I’ve known Jeff for years… we both come from a No Shame background… No Shame, as Jeff will talk about, was a sort of open mic thing for theater people at the University of Iowa. Every Friday night, new material was put up–most times, script in hand. As a young playwright/performer it was an invaluable education in fearless creation. And being ok with failure. REALLY ok with failure. Jeff is a very funny, very smart playwright, and I’m sure every Christmas season you see someone doing a production of his play THE EIGHT… Recently, he became the resident playwright at SkyPilot Theatre Company, and convinced them to do a season of all original work by a resident company of playwrights. Below are his thoughts on how it came to be and how it’s worked out.
SkyPilot: A Season of All Original Work
The other day, Larry asked me about my experience working with SkyPilot Theatre Company in Los Angeles, because it is one of the few theatres producing a whole season of original work in 2012.
SkyPilot as a theatre company has been around since 2004—founded by artistic director Bob Rusch and a cohort of newly-fledged Angelenos, most of whom had worked together in Chicago.
For several years, the company produced plays off-and-on as opportunities arose and funds allowed and established a reputation as a strong acting ensemble based on consistently glowing reviews.
In 2009, they decided to expand the acting company and work toward establishing themselves in a permanent space with a regular season. They also decided at that time to shift the company’s mission to focus on producing new plays exclusively.
Shortly thereafter, I was approached by Bob Rusch and literary manager Eric Johnson—a fellow U of I alum—about becoming the company’s playwright-in-residence. At the time, this seemed like a no-brainer, since SkyPilot was already planning to mount two of my plays in the upcoming season: THE EMANCIPATION OF ALABASTER McGILL and YES, SVETLANA, THERE IS A GRANDFATHER FROST, so of course, I agreed.
But I began to wonder if there wasn’t something more ambitious we could do than simply instructing the play selection committee to read more original scripts. What if we could turn SkyPilot Theatre into the ideal new plays company? Not just a theatre company that happens to prefer contemporary plays, but one that fosters original work from conception, through every step of development to production. And perhaps even beyond that—using our connections with sister theatres in other cities and publishing companies to springboard plays into second productions or publication, so that premiering a show at SkyPilot was not simply a one-off of a soon-to-be-forgotten script but a launching pad for plays intended to have a life beyond our doors.
Naturally, as a playwright, this seemed like a swell idea to me. I am always willing to take a risk on a new play, because I’ve seen that risk pay off time and time again. But for a cash-strapped company already in the throes of a bold expansion, there needed to be an incentive other than sheer optimism to take the leap of faith on unfinished—or even unwritten—plays. How was a company of actors, some of whom had little experience with new work, to get behind a season of as-yet-unknown scripts, which, for all they knew, might not even have roles for all of them?
It occurred to me that perhaps the latter question was its own answer.
At the next admin meeting, I proposed assembling a team of playwrights tasked with creating material for our forthcoming seasons. They would be free to pursue whatever projects they chose. But in return they would agree that between them, the writers would create a season of roles that encompassed the entire acting company.
(We could, for example, pair each playwright with 3 or 4 of their favorite actors. And give them carte blanche to develop absolutely any project their hearts desired, so long as they could promise that those actors, at least, would have meaty roles in their finished play.)
In theory, this would allow the writers a maximum of creative freedom, while ensuring that the actors had a vested interest in participating in the various workshops and readings and twists and turns of development that lay ahead, because they know that in the end, they are working toward a show which will include at least one plum role specifically created for them.
The proposal was received with enthusiasm and I set about recruiting writers for the “playwrights wing” who could deliver on the things I had promised they could do. I knew that we were creating an environment where almost any writer would flourish, but I wanted to make sure that our initial writing staff had more than a few ringers—writers for whom the challenge of meeting deadlines or creating characters for specific actors would be a piece of cake.
I relied heavily on writers from No Shame Theatre—a forum where anyone with a 3-5 minute script and the chutzpah to stand behind their own work can bypass censors and take the stage on any given weekend. (It has branches in several cities nationwide.) I knew that the best No Shame writers could be counted on to write quickly and consistently and had a history of adapting to unexpected circumstances (such as performing out of the back of a pickup truck, in an unlit basement or during catastrophic flooding).
We looked for writers who had worked in a diversity of styles so that the company would not become fixed in any one theatrical genre and invited playwright/composer Jonathan Price to write musicals for us, even though at the time we had neither the facilities nor the talent pool to stage one. (If SkyPilot was going to be the ideal new plays company, we had to be able to develop any type of play.)
Our first project as a writing company was REWIND, a showcase of original 10-minute plays set in a shared location, in this case, a video store. This became an important get-to-know-you production for the company as it employed all 10 of our playwrights and every member of the acting company with each actor cast in at least two plays. It was also an opportunity to bring in new directors or give company members the opportunity to direct in a logistically manageable (i.e. 10-minute) piece.
