Disruptive technology and disruptive innovation are terms used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by being lower priced or designed for a different set of consumers.

— Wikipedia

I think the world of new play development is ready for some disruption.

Like everyone here, I’m assuming, I’ve read Outrageous Fortune with the same mix of resignation and melancholy, wondering whether the rift between artistic directors and playwrights can ever be healed, whether the practice of developing new plays for the American stage is dying a slow death, whether audiences can ever be lured back to the theater in greater numbers.

Naturally, I’ve pondered these things from the perspective of the playwright, because that’s what I am… but I’ve taken to heart the admonishment to look beyond myself, to think about these struggles as systematic.  The things playwrights have been asking for over and over again just aren’t getting it done; the things artistic directors want from us aren’t working, either.  Audiences still feel, I think, like we don’t hear them, like we aren’t telling the stories they want to see, like we aren’t serving them well enough to entice them to buy tickets.  Yes, there are exceptions, but in the main, we are still struggling… and struggling to make a living while we do it.

Lately, I’ve begun thinking about the ways in which radically new technologies can completely change the ways in which we live.  We tend to be a bit technophobic, sometimes, in theater, but technology has great transformative power.  Here’s just one example, from what you might imagine would be the slowest-moving government bureaucracy in the country: the DMV for the enormous state of California.  Thanks to Twitter, you can now “tweet” your questions to the DMV’s help desk and get answers in real-time, rather than the hours it used to take; thanks to YouTube, you can now watch driver’s ed videos online and qualify to earn your license in days rather than months.  If technology can revolutionize those things — if it can fix the DMV — it can do anything.

Yes, I know… technology and the DMV is one thing, but technology and new play development?  Believe me, I know it sounds strange… but the revolution is possible.  I can think of several places we could start.

Script Submissions

Let’s begin with how technology could completely revolutionize play submissions… since that, in some ways, is where the new play development process begins.

It sometimes seems to playwrights as if there are as many different varieties of query packet as there are theaters.  One theater wants a ten-page sample, another wants to see fifteen pages, another wants to see the whole script; one wants a short synopsis, one wants an in-depth synopsis, and one wants nothing at all.  There are always going to be theaters that are going to insist they need special components… but what if playwrights began to coalesce around what WE decided a standard query packet consisted of?  And what if, rather than printing and binding and mailing a new packet every time we needed to send one out, there was – here’s the disruptive technology – a database-driven website that would allow playwrights to upload the relevant materials and flag them for particular artistic directors to review?

Here’s the vision: you finish writing your script, you’ve been through whatever development processes you feel are necessary, and you’re ready to share it with the world.  You upload the script to the site, along with (say) a ten-page sample, a synopsis, a description of the play’s development history, a character breakdown, and so on.  At this point, any artistic director can choose to read your script, sorting through all the possibilities by subject matter, genre, full-length vs. one-act, and so on.  Likewise, you – as the playwright – can flag a certain script to be submitted, electronically, to a given theater (assuming the theater has agreed to accept un-agented submissions)… with the click of a button.

How much would you pay for a service like that?  Assuming it would save you the time and money involved in submissions not only for theaters, but for contests and residencies as well?

Yes, there are issues that would need to be resolved.  How would a theater prevent itself from being overrun with submissions?  (The ability to “opt out” from a given playwright’s submissions?  A limit on the number of submissions per month each playwright could make?)  How would we encourage both playwrights and theaters to adopt a system like this?  (How did anyone encourage most of the world to adopt Facebook?)  Who pays to build the thing in the first place, and who keeps it going? (A non-profit organization of some kind, either new or existing?)

Before you dismiss the idea, consider the fact that a solution very much like this – the nascent iScripts project – is currently in development.  I really believe it’s possible.


To build on the idea above: what if instead of uploading finished scripts, playwrights simply uploaded proposals for commissions?  These could consist simply of beautifully-worded descriptions of the plays we want to write, or they could include everything from sample dialogue to suggested commission structures.  Naturally, the contents would have to be copyright-protected as necessary… and maybe only accessible by those with usernames and passwords for the system in question.

These “rough sketches” would be reviewable by artistic directors, who would be able to find stories they’d be interested in developing for their audiences – thus, perhaps, beginning to bridge the artistic director/playwright/audience divide. They might also be tied to Kickstarter-style campaigns that would allow playwrights to do direct fundraising for commissions themselves… and eliminate the need for an artistic director’s interest (and resources) before getting started.

Season Planning

To take the concept one step further: what if we stopped asking artistic directors to plan a season by themselves and started asking audiences directly to share their thoughts about what plays they wanted to see?

The model here is a service called Eventful, which allows users to “demand” appearances by their favorite performers in a variety of genres in their local areas.  What if we had a similar system for the theater, tied into the database-driven site I’ve been describing so far?

What if the audience members for Regional Theater A could “demand” a new play by Playwright B for the 2011-2012 season?  What if they could actually read a description of that play, or a ten-page sample of dialogue, on the site – and what if, being so moved by the story, they could simply click a link to suggest the play to an artistic director?  In time, when a particular play or playwright (or even genre) had enough interest, the artistic director in question would almost be guaranteed an audience.  It would be hard not to make that programming decision… or, more accurately, to let the theater’s audience make it.

Or, alternately, artistic directors could assume a semi-curatorial role.  What if they were to select, say, 25 plays from this increasingly feature-rich site I’ve been describing, post links to their profiles on their theaters’ home pages, then let their audience members vote directly on which plays from the 25 they are most interested in seeing?  Audiences could even comment on the particular choices, discussing them in great depth before they’ve even been programmed: how much excitement would that generate for the theater?

In Outrageous Fortune, the very forward-thinking and insightful David Dower talks about the difference between institution-centric, artist-centric, and audience-centric theaters.  In this last scenario, I think we’d have all three.


I’m not naïve enough to think that technology’s going to address all of the issues we’ve been facing.  Personally, I think the main way to bridge the gap between artistic directors and playwrights is for artistic directors and playwrights to simply sit the heck down and talk to each other more – and I’ve been trying my hardest to do that.  But I do think there might be a role for technology to play here – a disruptive role, even – and I hope we’re all open to it.  I offer these ideas, finally, not as finished thoughts but as starting places, and I offer them copyright-free for everyone’s fair use and implementation, for whatever that’s worth… as long as you promise to use them to make things better for everyone.

  • June 30, 2010
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