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Investing in Theatre’s Future

August 13, 2020

By Lydia Baxter

At one point in time, no audience had ever seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A Streetcar Named Desire wasn’t always a household name. A Raisin in the Sun was once just an idea in Lorraine Hansberry’s head.

As FST’s Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins likes to say, “Without new plays, we wouldn’t have old plays.”

At Florida Studio Theatre, a group of committed theatre artists collaborates with top writers from across the country to bring Sarasota audiences the best new plays in America today through its New Play Development Program.

Playwright Jason Odell Williams talks to an audience about FST’s production of his play Handle With Care. Photo by Sarah Haley.

“It’s the equivalent of research and development at a big corporation,” explained Hopkins. “At the most basic level, we look for plays that speak to our shared humanity. We look for pieces that are accessible in thought and represent the world we live in today.”

Since FST’s New Play Development program was launched in 1983, the program has generated over 30 World Premieres and more than 89 Regional Premiere productions at Sarasota’s Contemporary Theatre.

So, what makes FST’s new play development process stand out?

  1. It is never “one size fits all.”

No two playwrights are alike – every writer has a distinct vision for their piece and unique needs during the creative process. So, FST adapts its approach to suit each writer.

“We treat each playwright as an individual, not some faceless word processor,” said Associate Artist Jason Cannon. “The playwright will, at various times, need encouragement, resources, provocative notes, kindness, and deadlines. The creative team must have the courage to invest in them, while releasing their expectations, so that the playwright has the space to surprise and surpass.”

  1. FST serves the playwright’s vision first and foremost.

During the creative process, FST’s artistic staff does not prescribe the way a story should unfold or what a character should say. Instead, they ask the playwrights questions that might spark inspiration or reveal something new for them to consider.

“It is easy to get lost in the woods when writing a play,” said Cannon. “By asking questions instead of making suggestions, writers often find their way back. It’s not our job to write the play. It’s our job to keep stoking the fire underneath the playwright’s creativity.”

Playwrights Sarah Bierstock and Jacqueline Goldfinger. Photo by Sarah Haley.

“I’ve had the privilege of being a writer-in-residence at FST,” said Jacqueline Goldfinger, a Philadelphia-based playwright whose work includes The Arsonists, Bottlefly, and Babel. “The staff’s professionalism, commitment to supporting original voices, and ability to work with the needs of a writer is unmatched. I’ve developed work all over the country, and I’ve never seen a staff so firmly committed to supporting the unique needs of artistic development.”

  1. FST provides the audience

Most plays are developed at private table reads and through workshops, with actors playing different characters and the creative team following along with the story. This approach gives the playwright a chance to hear their words spoken out loud, revealing parts of the story that might be unclear.

But FST takes the development process a step further than the traditional table read, giving writers an actual public audience that can provide honest, in-the-moment reactions to the play. With events like FST’s annual Richard & Betty Burdick Reading Series, Sarasota audiences get a sneak peek at some of the country’s hottest new plays in progress.

“Putting a play in front of a live audience is the most powerful tool we use,” said fellow Associate Artist Catherine Randazzo, who frequently directs new play readings at FST. “For the playwright, it opens up new ways of seeing the play. It often helps them discover why an aspect of the script may or may not be working.”

  1. FST does not view World Premiere productions as the end-all and be-all.

“We want the projects we work on to have lives beyond our production,” shared Cannon. “They should be performed again and again, across the country, impact a larger audience, and filter into our collective memory and culture. Being the first to produce a piece isn’t the most important. But being part of a process that shares provocative, exciting, and tragic new plays with the world – THAT makes all our work worth it.”

Even if a play has already been produced, whether by FST or another theatre, FST’s artistic team is always up to dive back into a script.

“For us, the process to develop a play continues even past the first production,” said Randazzo. “As long as the playwright wants to continue, there is no end to the process. Even if we don’t hear from a playwright in a year or so, they can always come back and we can pick up at a new point to get the play to the stage.”

Playwright and actor Minita Gandhi performed her original play, MUTHALAND, for live audiences at FST’s NNPN Women in Playwriting Festival in 2019. Photo Courtesy of Artist.

AUGUST 13, 2020