REWIND was an extremely successful show for us. Despite sharing a seemingly mundane location, the plays ran the gamut from post-apocalyptic zombie battle to classic musical romance. It sold very well and everyone got the chance to meet and work with all the new company members. But perhaps most importantly, it established that our writers were indeed capable of putting together a successful show on very short notice. From that point on, everyone proceeded with much more confidence that whatever we asked the writers to do would get done. Somehow.
We launched a monthly new play reading series. Playwrights signed up for slots as they needed them and for whatever purpose served their play best—whether it was a first public reading with a talkback afterward, or a semi-staged backer’s audition of a production-ready play, or just a private in-house read-thru for the playwright’s ears only. The company would provide a space and actors to facilitate whatever phase of the writing process we were in.
We encouraged the writers not to worry about whether this was a play that might be appropriate for SkyPilot. We wanted them to see this as an opportunity to develop work that perhaps few other theatre companies would let them try. Our first reading, for example, was the first draft of Adam Hahn’s KONG: A GODDAMN THIRTY-FOOT GORILLA, a brilliant, but unproducible stage adaptation of King Kong. Next, we held a concert reading of a new Christmas opera by Jonathan Price and myself. Then in March, the company faced its first real writing challenge…
SkyPilot’s 2011 season, already underway, had been selected months before the recent expansion, so plays were chosen for the quality of the writing over any other production considerations and we happened to find ourselves with a season of male-heavy casts.
Rather than abandon any of our shows, we instead threw it open to the writers that if anyone had an idea for an 11-woman show, we could use it to balance the season. Samantha Macher, a newcomer from Virginia offered to write a monologue show about recent divorcees giving advice to “the other woman” on the care and feeding of their philandering ex-husbands.
Samantha took the next reading spot, and the rough draft of TO THE NEW GIRL was so well-received that we immediately slotted it into our season right after the all-male ALABASTER McGILL (q.v.). By mid-season, we effectively had every actor who wanted to work involved in a main stage show. The system worked!
Over the course of the season we added a couple more collaborative projects. Nikki Adkins joined the company as our Youth Plays Coordinator and proposed THE AESOP PROJECT, an anthology of short adaptations of Aesop’s fables written by each of our playwrights that we could perform in schools as part of their literature/history curriculum.
For our holiday fundraiser we created THE 12 PLAYS OF CHRISTMAS, a set of short pieces inspired by the Christmas carol of nearly the same name. The show went over well enough that we will be remounting it at the end of 2012.
In January 2012 we launched our new season with a second iteration of our signature shared-location show, PLANE TALK, a series of 10-minute plays set in an airport.
But perhaps the most gratifying aspect of our first year of existence as a new plays company was that after 12 months of letting the writers set their own agenda for their passion projects, we were not only able to select a full season of original works, but the company’s trust in the writing process has already grown so much that most of the shows in our new season were selected without having seen a finished script.
We followed PLANE TALK with Liz Shannon Miller’s hilarious LIGHTS OFF, EYES CLOSED, about a woman forced to write her late mother’s last romance novel. Opening in June is SkyPilot’s very first musical, EARTHBOUND—selected on the strength of the show’s book alone, before any of the music had even been written. In August, we’ll premiere Samantha Macher’s WAR BRIDE—off of a rough draft written in 3 days. And then KONG—which, as I mentioned, I’m still not sure how that’s possible.
Looking back on our longer term goals, all of the plays from last season have now had a second (or more) production. And so far at least half of them are going on to publication. A couple of our 10-minute plays are even going into anthologies.
We still haven’t quite achieved my personal dream of a theatre that will be comfortable saying to a playwright, “Your show opens in April. Better get started.” But we’ve come a very long way in a very short time. And we’re continuing to grow. In 2012 we added a Monthly Monday One-Act series to mount low-budget productions of short plays. And we’re continually looking for ways to bring new writers into the fold.
One final anecdote: When I first joined the company, we held auditions for new acting company members, and many of our auditioners were surprised to hear that they had signed on to a new plays company. Now, a year later, whenever we hold auditions, a lot of our incoming actors tell us that they specifically sought out SkyPilot because we are a writing company.
It’s always a perilous path when a theatre company dares to travel down the road to new play development. But in my experience, it’s a road worth taking. And I’m very proud of everyone at SkyPilot for having had the courage to make that journey, because it continues to have its rewards.
Jeff Goode is a director, producer and author of over 50 plays, musicals and children’s shows, including THE EIGHT: REINDEER MONOLOGUES. He is the creator of Disney’s animated series AMERICAN DRAGON: JAKE LONG and the winner of both the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and the Backstage Garland Award for his Wildean comedy LOVE LOVES A PORNOGRAPHER.
*picture by Julia Carpenter