Curtain Call: ‘The play is the engine that runs the theater’ says Conn. playwright
There’s a new trend emerging from many theaters. It’s called commissioning plays. Not only does it keep playwrights working, but it offers grants to theaters as well as giving theaters the opportunity to get a play that best fits the needs of their audiences and communities. While there’s a long history of some theaters commissioning new works, the trend seems to have picked up steam and is now reaching small theaters as well as the big regional houses. Considering that many theaters are making changes to their mission statements, it is a good time to commission shows that will benefit all of their audiences and communities. Some theaters offer commissions without specifying a topic or theme, but some do state what they’d like to see in a play. That can even include a particular character or characters. I recently spoke with two playwrights who have been commissioned, Jacques Lamarre and Jacqueline Goldfinger.
Most area theatergoers know Lamarre from his plays produced at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury and Hartford’s TheaterWorks. Recently accepted by the Kennedy Center’s Playwriting Incentive, Lamarre was disappointed that the incentive would be virtual rather than traveling to Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. “I’ve been commissioned to write plays three times,” stated the successful Connecticut-based playwright who has written many plays over the past 20 years. For Hartford’s TheaterWorks, he wrote “Raging Skillet.” for the Roberts foundation, he wrote specifically for a 50th anniversary celebration and for the Hartt School, a play for its 100th anniversary.
“Most theaters have new play development programs,” said Lamarre adding that they find grants for commissions that support playwrights. “The play is the engine that runs the theater,” he stressed, pointing out how important playwrights are to the theater. Yet so often playwrights don’t even earn as much as an actor. “Commissions are great when they come along.” said Lamarre. While the playwright is known for his sense of humor, he’s very serious about the pay that playwrights normally earn. “Often, playwrights don’t earn as much as an actor. If a playwright gets a percentage of the box office, it depends on how many performances are being offered and how big the theater. On the other hand, many commissions even come with an advance.” He then quoted famous playwright David Lindsay Abaire as saying: “You can’t make a living as a playwright.” Many playwrights have other jobs.
Jacqueline Goldfinger, who was just commissioned by Thrown Stone Theatre Company in Ridgefield, considers herself a playwright and an amateur history sleuth. She loves researching events based on history. She is also a teacher. Having been commissioned numerous times, she finds it is often grant-based by theaters as is the case for her most recent commission to write the Ammi Phillips play for Thrown Stone. “I have gotten one or two commissions a year,” she said adding that she now has four commissions on her plate. “It’s like I hit the commission jackpot,” she said.
“The uniqueness of writing for theater is being in one place for one group of people.” While she enjoys writing and collaborating with theaters on specifics for commissioned plays, she also enjoys getting a commission to write whatever she chooses. Such was “The Arsonists,” which was produced by Thrown Stone and which connected her to that theater, which then commissioned her to write the Phillips’ play. “My passion projects are plays that come straight out of my passion.”
Recently, theaters including Long Wharf in New Haven commissioned playwrights to write 10-minute plays for people at home because of the COVID-19 epidemic. To keep playwrights writing is crucial and even small commissions help. Check out the commissioned plays available for the public to read and perform at home for free at playathome.org.
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