Filling the Void: Indie Performance Publishing
Over the past two years, newspapers have been hemorrhaging subscribers, hundreds of magazines have stopped printing, and major book publishers are racing to reshape their business models in the face of rapidly changing consumer behavior. It’s not exactly the kind of climate that seems friendly to new publishers, particularly those coming from fields not traditionally associated with printed matter. Nevertheless, there’s a small group of people within the performance community in New York City, most of them writers, putting out books and journals filled with plays.
I am one of that group, having just completed work on a two-volume anthology of plays titled Out of Time & Place, with the help of my co-editor Christine Evans and the Women’s Project. As I’ve worked on the books I’ve been both inspired and informed by other independent publishers producing work that is otherwise little represented on the drama bookshelves of shops around the city. Their work seems to mark a rejection not only of the mainstream, but also of traditional paths to success within the field, seeking ways to both expand and prolong their relationship with audiences.
The first of these new publishing projects to catch my eye a couple of years ago was Play: A Journal of Plays. Long a fan of small magazines, I knew of only a couple that ventured into script publishing, and had certainly never seen one that was devoted entirely to plays. Even more exciting was the fact that this wasn’t traditional dramatic literature. Play, helmed by editors Sylvan Oswald and Jordan Harrison (both playwrights), is specifically devoted to a downtown aesthetic and takes nothing for granted in terms of how such works will be presented on the page.
For Oswald and Harrison, finding new ways to format and document the work they are publishing is as much an experiment as the works themselves. As a young writer, holding that journal filled with work that I previously had no access to, this was a very exciting moment. In a recent email conversation with Oswald and Harrison about their original motivation for creating the journal, it seems that this was precisely their intention. “We started a journal to…create something that would help other writers. It was a way of creating a context for a new kind of writing. It was a new conversation we wanted to have with the field.”
Most people’s experience with play scripts is typically something along the lines of the mass market paperbacks of Shakespearean texts. These books are often filled with overzealous annotations and stage directions, referring to never-seen hypothetical past productions. There’s so much typographic noise on the page that the writer’s words don’t always manage to reach the reader. And, more importantly, they don’t allow readers to employ their own imagination, insistently badgering with someone else’s imagined version of the play.
In many ways, that heavy-handed and production-based notion of a play script negates the experience of the work as a piece of literature, separate from, but related to, the live experience. One publishing project interested in simultaneously marking the similarity to, and difference from, production is that of the Soho Rep. Sarah Benson, the Rep’s Artistic Director, built a relationship with Samuel French (one of the country’s oldest theatrical publishers, founded in 1854), to try a print-on-demand venture the publisher had been toying with for some time, which is now called OnStage Press. In the past six months, under the helm of Raphael Martin, the Rep’s new Literary & Humanities Manager, the project has begun to blossom. Now, for each play that the Rep produces, they also publish printed scripts that include program notes.
Unlike Play, this model is not necessarily, at this point, aimed at reaching a wider audience, as I discovered in speaking with Martin. The reason for this is largely because the distribution arrangement with Sam French limits the sales of the books to the actual theater. In other words, these scripts are not included in the Sam French catalogue, nor are they able to be distributed outside of the theater. For Martin that model works because his excitement for the project stems in part from his time spent in London, where many of the major theaters offer the evening’s script for purchase, providing the audience with, as Martin succinctly put it, “memory aides,” or documents of the event.
Both Play and the Soho Rep’s effort speak to the issue of mainstream U.S. publishing generally refusing to print plays that have not yet been professionally produced. In the Rep’s case, the scripts in the books published by Soho Rep are not necessarily the ones that the audience will see on the stage—they are versions of rehearsal scripts that have to be sent to print prior to final production, simply as a practical matter. So, for example, when Gregory Moss’s Orange, Hat & Grace starts its run at the Rep on September 15, the audience will be offered printed copies of the script for purchase before and after each performance, but the play on the page and the one on stage will likely differ in at least some respects. In fact, as all those working in theater know, the relationship between what is on the page and what appears on the stage is rarely identical, even outside of book publishing, which, to my mind, is one of the best aspects of publishing play scripts.
In my discussion with Martin, he told me an anecdote about offering his mother-in-law a printed copy of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County as possible vacation reading. She took up the offer and “found it to be a very gripping read.” Later, when she saw the London production of that play at the National Theatre under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, she didn’t particularly like it. I find that to be very exciting. By readers being given a chance to properly exercise their imaginations in the context of dramatic literature, they effectively take on the role of director and can have a very intimate and very different interpretation of the play than the production that becomes the “standard.” They allow for the thing that theater is—a collaboration, an event that is constantly recreated and re-imagined with every experience.
One of the broader and more comprehensive independent publishing efforts in the city right now is writer and translator Caridad Svich’s NoPassport Press, where the stage versus page relationship is more of a direct challenge to what is typically found on American stages. NoPassport existed before the launch of its Press as a collective of primarily Latina/o artists seeking to foster discussions around their work. Since then, the group’s mission has taken on larger questions of how to actively create an inclusive and socially aware American theater. Launched in 2008, NoPassport Press now has over 15 titles in print, with a further 10 anticipated in the next year. As Svich noted in an email conversation about the Press: “The more access there is to those culturally invisible stories, the more they can become, if not part of a stream of history and writing that will vanish and retrace itself across time, then at least a vestigial document of memory for those readers who bore them witness.”
Play, NoPassport, and to some degree, Soho Rep, are actively seeking to fill otherwise empty niches. Their goal is not to produce books simply for the sake of publishing, but rather for the sake of building critical dialogues around the works, as well as offering them to the academic community and, importantly, to students, who will be the next generation of theater makers. My own motivation to publish was very much driven by those same urges. Out of Time & Place includes work by 11 contemporary female writers working downtown and uptown, as well as in regional and international theater. For me, the books serve as a direct answer to the slew of articles and town hall meetings focused on the issue of gender parity in theater. My goal, more than anything, is to offer these plays to students, professors, and directors who are otherwise not reading contemporary theatrical work by women.
It should be said that independent publishing is no small undertaking. Most performing artists are already juggling multiple jobs, and adding editor and/or publisher to that list is no casual affair. All of those mentioned above, myself included, are taking on just about every aspect of publication themselves, from gathering the content and designing the books, to proofing them, arranging for printing and distribution, as well as marketing. The challenges of reaching that hoped-for audience are many—many commercial bookstores simply won’t accept indie books, and getting into independent bookstores is no small task either. But for those like Play, the Soho Rep, and NoPassport, the reward is that they are actively building their audience and expanding the discussions around the work they are publishing.
Another person I spoke with about independent publishing is the writer Mac Wellman, who has been involved in just about every kind of play publishing, ranging from offering some of his unpublished scripts for free on his website to co-editing an anthology with Young Jean Lee for the University of Minnesota Press titled New Downtown Now. For him, one of the primary values of publishing is “embracing the ideas of the plays as ideas.” Outside of the relatively small audiences that are able to see work live, published work can take on a life of its own, particularly with readers hungry for new voices.