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Somewhere, in a downstairs room or a rehearsal hall or a half-empty auditorium in one of D.C.’s theaters, a playwright is right this minute having the piss taken out of him.

That’s what happens at most play readings: Ambitious young writers with ambitious young plays—big names, too, bearing the new efforts that critical vipers will compare to their last—present their fragile creations to an audience of hard-core theatergoers and hard-bitten stage veterans. Afterward, the armchair critics are only too happy to talk about where the shows work. And where they don’t. It’s not always pretty—and it rarely ends in an actual production.

Like many of her peers, D.C.-based playwright Allyson Currin has spent serious time riding the play-reading merry-go-round. “I feel like Church of the Open Mind was read at every theater in this town,” says Currin, who finally found a home for her script at the Charter Theatre—where it promptly nabbed a Helen Hayes Award nomination for the year’s outstanding new play. “It’s been a challenge for me, even here, where people know me and know me well.”

Melanie Marnich, whose Blur had its New York premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club two seasons back, echoes the sentiment: “I had one play that I described as ‘the girl who got asked out constantly but never had anyone pop the question.’”

If these people sound well-rehearsed in their criticism of readings, well, they’ve coined a term for it: “Development hell” is the litany of woe that echoes from every playwrights’ conference in the land; “I’m being developed to death” is how the lament goes when someone needs a verb. For too many, the phrases evoke a process that’s all process—and one that results in precious few stagings of new work.

“It’s not really a new complaint. Steven Dietz coined the phrase ‘developed to death’ in an American Theater magazine article in 1986,” says Brian Haimbach, who’s finishing a dissertation on new-play development at the University of Georgia. “But for some reason it seems to be coming to a head now”—possibly because both play-reading programs and graduate playwriting programs have proliferated in recent years.

One widely voiced worry, Haimbach notes, is that the run-of-the-mill reading is too focused on quick fixes—”so what you get out of too many reading series is a very homogenized type of drama.” In other words, the standard play-development process “weeds out the eccentric, idiosyncratic voices and forms,” according to playwright and Charter Theatre Associate Artistic Director Chris Stezin. “I don’t mean the esoteric—merely the innovative.”

By sidelining those voices in the pursuit of “produceable” plays, theaters risk missing the next Tennessee Williams, the next Paula Vogel, the next Jean Genet or Caryl Churchill. In Washington, though, a few companies are working to change that—companies on the leading edge of what Haimbach says is a national effort to stop “fixing” plays and start focusing on how to clarify a playwright’s finest ideas.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, arguably the city’s biggest and most adventurous new-play name, ran a fairly conventional play-development program. Called ForePlay, it consisted of the standard workshops-and-readings rigmarole.

“Lots of writers will tell you they had a great experience,” says Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, and the series birthed its share of full productions—notably Christi Stewart-Brown’s The Gene Pool, Robert Alexander’s The Last Orbit of Billy Mars, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Wonder of the World.

But Woolly’s moderate resources limited its ability to both find promising scripts and follow up properly. Worse, Shalwitz says, “We were meeting writers in a context that was by its nature judgmental. More often than not, ForePlay resulted in our rejecting a play—and however positive the experience with the writer may have been, what they were left with was the simple fact that we did not think their work was good enough to produce. Hardly a way to begin a productive relationship.”

So a couple of years back, Shalwitz poured cold water on ForePlay. “The decision I came to,” he says, “was that, at least for a few years, we’d change direction and put all of our developmental energy into projects that we were committed to doing.”

That means, among other things, that Woolly audiences are now hearing fewer new voices. But the ones they are hearing, Shalwitz argues, are richer and more given to risk. He points to Clifford Odets—onetime resident playwright of New York’s Group Theatre, author of Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Rocket to the Moon, and others—by way of explanation. “Odets was writing for a particular group, was part of that community, and they were gonna produce whatever he wrote. And that string of plays is remarkable—they’re stunning, stunning plays.”

The same model worked for Shakespeare, Shalwitz says, only half-joking: “He was writing for an audience, writing for production—it’s not like he was sending scripts on spec. The writer was part of a whole production team. The thought that the greatest plays in the Western world were produced under this kind of system was kind of inspiring.”

Backed by a hefty grant from California-based A.S.K. Theater Projects,Woolly’s new approach uses all the usual play-development tools—script conferences, private readings, public readings, workshops—but bolsters them with a firm promise of a full production. It invites a few carefully selected playwrights—three over a three-year period—to get to know Woolly’s quirks, its ensemble, and its audience, and it provides financial support so they can spend the time necessary to do it.

