plays, but playwrights, by returning the responsibility and power of production to the writer, renewing the model of Playwright As Producer.

The model is a streamlined, artist-managed company with a small, manageable budget that will encourage and be funded to take risks. Plays successfully staged by Sanctuary will then carry critical and/or audience viability for another theatre, which might have made a more conservative choice otherwise. Were this model to spread across the nation, it could help reinvigorate theatre.

Definitive Mission

Among the hundreds of theatre companies that produce annually, few possess a truly distinct mission, and fewer still embody it in their charter, name, and structure. Sanctuary has a definitive mission describing a unique structural and artistic focus. This sets Sanctuary apart from dozens of other companies that start each year or operate currently. Additionally, its mission is one many in the theatre community endorse and support, so Sanctuary is already receiving significant interest and support from the theatrical community.

Through Sanctuary, donors wishing to encourage new work are given the compelling opportunity to support artists directly; who channel funds to what most agree is the best development technique - production.

Distinct Structure

The politics of the way theatres are organized often excludes the playwright. For most companies, the power of play-selection belongs finally to the Artistic Director. That person may or may not be a dramatist.

Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre’s board will be made up exclusively of writers. Plays to be developed, plays to be produced, as well as the gamut of production, management, and budget decisions will be in the hands of dramatists, on whom ultimate responsibility will rest for the success of each project. Dramatists will quickly develop the discipline to determine worthwhile risks artistically, budget-wise, and operationally. This charge can only help these artists mature as full participants in the theatrical process.

A small group of writers, initially only five, will occupy the board. This will permit personal communication and decision-making, and prevent institutional gridlock. A policy of rotation from active board membership to artistic advisory or associate positions on the part of long-time writer members will keep the core decision-making group manageable and vital.

Focused Scope

Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre will start with slim structure and moderate budgets, and remain small. This will ensure the Sanctuary’s flexibility, adaptability, and that the economics of production do not become a disincentive to risk. Sanctuary will produce two plays a year initially in the most cost-effective manner possible in service of the play, and will consider adding another to the calendar thereafter.

The scope can be expanded with more productions per year of worthy material, slightly longer runs, and the addition of other theatres in various cities and countries when the model has proven its effectiveness, bringing to far-flung local communities the vitality of new risk-taking theatre.

Sanctuary: Playwrights Theatre offers stage writers an opportunity they find uncommon – to stage their work as the primary decision maker. This will attract playwrights and collaborators of note, and stimulate audience growth as it brings newer theatrical forms, springing from the minds and pens of 21st century dramatists, to the fore.

The Sanctuary Bill of Playwrights:

  • The future of the drama is in the hands of the dramatist
  • Playwrights can and must have a place to shape the aesthetic progress of stage work
  • The long tradition of the “the playwright as producer” needs reviving
  • Playwrights do their best work in community with other playwrights
  • The dramatist is the most essential curator for new stage writing