Josh Sobel

Nurturing New Work: The Art of Play Development

In many ways, the world of script development is like Gold Rush-era California: thousands of prospectors looking for the best way to identify rich veins and extract theatrical pay dirt. Artists, theatres, arts organizations, and foundations have spent decades and millions of dollars to develop programs that will in turn develop new scripts for the stage, focusing variously on individual playwrights, specific scripts, particular topics, fostering creative teams, and so on. Their methods have been lauded, decried, deconstructed, reconstructed, and put out to pasture. In 2010, Josh Sobel became the Literary Manager at New Leaf Theatre—his first official post after a long and storied apprenticeship—so we asked him about tips and opportunities for those looking to get into this side of production and how he’s applying what he’s learned to New Leaf’s new initiative. —CAR Theater Researcher Dan Granata

What initially drew you to play development? And how did you get your foot in the door?

In the Fall of my junior year at Oberlin College, I attended the National Theater Institute (NTI), a program run by one of the most prestigious hubs for new play development in this country, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. I would recommend this program to any and all serious young theatre students—and not just because I work there now, either! NTI is an intense program of study, covering a wide spread of theatrical disciplines. I’m not sure that it’s possible to spend time at the O’Neill without inheriting a respect and excitement for new play development. We were living in the same rooms August Wilson stayed in while writing Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Gem of the Ocean, and more. Some of our most inspiring and influential writers have passed through those grounds. There’s something in the air in that place. You can just feel it.

While studying, I had the chance to direct two new pieces written by fellow students, and from there I fell in love with the process of bringing something new to life—communicating with a writer to nurture a piece of art into its next phase of existence. My love of new work is inextricably tied to my love of directing and theatre as a whole, tied through my love of collaboration, communication, and community. The community and ensemble energy [of a] group of artists coming together to give first voice to something—it’s one of the most thrilling things I have ever been a part of.

Besides the O’Neill student experience, I co-produced a festival of new work at Oberlin in 2009—a three-weekend festival featuring two full-length plays in rep, five one-act plays, and a new one-act musical. It was an incredible experience, creating a stage for so many new voices to be heard. Now [January 2011] I am back at my alma mater directing a new show by a fellow Oberlin and O’Neill alum, Kendell Pinkney—a beautiful new hip-hop/pop/R&B musical about a young African-American man searching for identity and finding love, racism, and political unrest while spending a year in Israel. Kendell and I worked together on two new pieces I directed last summer at the O’Neill, and I jumped at the opportunity to help him develop his own work.

Once I graduated from Oberlin, I looked for a way to bridge the gap between my undergraduate experience and the “real world,” and found myself back at the O’Neill for the summer. During those months, I always refer to it as “the most creative place on the face of the planet." I was assisting “Theatermakers,” the NTI summer program (of which I'm currently Associate Director). It runs concurrently with the National Playwrights, Music Theater, and Puppetry Conferences, and these programs all serve to develop new work in a safe, nurturing, and inspiring artistic environment. Rehearsals are open, so I spend a great deal of my downtime watching these pieces evolve, each play rehearsing for four days before two public readings. I absorb as much as possible, and from this receive more insight into the inner workings of the play development landscape. I am beginning my fourth year with the O’Neill, where I get to help nurture more of the incoming generation of playwrights, directors, and actors. Needless to say, I can’t wait.

What opportunities are there for someone to get started in play development?

There are different roles to take on in the play development process, so for anyone looking to get involved, the first question is in what capacity: dramaturge, director, literary manager, actor, etc. I have come to know artists in every one of these roles and more who are considered to “specialize” in play development. I have also found that these individuals tend to be excellent communicators, in that they have a strong sensibility when it comes to working with other artists, particularly writers. Diplomacy is key, as is warmth. You are working with a lot of different personalities, a lot of egos, and on a playwright’s newest baby. The writer has every right to be protective of his/her baby! So to enter play development
there must usually be a certain amount of skill in “personality management,” and an ability to bring people together in a warm, friendly, safe, and positive atmosphere.