“In the past, even paying for a train ticket to get a playwright here was an iffy proposition,” Shalwitz says. “Now…we might start working with a playwright a year or so in advance. The goal is to get as close as possible to a finished script before rehearsal starts.”

These days, that goal is unusual, to say the least. Woolly’s method establishes an uncommon level of trust between playwright and producer from the outset: As he works to help shape the play, Shalwitz can trade on the goodwill created because, he says, “I was able to pick up the phone and say, ‘We like your play, we want to do your play, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get it ready and make that happen.’”

Committing to a production adds another element to the mix: a certain urgency. “It’s no surprise that when the existential moment of an actual opening night is looming, lo and behold, a sense of genuine desperation to communicate infuses the process,” says Craig Wright, whose forthcoming Grace is one of two plays commissioned from scratch under Woolly’s new program—and slated for the company’s next season. “Suddenly it’s: ‘Oh shit, they’re coming. Next week. It’d better not suck.’”

Woolly’s new play-making model is the District’s most ambitious, but other local companies clear the better-than-average bar as well. At Arena Stage, the 3-year-old Downstairs program builds on the basic two-day weekend workshop by building more structure into and around it. “We pick works and match directors to them fairly early, so writers and directors can have a little more dialogue,” says Arena Artistic Associate Wendy Goldberg, who organizes the series. “With the playwright, we set goals for each workshop in advance, and we focus feedback on those goals so the audience-response section doesn’t become a free-for-all.”

And the relationship continues beyond the weekend: Goldberg and her colleagues keep in touch with their playwrights, offering further suggestions and support as work on a script continues, and passing the word about promising properties even if they don’t fit the company’s own production agenda. “We identify artists that we’re interested in knowing on a long-term basis,” Goldberg says, “and ask them to give us whatever they have.” The result is a program that, in the assessment of Marnich, can seem “unbelievably generous. [Arena] gave my play a darn good reading, with a really smart audience, and I got some of my best feedback ever.”

At the other end of the size chart, the tiny Charter Theatre goes totally against the traditional flow. “Most theaters are more than happy to tell a playwright exactly what needs to happen to make a play ‘work,’ says Stezin. “That’s backward for us—we want the playwright to tell us what the play is supposed to be, so we can help him get it there.” Or her, as the case may be: Currin remembers a particularly troublesome scene in Church of the Open Mind. “My impulse was to cut it,” she says. “And [the director] said, ‘Wait—put the scissors away. Let’s try to figure out why you put it there, why it’s not working, what we need to do to make it work.’”

Other local companies that draw praise for their deeper-than-average development commitment include Round House, which has a structured-feedback approach not unlike Arena’s, and Signature, where Literary Manager Marcia Gardner has developed a reputation as a tireless advocate for plays and playwrights.

At one level or another, these local theater companies are all tinkering with an unintended legacy of the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference, a monthlong summer conclave launched in 1965, according to its Web site, “to create a supportive environment that empowers playwrights to guide their own process and discover a play ‘off the page.’” One of the earliest programs of its kind, the O’Neill inspired theaters across the country to jump into the new-play pool—a good thing, most people agree.

But most of those theaters never stood a chance of re-creating the O’Neill’s peculiar chemistry, which brings the titans of the trade together with younger players, first-rate directors, and some of the nation’s finest actors in an intense but always supportive atmosphere. As a result, many of the new-play programs the O’Neill has inspired come off as perfunctory efforts—a bad thing, most people agree.

It’s worth noting, though, that not every writer feels traumatized by the dog-and-pony approach. Pretty much any playwright, in fact, will agree that seeing a play “on its feet”—getting the chance to gauge how it works in the hands of others regardless of how nuanced the feedback—is worth many a hassle.

Not everyone worries about wild new voices being shunted off into the dramaturgical wilderness, either—and one playwright even says that some of the loudest complainers may be in the wrong business. Says Wright: “I’m not against producers daring self-involved writers to conform their impulses to the demands of human attention. If you want to write something and not have to develop it in the company of others, then write a poem. Write a novel.”

If that sounds harsh, Wright doesn’t really mean it to be. “Both playwrights and producers are caught wanting two things at once,” he acknowledges. “The playwrights want to write for themselves in a medium that requires writing for others; the producers need genuine expressive art—but also need to sell seats to an audience.”

In the end, the auditorium is a marketplace, and it demands the usual compromises. Great art will always find an audience; for the rest, Shalwitz says, the key lies in unraveling Wright’s paradox: “helping playwrights find the right balance between ‘How do I write for myself?’ and ‘How do I write with a company?’” CP