What do you think when you hear the phrase “world premiere”?
It usually comes with a lot of hype and you can almost see it spelled out in neon, with kleig lights crisscrossing in the night sky to announce that “this is a big deal.”
What it really should suggest is something new and different that is just beginning what could turn out to be a long and successful life. Or perhaps, it will disappear after one production and never be heard of again.
Webster’s defines “premiere” as “a first performance or exhibition.” Put “world” in front of it and it’s suddenly elevated in stature, when it is still the same new play getting a little extra attention.
We see world premieres periodically in the Sarasota area, mostly recently with Mark Brown’s “Tom Jones” at Florida Studio Theatre earlier this month.
How critics and audience members interpret the phrase may have a big impact on the play itself. Rather than treating the opening night as the theatrical equivalent of the World Series, it’s probably best to think of it as the start of spring training.
Opening night is the first chance for a playwright to hear his or words acted by a rehearsed group of performers in front of paying patrons. Staged readings can only reveal so much.
Smart playwrights are likely to be taking in audience reactions, listening to how their words sound and thinking of ways to improve what they have written.
I was reminded of the challenges critics and playwrights face at every opening of a new play during an engaging talk by playwright Lauren Gunderson. She spoke at the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association during the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Gunderson is a young writer who was honored by the association with its $25,000 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Prize for “I and You.” She was able to avoid what’s known as “world premieritis” with her play because it was part of the National New Play Network, which arranges a series of “rolling” world premieres of different productions at theaters across the country. Florida Studio Theatre participates in the NNPN program. Openings are often scheduled far enough apart to allow playwrights time to revise their scripts in between.
The idea behind NNPN is to give new plays a chance to get beyond the “world premiere” production and give the play a life. Theaters like the attention of a “world premiere” but are often less interested in the second production.
NNPN gave Gunderson “a built-in safety net for me and the interested parties to continue the work on the play in our way, to implement the larger discoveries we saw during the run, to let that production teach us, not define us,” she said.
New plays are like infants that need care and nurturing to develop. “I can tell you that sometimes new plays die too early because of poor critical reception. We all know this happens. I hate this. I’m sure many of you do, too,” she said.
I admit that theaters have, on occasion, led me to think of some new plays as finished products. I probably knew in my heart and mind that this wasn’t the case. Perhaps I viewed some more harshly than I should have.
Before the opening of “Tom Jones” I asked artistic director Richard Hopkins about the subject, and he said he viewed the production as just starting on its journey. That may not matter to the average theatergoer who just wants a good show, but it did to me.
I want every play to engage me and be successful. I know that’s not going to happen every time. But this talk also made me see more clearly how I respond to a play, or more importantly, how I express my concerns about shows that don’t speak to me, can affect its chances of having a life. Of course, if I think there’s no hope of improvement, I make no promises.
Gunderson said it took two productions for “I and You” to get it right. “Even when a play gets raves on its first outing, I still go through that same natural process and rewrite before anyone does it again,” she said. “Does this mean that the play wasn’t ready for a production? That plays just need more development? Productions are development.”
So, maybe we should all look at new plays and musicals with a different attitude. We get to be the first ones to help writers get them into the kind of shape where they can touch more people, and perhaps, like Gunderson, win prizes for their efforts.
Join Me: I will be leading a talkback after Tuesday’s performance of the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s production of “4000 Miles” in the Historic Asolo Theater. The show is at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information: 351-8000; asolorep.org
Jay Handelman is the theater critic for the Herald-Tribune and president of the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Contact him at email@example.com. Be sure to “like” Arts Sarasota on Facebook, Follow me on twitter at twitter.com/jayhandelman.