Producing the world premiere of a play is a coveted opportunity for theater makers: It's a natural marketing sell and can leave a lasting impression on the play itself. For example, if a publisher picks up a play, the world-premiere theater and cast will be listed in the resulting book.
Too often, though, a play's life begins and ends with its premiere, and playwrights struggle to get their largely unknown work produced a second time. Enter the National New Play Network, which works to disrupt the paradigm by enlisting theaters and playwrights across the country to participate in its landmark initiative, the Rolling World Premiere.
Here's how the program works: Three or more theaters within the network agree to produce the same play over a single calendar year, giving the work longer life and greater exposure. In the case of Stephen Spotswood's Doublewide, one of those NNPN theaters is Vermont Stage, which will present the world-premiere production next week. Partnering theaters include Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers, Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, and Williamston Theatre in Michigan.
Being part of the NNPN can benefit both theaters and playwrights. Vermont Stage producing artistic director Cristina Alicea said joining the network has expanded the scope of what her company can do. "Even though we have a small theater, the network gives us access to a huge collection of collaborators and literary managers," Alicea said. "We can't read all the plays we'd like to, so getting recommendations from professionals we respect is critical."
The NNPN is more than just a book club, however, and it doesn't set up one-way relationships in which large theaters bestow plays on small towns. Rather, Alicea suggested, it connects playwrights to theater professionals whom they might not otherwise have met and empowers producers to share the work of local writers.
"Often a playwright [has] made a name for themselves in their hometown, but not yet nationally," Alicea said. "If there's a playwright I love and I'm going to produce, using the NNPN can increase the impact of that production. I can personally send the play to artistic directors around the country and see if they want to do a [rolling premiere] with us."
Vermont Stage has belonged to the NNPN for almost four years, the only Vermont member and one of just three in New England. But this is the first time the Burlington-based company is rolling with the network.
"Last year was so busy with Fun Home, and the right play hadn't come along," said Alicea. "But Doublewide feels really urgent right now, considering everything that's going on."
She was referring to a notion that has dominated political discourse since at least the 2016 presidential campaign: that America's rural poor have been neglected or forgotten. The dramatic canon also tends to forget about that demographic, Alicea suggested: "There's a ton of plays about upper-class or upper-middle-class Americans, but not many about the situation plaguing the rural poor."
Doublewide portrays a family whose American dream consists of replacing their doublewide trailer with a conventional home. Alicea called the work "a very loving and respectful play, which represents that community well." She became interested in the work two years ago, after getting to know Washington, D.C., playwright Spotswood at the NNPN conference in Florida. At the conclusion of the conference, he sent her his play. "At that point, of course I'm going to read it," Alicea said.
Spotswood has been present at and involved in each production of the Rolling World Premiere, visiting the theaters and making edits to the play. While Vermont Stage was rehearsing, he cut an entire scene.
"That's what's exciting about working with the writer," Alicea observed. "You can ask questions; he can explain further. Seeing a different company perform the play can inspire him to make some changes."
Spotswood will join the cast for a "talkback" on the first Thursday of the run, January 25.
Asked whether she would produce a Rolling World Premiere again, Alicea was enthusiastic. "The [NNPN] makes the search for new plays easier," she said. "In my dream scenario, we'd produce one world premiere a year."