When DG Council member Christine Toy Johnson and I began planning a May 15 event at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we envisioned a panel discussion on new work development with a half dozen artistic leaders of Wisconsin theatres. As word about the upcoming event spread throughout the state, representatives of other Wisconsin theatres, a university-based new works development program and a new theatre festival offered to join us for the conversation. We finally had to cap the panel at 11, though several other prospective panelists supported the event as attendees and joined the Q & A discussion at the end of the event.
The excitement in anticipation of the event as well as the burgeoning list of panelists tells the story of the vitality of Wisconsin’s community of theatre artists and their passion for new work. Adroitly moderated by Christine Toy Johnson, the panel discussion featured practical advice for writers seeking productions and development opportunities, as well as the chance to meet decision-makers in an informal reception afterwards.
Brent Hazelton, the Director of New Project Development at Milwaukee Repertory Theater (who is also a playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild), offered both an overview of The Rep’s approach to finding and developing new work, and suggestions for playwrights on how to develop their work independently.
Suzan Fete, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Renaissance Theatreworks, Milwaukee discussed the company's Br!nk New Play Festival, which will be presented in September, as well as the Groundworks program, which provides opportunities for local emerging artists. The company’s commitment to gender parity in the arts is a cornerstone of its mission.
Jeff Frank, Artistic Director of First Stage, and Sheri Williams Pannell, who works with both First Stage and the Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, discussed their work identifying projects for TYA-focused First Stage. Frank spoke about cultivating relationships with particular writers and commissioning projects that the writers themselves are excited to create.
Ray Jivoff, who recently became the Artistic Director of Skylight Music Theatre, talked about the company’s history, and expressed his intention to expand on new works programming, while acknowledging the economic factors that especially affect developing new musicals and operas.
C. Michael Wright, Producing Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, spoke of how important the heart connection is for him in correspondence he receives from playwrights about their work. He wants to feel the writer’s personal investment in a story, rather than a pat marketing pitch.
Brian Rott of Quasimondo Physical Theatre spoke about devising work with his kinetic ensemble, as well as his experience founding the Milwaukee Fringe Festival. He also spoke about self-production and festival production opportunities.
Leaders from 3 Madison-based theatres discussed the vision for new work in that city: Jennifer Gray, Artistic Director of Forward Theater, Jessica Lanius, Artistic Director of Theatre Lila, and Doug Reed, the incoming Artistic Director of Broom Street Theatre.
DG member Rick Kinnebrew shared the story of Broom Street’s world premiere production of his and Martha Meyer’s Ten Dollar House, which went on to a second production in Chicago the following year. Since the Broom Street production came as a direct result of a previous DG New Works Event in Wisconsin in 2014, it’s easy to imagine that this year’s event, with twice the number of both panelists and attendees, can lead to more productions.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Wisconsin DG member Shelia Payton spoke eloquently about her desire for more community among Wisconsin playwrights, and offered thoughts about how online meeting formats may be used to connect members to one another when distance is a challenge.