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The Five Circles of Development Hell

Playwrights’ Corner
In a large studio seven actors sit in front of music stands, across from the director (Moritz Von Steupnagel), playwright (Mike Lew), and stage manager, seated at folding tables on the opposite side of a patterned red rug.
Mike Lew and the creative team of The Lark's 2015 workshop of TEENAGE DICK.
  • 2012: Gregg Mozgala commissions Teenage Dick through his company 
    The Apothetae
  • September 2014: I write the play in ten-page chunks in The Lark's Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop
  • January 2015: First public reading in Ma-Yi Labfest
  • February 2015: Weeklong workshop in the Playwrights Foundation’s Rough Reading series
  • March 2015: Weeklong workshop and reading with the Public Theater
  • April 2015: Final presentation for The Lark's Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop
  • August 2015: Acting apprentice reading with Florida Studio Theatre
  • January 2016: Scene studies with the O’Neill National Directors Fellowship
  • March 2016: Public Studio workshop production
  • July 2016: O’Neill National Playwrights Conference
  • September 2016: Cold read with resident acting company in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Black Swan Lab
  • April 2017: Weeklong workshop at the The Rep of St. Louis
  • June 2018: World premiere with Ma-Yi Theater at the Public. The Lark helps bridge development and production via its first-ever Venturous Playwright Fellowship

Teenage Dick has been through a lot of development. Ten different organizations have played a role in bringing the play to its world premiere. The development credits in the program look like a pharmaceutical side effects listing.

Playwrights often joke about “development hell,” but I’m incredibly lucky that so many theaters have gotten behind this play. If this is hell, I’ll gladly take it! And yet despite all its prior development, Teenage Dick is still in flux. We’re tightening jokes, I’m adapting the lines to fit this particular cast, and we’re constantly updating the cultural references to fit the world of 2018. (So long, Joe Biden reference!) As we head into previews, I just dropped a massive cut sheet on my poor cast, with like 60 new pages. Given that we’re still making so many script changes, one might be justified in wondering what all that development was actually FOR.

Since The Lark has been such a multifaceted champion of Teenage Dick and since they’re an organization obsessed with questioning and refining what makes for effective development, I wanted to reflect on this play’s development history, focusing particularly on four theaters that supported the play at multiple points: Ma-Yi, the O’Neill, the Public, and The Lark. While every writer’s needs are different and every play goes through its own unique process, in my mind there are five crucial injection points where development’s actually useful. Let’s call them the Five Circles of Development Hell.

Circle One: Kick My Butt.

Gregg Mozgala commissioned Teenage Dick in 2012 and for a year I did nothing. The next year I began worrying that he’d give the commission to somebody else. I needed a kick in the butt, which is where The Lark's Rita Goldberg Playwrights' Workshop came in. The setup is that you bring in ten pages every two weeks, and you’re encouraged to keep writing new pages rather than revising old work. You come into The Lark with your ten pages and “a group of the most talented cold read actors on the planet” reads you back what you’ve got. To be honest I found it excruciating. I prize clean, precise language. The rawness of putting out unformed pages was terrifying, even in front of the friendliest possible audience. But the pressure to keep moving forward was something I desperately needed. Gregg was also present for many of these early sessions, which was useful because I got to tailor the play around him. I’ve often tried to write plays with specific actors in mind, but this was the first time I’d gotten to see that all the way through, from Gregg’s first presentations in The Lark's workshop, up through the current production.

Circle Two: I’m a Monster!

Ma-Yi has been my home for the past decade-plus. Their Labfest reading series is where many of the Labbies bring our earliest-phase work. Often we use the reading itself as a deadline to finish the play. We did the first-ever reading of Teenage Dick in Ma-Yi Labfest, and true to form I’d just finished the night before. In addition to Gregg playing Richard, this was the first time I got to work with Shannon DeVido in the role of Buck, a part she’s kept on with ever since. At the time, Shannon’s role was written for a male actor. (Richard’s broey pal Buck became Barbara “Buck” Buckingham.) I warned her that I hadn’t gotten around to swapping the gender pronouns. But having a home where you can essentially do a shitshow reading and be a MONSTER and not be too judged about it is truly empowering. Everyone deserves not just a home but a home you can trash, and Ma-Yi is that “come as you are” place for me.

Circle Three: Look Away!

I think the most dangerous place in new play development is right after the first draft is done, because there’s a cottage industry of “idle development” that oftentimes doesn’t help the play. To be clear, I had great experiences on Teenage Dick, but with previous plays I’ve also had my fair share of workshops that were 1) everyone chiming in on how to fix the play, or 2) a cheap substitute for production even if the play was honestly ready to be produced, or 3) an empty ritual to ward off that nebulous monster, “risk.” It’s like workshopping is the hoop you have to jump through while everyone stands on the sidelines telling you that you’re jumping wrong.

