The Long Wharf’s new path to new plays

The Long Wharf Theatre premiere of the musical February House. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The Long Wharf Theater has posted an article by the theater’s marketing director (and former daily newspaper journalist) Steve Scarpa, “Announcing the Lord/Kubler Fund for New Work.” It states: “Using the theatre’s 50th anniversary as a launching pad to the future, Long Wharf has created the Lord/Kubler Fund for New Work to help generate the resources to fund” new play development.”

This is a worthy fund, named for two of the theater’s founders and longtime champions, Ruth Lord and Betty Kubler. (Both women were honored with “gravestones” in the 50th anniversary Long Wharf production of Our Town last month.) It’s also something worth crowing about. Dedicating specific funds so a theater can commission, workshop and otherwise develop new works is how regional theaters distinguish themselves these days.

Long Wharf is coming late to this particular party—many theaters use this model, and one of the biggest examples is right in New Haven, a couple miles from the Long Wharf. Three years ago,  the Yale School of Drama received an $18 million permanent endowment—the largest gift in the School of Drama’s history, and perhaps the largest private gift ever earmarked expressly to fund playwriting in the United State—that transformed the school’s existing Yale Center for New Theater into the Binger Center for New Theater. The Binger Center is responsible for such recent Yale Rep premieres as Rolin Jones’ These Paper Bullets! Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, David Adjmi’ Marie Antoinette and Amy Herzog’s Belleville.

Long Wharf’s fund is obviously much more modest, but is a crucial step in maintaining the theater’s reputation as a place where new writers are nurtured and great new plays are fine-tuned.

As Scarpa’s article makes clear, for most of its half-century history Long Wharf has been an important incubator for new works. In the 25 or so years that I’ve been covering Long Wharf as a critic and reporter, I’ve seen readings of everything from a new musical by A.R. Gurney utilizing Cole Porter songs to contemporary Eastern European tragedies.

The means may change, but Long Wharf has always been gung-ho on premieres, especially ones which travel on to New York and elsewhere. In the 1970s and ‘80s, major directors and producers brought new projects to New Haven. Mike Nichols directed Streamers there in 1976 and The Gin Game in 1978; both moved to Broadway.  In the ‘80s, Arvin Brown regularly imported new works from England and presented their U.S. premieres at Long Wharf. In the 1990s, the theater’s Stage II space was busy with workshops and readings and premieres and solo performance pieces. The Long Wharf’s current Artistic Director, Gordon Edelstein, was involved with the debuts of several new works (Joe Keenan’s musical The Times; Michael Henry Brown’s urban drama The Day the Bronx Died) when he was the theater’s Associate Artistic Director in the early ‘90s.

Edelstein’s kept the flame alive. There’s at least one new-play premiere at the theater every season. In an interview a couple of months ago, Edelstein told me that he always has a few projects in early stages of development that aren’t made public by the theater. The gestation period can last for years. The musical Table (with a book by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik,   music by David Shire, and lyrics by both) has been mentioned for years. Occasionally the Long Wharf will do a co-production of a new show, as they did with The Public Theater for the musical February House a few seasons back.

Until just a few years ago, a lot of regional theaters, including the Long Wharf, had full-time literary managers who played a crucial role in the discovery of worthy new scripts. That position hardly exists anywhere anymore, and the literary managers’ duties (which also often included writing program notes, assisting with dramaturgical needs and running educational programs) are split among other overworked theater staffers. The popular way to regularly foster new artistic relationships and uncover new scripts in the regional theater realm these days is to earmark special funds for them. New works can elevate a theater’s reputation, but can also seriously affect its bottom line. They can be notoriously difficult to promote. They can challenge older, settled audiences. And when those shows sometimes suck, they somehow cause more damage than if it were an equally disappointing revival of an established theater classic.

So, new fund! Way to go, Long Wharf. You’ve done new plays just about every way one can do them—with celebrity actors, with genius directors (Nichols), with major playwrights (Arthur Miller,  Athol Fugard, Donald Margulies, James Lapine), with writers from just about every continent, with music, with fancy sets, with no sets, with ambassadors from foreign lands in attendance, in conjunction with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, on the mainstage, on Stage II, in rehearsal rooms, in New York studio spaces, as co-productions, as part of the main season, as special events, as readings, as workshops, as second or third or umpteenth drafts, script-in-hand, fully staged, as one-nighters, as full runs.

Not you’re trying this way, with a fund and stuff. As long as you do it, Long Wharf. Don’t stop doing it.