How A New Play Got Brokered In The Cloud
In less than five months, Michael Gene Sullivan’s The Great Khan went from a private online reading to a commitment from a major theatre
[Part two of “The Theatre In The Cloud,” a series of articles about the transformation of the US theatre market]
It’s a busy Sunday morning, and I am thinking of an often-used phrase in the world of technology startups, but little used in the arts: time to market (the interval between the time a product is first introduced and when it is “sold”). But I suspect that someday soon this little phrase will become an important part of theatre parlance.
Last week, I spent time speaking over Zoom with Michael Gene Sullivan, an actor/playwright best known for his decades-long leadership at the Tony-Award-winning, never-silent San Francisco Mime Troupe. The subject: his play, The Great Khan, which I had heard about through the Actors Reading Collective (ARC, which I wrote about last week) after an open reading they did last September. The news Michael shared with me: his new play — in which two black teenagers struggling to define themselves in the face of racial propaganda stumble into an encounter with Genghis Khan — got picked up by San Diego Rep, a regional theatre in Southern California which enjoys a great reputation for staging world premieres. Sullivan got the news from the Rep less than five months after the reading. Such an accelerated time to market is pretty remarkable in the world of new theater. Ask any playwright, and I am sure they will tell you.
Playreadings come out of the closet
A small historical tidbit about the role readings have played in theater production. Recently, I was in conversation with a colleague of mine who had adapted Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I learned that Shakespeare — the master of adapting source material — had borrowed story elements from a “closet drama” by George Whetstone, Promos and Cassandra. The closet drama, for all intents and purposes, was a private reading with no fuss, no props, or any other stagecraft but the words of the writer performed by the actors. It gave the playwright the opportunity to get reactions from the few that were chosen to attend the reading, including patrons who might be encouraged to fund a full staging of the play. It’s now a staple in new play production. But it has had its challenges. How do you get people to attend a reading when so many other things compete for their time? What if the “right” people are in New York, or San Diego, when your actors are somewhere else. Sullivan, who had staged previous readings of Khan saw the value of doing a reading in the Cloud with ARC.
“What a great opportunity to have my play seen and heard by a wonderfully talented group of folks who, let’s face it, would probably not have come out to see an in-person reading,” said Sullivan. “They would have either been busy themselves or just wouldn’t want to have to have found parking wherever the hell the reading would have been.” And the reading did get seen by one of the right people.
“It was because it was viewed by a guest from the Playwrights Foundation that the director of the foundation asked about producing another reading a few months later. And that reading — only because it was online — was available for viewing by the artistic team at San Diego Repertory Theatre. So it is only because of flipping the switch from in-person to online that we got the eyeballs that needed to see it.”
With bold experiments like ARC; new artistic directors like Sean San Jose (recently appointed to the helm at The Magic); and the shortening time to market for new plays; there’s good pressure on the entire community to step up. If all the world’s a stage, what role can San Francisco play?
There are several other challenges that the Cloud might help Sullivan clear. First, there’s the challenge of getting people to see him as a playwright. It’s part of the cost of doing well as an actor (a multidisciplinary artist, he wears many hats) attached to a great brand lik the Mime Troupe, so beloved it got Sullivan and his wife (triple threat writer/actor/producer Velina Brown) and him a rent-controlled apartment a couple of decades ago which they still occupy. Never mind that his plays have been produced to acclaim by The Actors Gang (Los Angeles), The Alley Theatre (Houston), Teatre Almeria (Barcelona, Spain) and Theatre on Podal (Kyiv, Ukraine), to name a few. Neither The Berkeley Rep nor A.C.T. in San Francisco have produced a Sullivan play, though both have had him on their stages. It wasn’t until Tim Robbins produced Sullivan’s adaptation of 1984 for the Actors Gang “that it even got on anyone’s radar in the Bay Area,” said Sullivan.
Then there’s a challenge I have heard about from other playwrights — getting large hometown theatres to take you seriously as an actor or a playwright unless, say, you do something in New York. There’s this attitude that “if you were good you’d be in New York,” says Sullivan. As a Bay Area theatre director and producer, I’ve felt that bias myself. I find it helps to remind people that I spent my “formative years” in New York (never mind that I did nothing in theater there. I was a ghost writer).
From my POV, these two biases are the surface matter of a far greater challenge that Bay Area artists have faced until this moment. Attendance has been waning, as it has throughout most of the US, and the San Francisco theatre community has had an insecurity complex. There was once a time — only partly mythical — when San Francisco was the place to find home-grown voices, a theatrical cultural capital equal to New York in value but in a different part of the ecosystem. I don’t think I’d be out of line in saying that those days feel like a thing of the past. There are many reasons for this: the aging demographic for so much theatre as we know it; the reduced support for the arts since the Reagan years, as Sullivan pointed out. But where there’s a crisis, there’s opportunity. With bold experiments like ARC, new artistic directors like Sean San Jose (recently appointed to the helm at The Magic), and the shortening time to market for new plays, there’s good pressure on the entire community to step up. If all the world’s a stage, what role can San Francisco play? In my next article I will look at how the largest Bay Area theater — American Conservatory Theatre, led by Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon — is preparing for the change that’s coming.