Like any art, theater is in a constant state of evolution. It enjoyed preeminence before the talkies appeared a century ago. Everything changes. Newspapers struggle against the internet, critics who once wrote essays and books on the state of theater let alone verbose reviews are reduced to a mere doubling of Twitter-sized word counts and a diminishing of their importance. Actors are not so nearly eager to dive into a six-week run at the expense of a better paying gig. The trickledown effect has been enormous and palpable. One role has remained the same, the playwright. Without him/her, there is no show excepting improvisation. Yet, much in how theater has been indelibly altered by technology and dwindling, less-than-captive audiences, so too has the playwright suffered the slings and arrows of theater’s hegemony by lack of accessibility.
For a playwright to find a foothold between his/her script and the stage door one has to crack the door, or in this case, a window to let opportunity and development shine its way through. Artistic Director Gary Grossman of the Skylight Theatre Company (previously known as Katselas) is determined to offer a place for playwrights to experiment, hone, fail or succeed. Having produced over 300 plays and over 50 world premieres, Grossman is fearless in his conviction: emerging playwrights are the future of theater.
Finding and developing raw talent is his goal. It is a lofty mission in the face of flagging audiences, competing revivals (where everyone knows at least the play is good) and word of mouth. In a city rife with writers like Los Angeles, the demand is great but the supply, up until the company’s rebranded vision, has been poor with few options beyond the Fringe Festival or workshops. A playwright haven is an oasis.
“There’s a dearth of places that support new work,” Grossman admits in the office next to the dressing room at Skylight seated with Co-Artistic Director Tony Abatemarco and playwright Amir Abdullah of their current main stage show “Pray to Ball.”
Few can truly appreciate the Mt. Kilimanjaro effort from writing the script to seeing it playing onstage. The journey is not completely unlike other writers toiling in the fields of anonymity, but the playwright is the lone wolf of the pack. He/she writes a play—enduring eye-rolling along the way or open contempt from an agent who’d rather collect 10%-15% on a TV episodic. It’s hard to judge as admitting to “writing a play” has an antiquated quality. It sounds dusty and slightly eccentric.
If you don’t believe me, go to an industry shindig or a BBQ party and say with pride, “I’m writing a play.” Most people will politely nod, sneer or simply walk away unless they just LOVE the theater.
Thankfully, Grossman and Abatemarco do love the theater but more importantly, they are dedicated to the playwright. Their vision is to give access and a place where new work is thriving through exploration and fine tuning. The main two programs include INKubator and PlayLab, both of which offer writers a practical way to test their work through professional readings, productions with integration and respect to the craft and the play. Other programs include their SoloMojo for one-person shows and a youth oriented workshop unAUTHORized. Each fulfills different demands and expectations for both the playwright and the company members, but the focus is on process.
Gary takes the Skylight mission to heart and the role it plays in contributing to society. “I ask 18-year-olds, ‘Have you seen a play?’ and they say no. We need to think about our legacy and what our job is. The home run for me is to have audiences walk out of here talking.”
For most writers when the play is finished—by that I mean polished after a few rough drafts, spell-checked, edited by those in the playwright’s circle of trust, and is now ready for a great cast, the trial by fire has just begun. The chances of it being produced are slimmer than most would believe. Additionally, if the playwright is an unknown with virtually nascent credits beyond possibly an education in the field, the odds are even worse. A playwright can submit their work to various theaters both locally and beyond. It’s always a crapshoot of mind-numbing proportions. And the wait to hear back from an overworked theater literary manager can be either so long your children might see the play produced or so instant one has to wonder if they bothered to read beyond the title. Festivals cost money and aren’t cheap. Even the Fringe where playwrights can test drive or mount their work costs dearly enough to be prohibitive.
In the case of “Pray to Ball” by Abdullah set to open for its world premiere on April 26 with previews starting April 18, his play about Islam in the modern age was chosen from hundreds of submissions for its timeliness and topical subject matter. The play is about two college-aged men playing basketball while discussing the sensitive issue of religion. It struck a chord with director Bill Mendieta and fulfilled the company’s adage to “take risks.” The journey for Abdullah did not, however, begin and end with being selected but rather became the start of expanding the play to its fullest potential.
As to how Abdullah feels about the experience, “Magnificent! It’s been a remarkable journey with a wonderful guide, someone with a perceptive eye to help see something that can be done in a better way. This is a very risky play because of the religious aspect. It is the first play I’ve ever written. This play asks questions that people are too afraid to ask.”
In terms of the process, Abdullah laughs, “My background as a theater artist is about being open. It’s about someone having more knowledge than me. I want my message to get across. But that was the frustrating part in the rewrites.” He shakes his head and mops his face with his hand as Grossman explains, “We’re not saying it goes like this or that…we say, show us another way to make this clearer. There is no cookie cutter. This is not a factory. There are different pieces and we treat all plays differently. It’s whatever the play needs and not to impose our stamp on it.”
Abatemarco tells a story about a reputable playwright with an unproduced play he submitted to the INKubator program (which Abatemarco started). A director was interested in the play but the playwright was unwilling to break it down and do rewrites. Skylight passed. The playwrights must be willing to do the work when they approach the company. It is not a straight-to-stage play submission process which might deter some who have a script in hand but for those like Abdullah, a recent graduate student, the work involved is essential to the artistry and discovery.
Another possible determent to the INKubator program is the strict adherence to the playwright being only the writer and not performing in their own play. To Abdullah, this was at first a disappointment. “I wrote the play so I could be in it as an actor. I had to sit it out. It was good though. You’re forced to see it more clearly.” Now, he’s starring in his own vehicle having first sat out on the sidelines, viewing the piece as a writer first and foremost.
Playwrights today can achieve great success but too few do. World premiere has an impressive cache on a press release but these planetary appearances rarely enjoy future regional or big city premieres to follow. “Bakersfield Mist” and “Small Engine Repair” boost the local L.A. playwright’s morale but for every BM and SER, there are more corpses of world premieres never to see another breath of life. Skylight is intent on seeing world premieres beyond its run by being an associate of the National New Play Network which gives plays an opportunity to be pipelined to other theaters in its group. This program offers plays a life from its original inception to audiences nationwide.
Tony Abatemarco points out, “What works in one city won’t necessarily work in another. What is coming out locally is timely. It is in the now. The relevancy is important.”
In this city, Los Angeles theater is thriving and world premieres open almost every weekend. Playwrights would be right to see their work as serious play, but to do that, they need a playpen. For those committed to the process and the support by artists with expertise and respect to the writer, Skylight Theatre Company is one of the few places you can say, “I’m a playwright!” and they’ll say, “Let’s play and get to work.” And in the case of “Pray to Ball” it’s a slam dunk.
For more information about Skylight Theatre and how you can submit or join their playwright programs, go to: www.skylighttheatrecompany.com