Publish or Perish: Why Don't More Theatres in the United States Print the Plays They Produce?

By Bent, Eliza | American Theatre, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Publish or Perish: Why Don't More Theatres in the United States Print the Plays They Produce?


Bent, Eliza, American Theatre


DOES THE ACADEMIC ADAGE "PUBLISH OR perish" apply to theatre? If you're a theatre artist, you are more likely to perish before you publish anything. But theatre people are perennial optimists, so let us ask not Why publish your play? but rather 14 Why publish through a theatre and not n proper publishing house?

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"There's this thing that happens in other countries," says well-traveled playwright Caridad Svich, "where you see a play and afterwards you can buy a copy of that play in the same theatre--on the same night!'" Why don't more theatres in the U.S. publish and sell the plays they present? It's an idea with clear-cut advantages for both artists and audiences. And with the digital age thumping along at an exponential rate, self-publishing is now easier than ever before.

For San Francisco's 27-year-old EXIT Theatre, the decision to publish plays came as a no-brainer--albeit a thoughtful one. EXIT's commitment to premiering new work manifests itself in roughly 600 performances of 100 shows per year--"more than any other theatre in San Francisco," EXIT's managing director Richard Livingston attests.

For Livingston and his tiny team (EXIT has a full-time staff of just three, including founding artistic director Christina Augello and production manager Amanda Ortmayer), publishing new plays jived with the mission of presenting new work. "We wanted to figure out ways that a show would have a longer lire span than just the performances it receives at our space," Livingston reasons, hinting at the "premiereitis" trap new plays often fall prey to. "We thought publishing plays would make it easier for a play to get produced a second or third time--and at the least, publishing a play provides a historic record," says Livingston. Furthermore, he believes that having an eponymous press helps EXIT be seen as a center of new-work activity.

EXIT published Ten Plays by Mark Jackson in 2010. Six of the ten Jackson plays in the 500-page tome had premiered at EXIT For Livingston, it made sense to start with a book by a playwright with whom he'd worked in the past and who already had a large body of work.

Instead of going with a vanity press, which often calls for high fees while limiting layout and formatting choices, EXIT decided to do business with an on-demand publishing group. The company settled on CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. EXIT pays CreateSpace $39 per title. Livingston prepares the digital files with InDesign software and sends them to CreateSpace; the title is subsequently sold and distributed through Amazon. "Apart from the human labor on my end," says Livingston, "the cost is fairly small." Most expensive is the ISBN number that EXIT purchases for about $200. When he tallies everything together from cover graphics to design work to review copies, Livingston estimates that he spends about $1,000 per title.

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EXIT Press is inventory-free. "I don't pre-order 1,000 copies of a book and then have to deal with selling those," Livingston explains. Instead, when a copy of Ten Plays is purchased via Amazon (at $19.95), the book is made to order and shipped to the buyer in about a week's time. When Jackson recently directed a play it in Berkeley (where Faust Ptl, which appears in Ten Plays, had premiered), Livingston was pleased that Shotgun could order copies of the book and have them delivered directly. So far 100 copies of that inaugural title have sold.

It's worth noting that EXIT has sought to make the process as artist-friendly as possible. To that end, playwrights retain the rights to publish their plays elsewhere.

Livingston does not have grand illusions of taking over corporate booksellers. "It's hard to get shelf space," he says. "You go to a Borders in San Francisco and in three floors there is one shelf that's five feet wide for plays--most of which are by deceased authors or Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights--so we aren't naive about how this works. …

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