Notes on the Boston Theatre Marathon

Hey, so the 20th Boston Theatre Marathon is coming up this weekend, Sunday, May 6! For Boston Playwright's, it's one of THE signature events in Boston Theatre. If you don’t know, it’s an annual event run by Boston Playwright’s Theatre where local theatre companies produce 50 ten minute plays by local playwrights in one day. Most of these plays were submitted in an open call.

It’s a great experience to have your play in. I’m not in this year, but I’ve been in six times in the past, the first time in 2002. I’ve worked with six different local theatre companies, and each one has been a positive experience and a worthwhile production of my play.

What’s interesting though, and what I want to discuss, is that none of my collaborations with local theatres in the Boston Theatre Marathon have ever resulted in any future collaboration. In each case it ends after the BTM happens. I’ve tried to bring up the idea with theatre companies sending them other scripts they might be interested in or exchanging ideas, but in each case it was clear they weren’t interested in really engaging. Eventually I stopped asking. It was clear: Theatre companies did not view the BTM as a way to discover and consider playwrights that they’d consider producing on their own stage.

And it’s not just me. I have friends who have been in the BTM as well. The people in my writing group have been in a combined 15 times. No one has had further discussion beyond the BTM itself. I asked people in the Boston & New England Playwrights Facebook group if they’ve ever had a short play production lead to further opportunities with that company, and only one person reported that ever happening, and that after many short play collaborations with the same company.

I know producing new work isn’t every theatre’s thing, but you’d think a collaboration would happen by accident now and again. Every year for the last 20 years 35 or so playwrights and theatres get together for the first time, but if that’s ever resulted in a full production later on, I don’t know about it.

What’s interesting is that having playwrights work with local companies was an explicit goal of the BTM. I unearthed an interview of the wonderful BTM creator Kate Snodgrass here:

Near the beginning, you can hear Kate say “…we had been talking and talking about how playwrights couldn’t hook up to theatre companies and how to get all these good plays viable in the community. And we thought ‘what about an all day event of short plays? Then we thought ‘what if every theatre company was involved and we did it for charity?’”

Kate has been dutifully and wonderfully producing the BTM for 20 years now. Again, it’s an awesome experience when you get in and theatres generally do a great job producing your play. The event as a whole is a miracle of stage management and a great day of theatre in itself. Nothing I say should reflect poorly on the BTM itself. Keep that in mind when I say this: The BTM does not make local playwrights and their plays more viable as theatres do not consider that part of their responsibilities. 

There have been cases where theatres haven’t even invited playwrights to the rehearsals of the BTM play. That should be the bare minimum requirement that a theatre doing a BTM play should meet. If you represent a theatre that has done this, hang your head in shame, please.

The main point is that local theatres have not lived up to the ideals of Kate Snodgrass, not by a long shot. And it damages the development of local playwrights to a surprising degree.

I was talking to another local playwright and we were talking of breakthroughs in our career. I will have the first full length play of my career produced this year. It will be In Florida. The other playwright’s first production was in Louisiana. We aren’t unique. Our breaks aren’t coming from the place we live in, by and large, despite the presence of an institution like the BTM..

I’d like for that to change. I know that there are a lot of talented playwrights in Boston of all kinds. I do a podcast where I talk with them and present excerpts of their plays! See for more on that in case you’ve come here without knowing that. I’m recording our second season this summer/fall.

And I know that there are a number of local theatres who know how to take new plays and work with them and present them onstage. There are in fact at least 50. That's been the case for each of the last twenty years.

And since I’m not in the BTM this year, I have free reign to say this: Theatres, if you enjoyed working with a playwright and you like the play you produced together for the BTM, ask that playwright to send you something else, something bigger and more ambitious. It probably won’t lead anywhere, but maybe ONE of the 35 or so new collaborations could lead to something more. Is that possible?

Heck, you can go back to previous years and consider which experiences were the best for you. What plays out of the three, five, ten or twenty you've done at the BTM over the years really moved you? What collaborations were most rewarding? Working on a short play is a chance to sample that playwright’s work and sensibility, and to work with that playwright personally. Am I crazy in thinking that should result in an occasional additional collaboration?

There were years when having my play done at BTM was the highlight of my creative year. There were years when receiving a personal consolation note by Kate Snodgrass was the highlight of my creative year. Having at least a conversation afterward about possible shared goals with a theatre would be beyond thrilling for many playwrights.

And it can’t be on the playwrights to do this. We don’t know your aims, capabilities, etc. We don’t know how open you are to talk. We don’t want to be seen as offputting to you and we’re uncertain as to where we stand. It can’t be us, it has to be you.

In any case, I can’t attend the BTM this year. I’m currently away on vacation. As I now have a platform with my podcast, I am asking a friend who is going to the BTM and seeing a big chunk of it to note a few plays that particularly impress her. I’ll take her recommendations and invite one or two of these playwrights to appear on the podcast with excerpts from their full-length play. It’s pretty simple, to see BTM plays and choose some that you like and then look up the playwright to ask for a larger piece. But I’m not sure it’s ever been done before.

If this is the first time a BTM production has led to a subsequent larger opportunity for a playwright, well that’s a pretty big indictment of the Boston theatre scene. It shouldn’t have taken 20 years and an outsider to first take this step. It should be standard operating procedure, but if it’s happened it’s been vanishingly rare.

I want to make this part of the standard compact between the BTM, theatres, and playwrights. Taking part in the BTM means you will take steps to get to know that playwright afterwards. Period. You can set ground rules and parameters, but make the effort, please to have some form of further conversation. Let’s finally live up to the ideals that led Kate Snodgrass to create the BTM 20 years ago.

And if you aren't going to do so, why aren't you?

I'm Greg Lam, and I approved this message.