Implosion Explosion: 13P Combusts, but Its Recipe for Playwright-Driven Productions Lives On
Bent, Eliza, American Theatre
IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE WHY AN OBIE-WINNING, Mellon Foundation-funded theatre group with 13 highly regarded productions under its belt would want to implode. But that was part of 13P's mission from the get-go. "We are not a company," says Rob Handel, one of the initial instigators. "Madeline George calls us a machine for productions."
In 2003, playwrights Handel and George, tired of endless new-play development cycles, gathered 11 other early and mid-career playwrights together at Winter Miller's New York City apartment. The group set out to make a producing collective with a bold tagline: "We don't develop plays. (We do them.)" Each playwright would become artistic director for her production, and a volunteer staff would help with the nitty-gritties of production. A proper press representative would be hired, and Handel, who had fundraising experience from the Mark Morris Dance Company, would work to ensure the group's future life. But the future had a clear endpoint: Each writer would have a play staged, and one play only. After that the group would dissolve.
"The whole idea was to bring plays into being that didn't fit into the world of American theatre--which has trouble existing outside of boxes, literally--and to produce them," says Handel. The order of productions was decided at the very first meeting. Anne Washburn would go first with The Internationalist, and Sarah Ruhl--whose play Eurydice at that time had gone through 13 readings and workshops with no productions--would go last.
Times have changed. Ruhl is now one of the most widely produced playwrights in the country--her plays have appeared on the top 10 most-produced-plays-at-TCG-member-theatres list for the past five years--and a number of the other 13P playwrights have gone on to have meaty careers. Ruhl's 13P production, Melancholy Play, which bowed in July, was sold out before it opened and was closed to reviews. (All other 13P plays were open to reviews in order to help bolster the group's chance at receiving grants and funding.)
"Having Sarah go last is really an ideal way to close out the mission," declares Handel. "It's giving her a chance to return to the community of artists she started out in. We're still the only theatre in New York City where no one will come in and give you notes."
Playwright-centric, thumbing-the-nose bravado was a notable aspect of 13P from the start. In a 2004 article for the Brooklyn Rail, Brooke Stowe observed that a "lack of compromise and aggressive, take-no-dramaturgs stance fairly reverberates from 13P's initial group publicity releases ... Is this confidence, hubris, or just a new and different way of looking at the role of playwrights in contemporary theatre?"
Certainly 13P has raised awareness about the problems in play development and contributed to a changing new-play development landscape. Since 1 3P's ascent, a number of larger institutional theatres have started developmental series and opened up smaller spaces to foster new work. In New York City, these include the Roundabout Underground and Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3.
Now that 13P has accomplished its mission, it's time to celebrate--and to convene as a whole group. (According to a Time Out New York article, all 13Ps have never met in a room together--perhaps an indication of how far-flung they are. …