The Great Play Download: Indie Theater Now
“The richness of this golden age of playwriting (yes, I do think we’re in such an age)…is too broad, too diverse, too quick to be captured only in print,” says playwright August Schulenberg. “Plays should be as easy to read as music is to download.” Enter Indie Theater Now, called “iTunes for plays” by its creators, Martin and Rochelle Denton of nytheatre.com, the Plays and Playwrights book series, and the Indie Theater Companion.
“Before I was a professional theater reviewer/publisher, I read plays; that was almost all I read,” says Martin Denton. “I was so hungry for stuff. We write about hundreds of plays a year—but instead of just hearing my 500 word review about X play, wouldn’t it be really good to be able to read the play itself? Our constituents are audience and professional artists—but wouldn’t it be cool if we were able to build the audience beyond that? I’ve left plays thinking that I would love to be able to read this. And basically, the idea is that for $1.29, you can. And I hope that’s a whole different kind of dialogue.”
Over and over, in talking to theater artists about the Dentons and their work, words like “radical inclusiveness,” “generosity,” and “community” come up. If you’ve worked in off-off-Broadway/downtown/indie theater, you’ve probably been reviewed by Martin Denton or his staff (full disclosure: possibly by me; I’ve been writing for Martin since 2003); you might have been profiled on the Indie Theater Companion, published by the Dentons’ small press, or even invited to join the “reviewing squad” itself, whose writers are also all professional theater artists.
Covering every show in New York’s Fringe Festival since 2002, and more than 5,000 other productions since 2005, nytheatre.com has always been committed to the work likeliest to be overlooked: the entire bills of the Fringe and many other festivals, shows at tiny outer-borough theaters, plays produced by the city’s newest companies. In their annual Plays and Playwrights anthology, too, the Dentons have consistently sought out produced but otherwise unpublished American playwrights. Their review coverage provides much-needed feedback to productions that otherwise fly under the radar of the mainstream press—but the Dentons have always wanted to do something more concrete for the indie theater community.
“Before Indie Theater Now, the only way [we] could provide direct benefits to theater artists was by publishing their plays in our anthologies—they received a small stipend plus some free copies, as well as whatever publicity/career development might accrue from a print run no larger than 2,000 copies,” says Martin. But in the age of e-books, they realized the opportunity existed to expand their publishing program enormously, and quickly.
In fall 2010, Martin discovered a website that allowed members, for a nominal fee, to read technical books online, and he had a brainstorm: “That’s something we haven’t seen. What if somebody did this with plays?” Without the cost and distribution barriers inherent in producing a printed book, suddenly they weren’t limited to anthologizing 8 or 10 plays once a year—and they could pay the playwrights: “With Indie Theater Now, we pay royalties to hundreds of playwrights and can publish hundreds of plays each year. The royalty per copy is small, [but] with enough volume the amount to be distributed to playwrights will be significant.” (The royalty payments are funded, in part, by a grant from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs.) And Rochelle Denton adds, “The idea is that in mass you get better results. Our idea is that we’ll have—and already have—a great many plays and a great many playwrights.”
Indie Theater Now launched in August with 104 scripts from the first 14 years of the New York Fringe. “It’s sort of our bailiwick,” says Martin. “Plus the Fringe is a somewhat representative sample of our world.” Their initial criteria—plays produced in the Fringe, by writers who had participated in more than one Fringe festival—garnered a list of around 75 playwrights to approach. “We had a tremendous response. Seventy out of the 75 signed on.”
Now, only a few months later, Indie Theater includes scripts for 196 produced plays (as of November 17; they add 7 to 10 plays a week, with a considerable backlog of scripts under contract but not yet posted) by 173 playwrights, plus seven curated collections and a host of associated content. “What it’s meant to be,” says Martin, “is a place to talk about what’s going on in indie theater. So we’re tying it to nytheatre.com and to Indie Theater Companion. Waxing West [by Saviana Stanescu] went up today. And it’s not just, Here’s the play that Saviana wrote; it’s also, Here’s an Indie Theater Companion profile piece about Saviana, which gives this really interesting perspective on who she is, and then all our reviews of Saviana’s plays, and in her case, I’m going to do a talkback at her play, so there’s a live component, even.”