Another question to ask is: what stage of the development process are you interested in? First drafts? First public reading? Workshops? First productions? There are so many phases of life for a play, and the journey of every play is different. Articulating what phase is most compelling to you can be really useful. This is really how New Leaf’s new initiative came together. Artistic Director Jessica Hutchinson and I sat down and both expressed a strong commitment to the nurturing of new work. The question then became, what exactly does that mean? As we talked, it struck us that we had a very hard time identifying what happens in between a first public reading and a first production. Sure, additional development happens—more readings, workshops, and so on—but it was so ill-defined, so hazy. It was hard to find a process or development program in place at any institution that focused on that gap. So we kept talking. What if a company took it upon itself to specifically focus its efforts on the in-between, the gap between a first reading and a first production? What if we implemented a more concrete system designed to provide a field for “play polishing,” preparing somewhat more developed work to be engaged with in a full production? It’s an exciting venture.

I think that the best way to plug in to this sort of work is to knock on doors ready to start small and work hard. One of the hardest parts is the knocking on doors bit. It's amazing how scary it is to just walk up to someone and say “Hi, my name is _____. I love the work you’re doing.” But once you overcome that fear, doors swing open. Find a company that is doing the kind of play development that you want to be involved in and ask how you can help. Sometimes it's as easy as approaching the artists and administrators you admire and just asking. The worst thing anyone can say is “No,” and all that means is a change in direction. Be ready to volunteer, or better yet, intern! I am a big fan of theatre internships. It provides great opportunities to, at minimum, watch and learn, and more often than not get involved in the action at an entry level. Once in the room, form opinions. Get ideas brewing. Go out for drinks with people, talk about your ideas and passions. The opportunities for growth will present themselves.

Any specific “dos and don’ts” you’ve encountered? And how are they informing New Leaf's new process?

A lot of it comes back to diplomacy and communication, which is something very difficult to teach. It’s always nice when you find artists who have a bit of natural skill and awareness in these areas. These tend to be the people I first think of when looking for artists to help develop a work. A good way to learn some of what works and does not work in play development is to seek out opportunities to be present in the room at various points in the process, and to pay close attention. MAKE OBSERVATIONS. WRITE THEM DOWN. After attending enough rehearsals, presentations, talkbacks, etc, you start to get a good sense of when things are really productive and alive, and when things start to break down.

Talkbacks are certainly a difficult part of the process. There are a lot of opinions out there about the benefit of talkbacks, so it can get touchy. The main thing I always watch out for is the relationship of the playwright to the responders, and vice versa. When facilitating a talkback, it is your responsibility to keep the discussion focused, productive, and in motion (one of the most frustrating things that often happens in talkbacks is silence, so it pays off to be adept at thinking on your feet). I also believe that every play needs something different from the development process, and with that, playwrights need different things from each talkback. Structure is useful (there is a lot of support right now for Liz Lerman’s Critical Response method), but so is flexibility. Talk to the playwright! Find out what they are really looking to gain from a discussion, and then adjust the format as necessary to provide the most meaningful and productive session for the writer. The priority in a talkback is providing the best possible atmosphere and most productive experience for the playwright. Let the playwright help you find what that is.

I think that one of the main things on that list that really is informing how this process is designed is active listening to the playwright. The three plays we are featuring in our upcoming [2011] Treehouse Reading Series are from very different voices, and are looking for very different things in terms of their development at this stage. In order to provide what each of these plays and writers need, we must listen closely, stay flexible yet focused, and work with an understanding of the importance of what we are doing. A main point I bring to my work with New Leaf, as well as my work at the O’Neill, is the understanding that we are in the business of cultivating and nurturing the new American voice in theatre, a voice that is very much in need of support and opportunity. I don’t know what lies ahead on this path, but I’m excited to find out.

Josh Sobel currently serves as Literary Manager for New Leaf Theatre. Recent Chicago credits include serving as assistant director for Louis Slotin Sonata, the upcoming production of The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre), Redeemers (New Leaf Theatre), and The Elephant Man (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble). He has had the privilege of working with Victory Gardens Theater, The Pavement Group at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, where he served as assistant stage manager on three original musicals produced by Tony Award-winning composer William Finn. Josh received a BA in Theatre with Honors in Directing from Oberlin College, and is an alumnus of the National Theater Institute (NTI) at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center where he acts as Associate Director of the summer NTI Theatermakers program.

Published by CAR_Laura on Thu, 01/27/2011 - 1:25pm
Updated on Tue, 02/01/2011 - 10:08am