Having seen the second production of Salvation Road—third if you count the original one-act at the Philly Fringe in 2009—I have now received the kind of vindication every playwright craves: I know my script stands up.
With two different casts in two radically different incarnations—David Montgomery’s production at New York University featured original music, a rich sound design and a modular set, while Alec Volz’s production at Walden Theatre in Louisville was performed in the round with minimal sound and only four barstools as set pieces—the story of a young man in search of a lost sister is the same from one production to another. Now having worked the play through several readings and workshops, I already knew that the script was fairly well constructed and I had a lot of confidence in it. But seeing it in a second incarnation showed me that the play was really there. It lived on stage in a different way, but the fundamentals were the same.
Most playwrights, though, don’t get to this discovery, for the simple reason that most plays never get past the initial production, if they are produced at all. As we know, theatre in the United States has been peculiarly obsessed with world premieres—and this obsession works to the detriment of the form. Not only is it frustrating to labor so over a play that will never see more than a single production, it precludes a playwright from experiencing the essential next step in a play’s development. Because it is only the second production that will make clear to us exactly how well—or how poorly–constructed our play really is. Simply put, if if what we deem essential to our play falls out of it when a different director and cast takes over—then we know that there are problems with the script.
And sometime those epiphanies are not going to happen in a reading or a workshop. They can only come to you when you once the actors are off book, settled in, getting comfortable–and you suddenly see why that scene in act two just feels so long. You suddenly understand where the problem is and how to fix it. And this understanding that such discoveries can only come from full production is part of what has fueled the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere program. NNPN theatres agreeing to produce second and third productions—not to import productions from another theatres, but to a give a new work life in a different way, by breathing into it the talents of different director and different cast, means that these plays can truly be refined and completed over time. And because three or more theatres embrace then, the plays often go on to an even longer life in other venues.
It is more than unfortunate that so many companies that do new work are obsessed with producing premieres. It is a detriment to the theatres and their audiences. Consider that even 10-minute competitions—which have sprouted like mushrooms after a spring rain in the forest—are demanding scripts that have never been produced anywhere else. As if it could possibly make any difference to the good people of Kansas City that the plays they are seeing one Monday night in November popped up on stages in Omaha or Vancouver or Milwaukee the preceding spring? But when theatres automatically dismiss a play because it was produced elsewhere—without first asking whether the work resonates with that community, or whether it brings something forward that ought to be seen in cities across the country, or making even the simple calculation of whether it presents a director or actor an opportunity they might crave—if they can never get to that calculation because the play has already been produced and therefore, the theatre won’t even look at it—then it is not just playwrights that are badly served. Audiences are denied the opportunity to see a new work that has grown through multiple productions, and the theatres have denied themselves the opportunity to play an essential role in bringing that work to its full fruition.
As with those old high school science experiments, our work can be validated only if it can be replicated somewhere else. But even more importantly to the writer, a second production can often reveal weaknesses in text that we overlooked before. My experience at Walden bears this out: For months I had gone back and forth over a scene in the second half, thinking it too long and possibly extraneous and yet feeling very strongly that it contained a key moment in the play, a critical realization by the lead character. Watching a tech run on Nov. 9, it hit me—the scene felt long because that moment was in the wrong place.
The moment occurs after Cliff, a boy whose sister has disappeared into cultish kind of fundamentalist church, tries to extract information about her from a former member of the church. Cliff fails to get the information he seeks, but he does discover the extent to which the church controls its members and, thus, the enormity of his challenge even if he can find his sister. Afterwards, he reports on this discovery to Sister Jean, an activist nun who has been advising him. Until now, Cliff has blamed his father for his clumsy efforts to bring Denise home—the father had tried to force the issue and succeeded only in alientating the girl further. Cliff reveals to Sister Jean that he no longer blames his father. That moment absolutely belongs in the play, but until that Friday I did not see that it belonged in a different point in the story. Cliff needs to come that realization, but he needs to share it with his friend Duffy, who has been his companion on the journey.
Director Alec Volz assured me his actors could handle a last-minute revision, and so the following day, six lines of dialogue were cut from page 84 and four new lines appeared on page 92. And because the moment occurs later, Cliff’s final decision of the play—in which he turns to his father for help—has that much more power. It may seem a small thing, but it was a really important discovery for the play and an example of just how critical multiple productions are to the creation of the script.
Salvation Road will be staged again, in April by Seton Hill University, and I fully expect that when I see it on its feet there, I will see things in the play that I did not see at Walden or NYU, and the script will grow even more. In this respect, I’m one of the lucky few, working a play that has had multiple productions and, with luck, will be in line for many more.