The writers, of course, benefit from the per-copy royalty; the vast majority of the plays currently available have already been purchased more than once. But for many—if not most—of the playwrights, either a Plays and Playwrights anthology or Indie Theater Now has been their first publication, and the validation of their work matters too, as does the Dentons’ ongoing commitment to indie writers and indie theater in a world where commercial theater and the large off-Broadway institutions still get most of the attention. As Martin says, “What will keep this thing being an interesting and unique proposition is that it’s going to be the indie playwrights. And that was always the point of our publishing program. We’re not really interested in going after people who have had lots and lots of plays published, we’re interested in the people who haven’t.”
“An emerging playwright is an awkward place to be,” says playwright Sara Farrington. “You either feel like you have a million opportunities open to you or you feel like this thing from Predator (invisible, blends in with the background). So this kind of trust and exposure is awesome.” Writer/director Daniel Talbott concurs: “It gave me some courage and belief to keep trying as a young and insanely inexperienced writer. If [Martin and Rochelle] believe in you, they’ll publish your play. They aren’t sitting back going, Oh, you should write this and in this way.”
The site also builds a sort of community among its writers: “The writing aspect is kind of the lonelier aspect,” says playwright Julia Lee Barclay, “so it’s always good to connect with other people.” And Talbott adds, “I just love that my name’s sandwiched between Saviana Stanescu and Lucy Thurber—they’re two of my favorite writers, and how cool to get to be floating around out there with them.”
The Dentons plan for the site to serve not just its writers but also the broader theater community—locally and nationally—as well as educators and students, especially at the college level. “I really see it as an extension of what Indie Theater Companion and nytheatre.com together try to accomplish,” says Martin, “which is to track, as it happens, the history of indie theater, and then preserve it in some way. I want it to be a place where professional theater people discuss other people’s work, or curate. We’re obviously not here yet, but I think we’ll get close soon, that this is an important place where people would come to find out what’s going on in American playwriting.”
Because a large portion of the site’s funding comes from the New York State Council on the Arts and New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, New York-based writers will always comprise a substantive percentage of the catalog, but the Dentons are already beginning to spread their network across the country. They’re reaching out directly to artists who run companies and festivals elsewhere, but they’re also getting approached by theater artists who come to them as users of the site.
Martin says, “I got a wonderful e-mail from a man who runs a company in Kansas City. He said, ‘I don’t know anything about New York playwrights, I’m happy to read these, but here we have all these wonderful playwrights in Missouri. How do we get those people on?’ I’m really more interested at this point in reaching out to theater companies that aren’t in New York, trying to get material for the site.”
One of the beautiful, yet sometimes intensely frustrating, things about indie theater is its implacable locality. If there’s a film, a band, a book that’s likely to appeal to me, the odds are pretty good that it’s going to be available nationwide in some form that I can locate. But that amazing indie playwright in Kansas City? Even if I run a theater company in New York dedicated to new work, I may never even know this writer exists, let alone see her work. As Barclay says, “These plays are done and then they’re forgotten…and I want to see them live.”
Indie Theater Now presents the potential for theater artists and companies across the country to discover the work that’s being produced site-specifically for two weeks by innovative artists, rather than only the plays making the rounds on the regional theater circuit (which is not to say there’s anything wrong with the work that gets produced at the large regional theaters, but only to say there’s so much more that doesn’t); to gain access to one another’s work, mediated only by their own individual interests and tastes and curiosities—and their openness to the unfamiliar. Barclay notes that the technology makes it easy for users to “take the opportunity to read people they don’t know yet—what’s the worst that can happen? They might find voices they haven’t heard of—just because somebody is obscure doesn’t mean that they’re bad.”
The barriers to entry, let alone success, can seem insurmountable in a time when so much of what we see makes it to the stage only by being pre-vetted, imported, and/or produced by a massive consortium of institutions and individuals. If Indie Theater Now can help to build pathways among artists and audiences, perhaps it can be the opening salvo in a national conversation about what kind of theater is meaningful, valuable, and necessary—to writers, to producing companies, to audiences, and to, as Martin hopes, the broader audience that may not even know it exists yet.
As Daniel Talbott says, “It would be really cool if some random kid in some town I’ve never heard of read one of my plays and was like, ‘I love this play, it means something to me, and I want to stage it in my hometown in a coffee-shop basement.’” More original, vital, risk-taking theater, in more places, accessible to more people—that’s Indie Theater’s goal.