I want to draw attention to a new model the O’Neill cooked up for its National Directors Fellowship. One snowy week in January, Gregg and I trekked out to the O’Neill and did a weeklong workshop where two different directors (Lavina Jadhwani and Evren Odcikin) each staged a different scene from the play. The week included observations on the directing process from peer directors and a final presentation, but the focus was on the directing, and Gregg and I were merely along for the ride.

This was a truly radical way of workshopping. Having two different directors’ takes freed me to explore the interpretive range of the script; the scenes became multi-valent rather than feeling locked. I’d specifically chosen two dance-heavy scenes, which was huge because I was finally seeing the physicality behind what had only been stage directions before. I think, overall, writers are guilty of writing too many music stand-friendly plays that fall flat once they’re staged, which is another casualty of the reading-industrial complex. But by actually blocking the scenes and by taking the focus off me, I wasn’t being pressured to “fix” my play, which ironically freed me more to rewrite. I reconceived whole new scenes unrelated to the scenes being staged, and we read the new pages for kicks because my two directors were such overachieving badasses.

Circle Four: But what does hell actually look like?

I feel like our readings culture criminally neglects how crucially design informs on the experience of seeing a play. I’m in awe of what designers can do, because it’s so far away from what I know how to do. I love offering up “design challenges” in my scripts, just these little stage directions bombs of “I don’t know how to do this but I know that it’s doable, and I’ll be delighted when you do it.” But I truly have no idea how to translate those challenges into the physical world, which is why by 2016 Teenage Dick desperately needed design.

Early on the Public gave Teenage Dick a weeklong workshop/reading, and they followed up the next year with a Public Studio workshop production. This was a short rehearsal process and eight-show run with an audience, with sketched-in design elements. My longtime collaborator Moritz von Stuelpnagel directed it and has remained on through the current production. Seeing some design around the play answered so many questions for me: how to make scene transitions flow around Richard’s ever-presence onstage, how to theatricalize a social media shitstorm, and whether some macabre costuming I’d imagined held the payoff I thought it would.

The play then went on to the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. A whole book could be written (actually has been written) about the special sauce that is the O’Neill, but one particular aspect of their process I treasure is their “dream design meetings.” The playwright sits on a porch with a design team and everyone collectively imagines the world of the play. What size and configuration of theater does this play live in? How would the set design work? How can we get the sound and costumes to augment the tone of the play? I live for this kind of practical grounding. Then after that, the designers go off and make design boards to present at the final readings. *Chef’s kiss!*

I just think writers and designers ought to hang out more. Formalizing a development process that includes designers earlier in the process would ward off a ton of practical problems in our scripts, and in ways more elegant that writers could ever imagine.

Circle Five: Now Do the Damn Thing.

In 2018 Ma-Yi is partnering with the Public to produce Teenage Dick’s world premiere. Ma-Yi has already produced two of my previous plays – my only New York productions - and they were home to Teenage Dick’s very first reading. The Public had done two prior workshops. This partnership is an absolute dream. On top of that, The Lark stepped in to support the play via its inaugural Venturous Fellowship, a program that offers a dramaturgical home base at The Lark and production enhancement to the producer and playwright.

Development’s great, but at a certain point a theater has to back up their early support with palpable action. Perhaps this play wasn’t production-ready in 2013 or 2015; I’m too inside it to know. But I also know that six years after its genesis this play is screaming to come out in the world. The Lark and Venturous Fund’s contribution is radical because by putting financial heft directly behind the writer, they break the cycle of playwright infantilization. Too often in new play development, theaters speak on behalf of artists to funders, declaring what artists “need” by proxy. These funding structures have real-world consequences. Writers are in no position to turn down a development opportunity even if we know it’s not going to be helpful, and that power imbalance embodies the very “development hell” we bemoan. By placing funding directly behind the artist, the Venturous Fellowship has allowed me to approach the producers with a real sense of agency. (Fortunately this is an agency that Ma-Yi and the Public were all too happy to embrace.)

Overall, I’m overwhelmingly grateful for each step in Teenage Dick’s long developmental journey. I’m more grateful still that so many theaters offered support. But I’m most grateful – or actually relieved - to have emerged from the vacuum of development knowing that Teenage Dick will have a life through its world premiere.

TEENAGE DICK will be presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with The Public Theater, at the Public from June 12 - July 15, 2018. Click here for tickets and more information!