We caught up with Producing Artistic Director Stephen Weitz, who’s directing Anna Moench’s play Birds of North America opening next week, and asked him a few questions about how Birds was selected to become BETC’s next world premiere.
What are you looking for in a play when you choose the annual Generations winner?
We’re looking for scripts that show skill at the fundamentals of playwriting: strong characterizations. Clear, well-drawn plots. Great dialogue. And relevance to our world, and to our audiences. We found all those things in Birds of North America.
What’s the difference between choosing a play for the development process and choosing a play for the mainstage season?
In both cases, we look for those fundamentally strong scripts. But for the development process, we’re looking for the potential to grow and improve on a strong foundation, where there’s still room for a script to be honed so that it can become what the playwright wants it to be. So we’re identifying great initial building blocks with potential, rather than a thoroughly polished and producible play.
The length of a typical development process from first submission to full production is getting longer. Playwrights often dislike development when other artists want to completely rewrite their plays. What makes for a good development process here at BETC?
We try to be open-minded and attentive to what the playwright is saying, in conversation and in their script, and pay attention to what the play is trying to accomplish. And we ask: Are we telling the story that the playwright set out to tell? In workshop rehearsals, we listen carefully to the actors’ work, then use those initial conversations as touchstones to ask: does this scene, does this particular moment in this scene serve that end? We hear over and over from actors and get their feedback on what does and doesn’t work from inside the roles as written.
The director and dramaturg serve as sounding boards for the play, fresh sets of ears and eyes to say: This is what we’re receiving. Is this what you want us to receive? The goal is to help the playwright’s play become the best version of itself it can be. As we listen in rehearsals and learn from other artists in the room, we make new connections between moments in the script. That’s where we find the openings to make suggestions for those small changes that make connections between themes more subtly, the word and phrasing tweaks that ring truest to the playwright’s intent.
The best match in the development process is when the playwright and the company have the same level of interest and engagement in the process. It’s critical to have shared goals at each step, from the first rehearsal, to receiving and interpreting workshop audience responses, to honing the script post-workshop for a full production. Every Generations winner won’t become a world premiere at BETC, but the ones we don’t stage here, we do share with other companies and try to find a production home for them.
We also know our limitations as a development team. We wouldn’t accept a play that we just don’t have the resources to develop successfully in a workshop setting, whether that means no musicals, or plays with heavy movement/ dance elements. You have to know who you are as a company before you can help a playwright develop a work, to be sure there’s a shared aesthetic.