How does a new play happen?

By Hallie Gordon/Director of Artistic Development, KCRep
Edited by Ian Belknap

What is a World Premiere Play?

Simply put, a “world premiere” play is one that an audience is watching for the first time, ever, anywhere. In most cases, a world premier is a play commissioned specifically by the theatre presenting it.

How does a world premiere play happen?

The cast of Between the Lines.
Between The Lines had it’s world premiere at KCRep during our 2017-2018 season. (Photo by Cory Weaver)

Commonly, a new play arises when the artistic cohort of a theatre (the artistic and literary leaders of the theatre) seeks out a playwright to create a new play for them. There will be an initial meeting between the theatre’s artistic cohort and the playwright. They talk about life, art, what is happening in the world, what they value as people and creators – this meeting ideally happens over a meal, a drink, or during a walk, just hopefully not in an office. Trust in each other is key to creating a healthy and productive working relationship. As with any kind of rapport-building, this can take time – it’s a bit like a courtship. The theatre and the playwright will reach an agreement. High fives all around! The playwright goes on to the hard work of creating a first draft.

Vanessa Severo wrote and starred in the world premiere of Frida… a self portrait during KCRep’s 2018-2019 season. (Photo by Cory Weaver)

The playwright spends lots of time thinking, researching, walking, eating, typing, reading, thinking, wondering, writing, thinking, researching, worrying, eating, walking, drinking tea, drinking coffee, drinking, writing, walking, researching, writing, ruminating, talking. Sitting, standing, crying, laughing, writing, playing, sleeping, not sleeping, researching, talking, writing, not writing, watching TV, going to movies, working, writing, typing and so on. This process can last for months, until finally there is a hard-won first draft, which the exhausted playwright will hand over to the theatre.

The theatre then spends time reading, thinking, asking questions, re-reading, thinking, asking questions, talking to the playwright, researching, thinking talking to the playwright, listening to the playwright, listening, listening, listening to the playwright. Then, when the theatre and the playwright agree on areas of the script that they need to think about further, to expand and deepen, etc., then the playwright goes to work on a second draft.

The world premiere of Last Days of Summeropened our 2018-2019 season. (Photo by Cory Weaver)

The playwright spends more time researching, thinking, typing, rewriting, saving, writing, keeping, re-writing, adding, subtracting, reading, writing, not sleeping, walking, drinking, sleeping, not sleeping, rewriting, leaving, adding, questioning, redoing, adding a character, deepening a character, losing a character, making a joke, agonizing about whether the joke works, creating more conflict, looking for the hope, finding the meaning, establishing a new structure, creating a structure, keeping the structure, starting over.

The re-exhausted playwright submits a second draft to the theatre. Repeat Step #3, then hold a reading with actors and director. Hearing the play out loud is crucial to determining next steps. A play is alive – to experience it fully, it must be heard and seen, not read like you would a book. It’s difficult, even for experienced theater artists, to fully understand the mechanics and structure of a play, especially a new play still in development, until they can hear it spoken by actors – this is when a play really begins stirring to life. We become fully able to see what’s working, what falls flat, what you love about the characters, and what doesn’t feel consistent (lines or actions that make you say “she would never do that!”)

Nathan Louis Jackson’s Brother Toad, starring Donovan Woods, had it’s world premiere in our 2017-2018 season. (Photo by Cory Weaver)

After this reading, hopefully both parties agree it’s time for a workshop! That means the actors, directors, perhaps a dramaturg* and a stage manager gather together for several days to go page by page through the play. The director might even stage a scene, but mostly it’s moment-to-moment work with the actors, trying different ways to get to the heart of each scene, and ultimately the whole play.

The workshop culminates in a final reading for the artistic team, and may also include close friends of the theatre, and/or other theatre artists to offer fresh eyes. Everyone is excited, nervous, happy to experience a new, never-before-seen work. The reading is a success! Or isn’t. But let’s say it is! The theatre loves it, friends love it, and most importantly the writer loves it, so away we go!

The theatre announces it will be programming the play in the upcoming season! A New World Premier of a play will be presented to its audience for the first time ever! And here you are, in this theatre seeing this world premiere. We are all excited and nervous, and have all worked really hard to get it ready for you. Enjoy!

*Dramaturg: A dramaturg is a dedicated person on the creative team whose primary task is to support the play’s development by asking key questions, starting conversations, researching, providing context, and helping the artists as they work together to tell the intended story. 
Since each piece of theater is unique, the role of a dramaturg is further defined on a project-by-project basis. Each process requires a customized approach that begins with a deep understanding of the play and of the generative artist’s goals. (Beehive Dramaturgy studio)

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