In October, I met with Guild members and writers at Capital Rep’s sixth annual Next Act New Play Summit, a weekend dedicated to readings and sessions on new play development. Events included readings, a synopsis and submission clinic (led by me), and a panel on the all-important first fifteen minutes of a script. After a great day, I had a chance to chat with Margaret Hall, who along with Artistic Director Maggie Cahill, runs Next Act:
Aoise Stratford: How did the Next Act New Play Summit come to be?
Margaret Hall: Capital Repertory Theatre (theREP) had been working for several years on starting a development program when a generous legacy gift from Samson O.A. Ulmann—a professor of English at Union College—allowed theREP and our sister theatre, Proctors, to launch Next Act, and keep it going.
AS: Has the summit grown?
MH: Yes. It went from being three days long in 2012, to a four-day summit with four readings. A New Voices component was added two years ago, featuring young playwrights’ short plays.
AS: And there are other events supporting that work, like the First Fifteen, which was a great opportunity for writers to hear how plays set up story, and look at them through a literary manager’s eyes. How are plays selected?
MH: Plays are read blind by at least eight people in the first round and by round two, each submission is read by roughly twenty theatre administrators, directors, actors and playwrights.
AS: You had a large number of submissions this year. What sorts of themes are writers tackling right now?
MH: It does seem that each year an overall theme emerges from the submissions we receive, though this might be the first year that I can’t put my finger on it so easily.
AS: There were several plays about people separated by war in the First Fifteen, but people do seem to be writing about all sorts of things.
MH: One year there were a lot (and I do mean a lot) of submissions dealing with artificial intelligence, another year a lot of the plays submitted centered on taking care of the elderly. Last year, there were many that dealt with transgender issues in families, and this year a number of submissions dealt with infertility.
AS: Do you end up producing plays that comes through the summit?
MH: Yes! That was always one of the goals; our past five world premieres have all come from Next Act!
AS: Does that lead to forging relationships with some of those writers?
MH: Without a doubt! You never know when or where the next great American Playwright will be discovered—and theREP wants to be at the center of that discovery. Relationships formed with the Next Act playwrights also afford us the opportunity to bring professional playwrights into our educational programs. Both Suzanne Bradbeer and Christina Gorman have come back to work with the winners of our Young Playwright Contest, which produces new ten-minute plays by and for young people.
AS: We still don’t have parity for playwrights of color in the American theatre. Are you seeing diversity in submissions?
MH: Since we read the plays blind, we often don’t know the color or gender of the writer. We like plays that tackle difficult subjects without having an obvious agenda, and we are very drawn to plays that have diversity of all kinds in the characters. I have noticed that the topic of racial parity is one younger writers submitting to the summit are particularly passionate about, which is really encouraging!
AS: There are women integral to the entire process of Next Act. Is gender parity on and off stage something Capital Rep is invested in?
MH: Absolutely. We love to highlight female playwrights, and scripts with strong female leads, as well as bringing in female directors to direct the readings in the summit.
AS: What’s the plan next year?
MH: To keep the summit going and growing. We may move it to the spring so we can expand it. We’re toying with a panel where artistic directors talk about the challenges and joys of selecting and producing new works.
AS: That’s a great idea.
MH: And we hope, as we grow, to include a workshop so one piece receives more in-depth attention. We’re also very interested in bringing back the synopsis clinic, and including a workshop on playwriting and working with feedback for young playwrights. Who knows what else we might cook up!
AS: I can’t wait to find out!