Martin Denton Discusses Indie theater Now
Earlier this fall, Martin Denton announced that online theatre resource nytheatre.com would become an archive-only site. I spoke with him about this decision and about his new mission that he and his mother Rochelle, 2008 IT Award recipients of the Stewardship Award, have embraced: the digital theatre library Indie theatre Now.
DS: So, why the decision to retire nytheatre.com?
MD: Because it is time to move on. Rochelle and I both believe that we can provide the greatest service to the indie theater sector by growing Indie Theater Now. Our nonprofit corporation, The New York Theatre Experience, Inc., is a very small, very lean organization – just one paid full-time employee and an annual budget of under $100K – and our resources and time need to be devoted to the endeavors that will do the most good, have the biggest bang for the buck. These days, Indie Theater Now is proving to be the program that will have the biggest impact on our community.
DS: Was it a difficult one, and why or why not?
MD: Oh yes, absolutely. nytheatre.com was the most central aspect of my life for more than 16 years. It was very hard, mentally, to pull away from it. Now that it’s been retired – and I should clarify here that “retired” means that while we are not adding any new content to the site, it is still very much alive and online, with its thousands of reviews and other featured content still available at the same URLs – now that it’s not occupying our focus, it’s easy to see that we probably should have made the move even earlier than we did. Now that Indie Theater Now IS the focus, though, I think both Rochelle and I are both utterly re-energized, almost giddy in our excitement about building something new and important.
DS: Tell me more about Indie Theater Now.
MD: Indie Theater Now is a place where people can learn about contemporary American drama in depth. At its core is a rapidly growing library of plays, which are available to be read online—more than 700 at the time of this writing. But this is much more than a catalog of scripts – because every play on the site exists within context that helps our audience experience the work fully: info about the first production(s), a nytheatre.com review of the play along with links to others on the web, extensive info about the playwright, and—my favorite feature, I think—notes from the author about the play’s genesis, background, goals … whatever the playwright wants to share about the work with readers.
So we aim to be comprehensive in our presentation of each play. The other important thing about Indie Theater Now is contained in the last word of its name. The work is new, often BRAND new. For example, we published one of this year’s NYIT nominees for Outstanding Full-Length Script, Dennis Flanagan’s “how I learned to become a superhero,” just a few months after its premiere (and we’re planning to publish 2 more of this year’s nominees – Leegrid Stevens’ “Spaceman” and Lindsay Joy’s “Rise and Fall of a Teenage Cyberqueen” – in the next several weeks). Another of this year’s nominated playwrights was Johnna Adams, and we published her newest play, “Lickspittles, Buttonholers and Damned Pernicious Go-Betweens” THE DAY IT OPENED, September 15th of this year. We’ve been publishing a lot of plays while they’re in their initial engagement—as many as possible, really. Because we want audiences all over the world to be able to discover this work immediately.
People have bought tickets to a show after reading the script on Indie Theater Now, and they’ve bought scripts after seeing shows. It’s a living, breathing process of experiencing new drama rather than a historical after-the-fact recounting of it. This, for me, is the key contribution Indie Theater Now can make to the way people can engage with new plays.
Here’s one more aspect of Indie Theater Now that is significant: the playwrights are paid a royalty whenever one of their digital plays is purchased. Given that we sell the plays at a top price of $1.29, the royalty is not immense – but the fact of it remains, and it’s absolutely vital to the model we’re building here, because it says to the playwright and to the world that the work has value. Most of the people whose work we publish don’t get paid for their writing on a regular basis. In our small way, we are reversing that, turning them into professionally remunerated playwrights.
The endgame for any piece we publish on Indie Theater Now is to get it into the hands of people who will not just read it but perform it, produce it. And this is happening, increasingly as the site grows and expands. We’ve seen productions of plays all over the world resulting from someone finding the script on Indie Theater Now, contacting the playwright, and then mounting the show. Playwrights suddenly have a problem they never had before—they have to decide how much to charge for their work!
And we’re seeing Indie Theater Now starting to be used in college classrooms at places like Williams College, Hofstra University, SUNY-Stony Brook, and Manhattan Marymount. Professors are attracted to the diversity and newness of the work, I think, and being able to bring it to their students.
DS: What resources does the website include?
MD: As I mentioned, Indie Theater Now provides tools to help audiences discover new plays. Some of these are contextual – all the stuff I mentioned above, plus multimedia elements (photos, videos, and podcasts) and interviews and other articles that provide background and insight about the plays and playwrights. In addition, we’ve just launched the nytheater now blog as a companion to Indie Theater Now where indie playwrights and indie artists write about new plays on stage in NYC and we can also let people know more about some of the work being added to the Indie Theater Now library.
People read plays using an online reader that I built.
There is also a variety of tools to help audiences find the plays they’re looking for. We’ve created numerous collections of plays – you can find plays about a particular theme (like our Halloween collection), plays from a particular company or festival (like our FringeNYC 2013 Collection), or plays by a particular playwright. There’s a NYIT Collection, too, for which Shay Gines wrote a lovely essay about what you guys do!
There’s also a more traditional keyword search facility, plus the ability to find plays based on cast size/composition (i.e., mostly male or mostly female characters); and we highlight plays by women and plays by people of color because we think it’s important for readers to realize how much excellent work there is by these groups.
DS: How do you choose which writers and new plays on which to focus?
MD: We started with writers whose work we were familiar with—playwrights we’ve published in our hard-copy “Plays and Playwrights” anthologies and/or whose work we’d seen in production here in NYC. And of course we continue to build on that; every time we see a new playwright whose work impresses us, we will reach out to her or him and ask them to join Indie Theater Now.
But because there’s no way that we can see every new play that gets put up—and also because personal taste shouldn’t be the only measure applied to deciding whose work should be part of Indie Theater Now—we’ve devised a strategy to add more and more playwrights to the library. It’s actually the same strategy we used when we decided that nytheatre.com would review every show in the New York International Fringe Festival—we rely on our colleagues in the Indie Theater community to help us. So we grow Indie Theater Now by actively listening to the recommendations of the playwrights and other indie artists that we trust: Daniel Talbott told me about Mariah MacCarthy, for example, and even though I’d not had an opportunity to see any of her work at that time, I respect Daniel’s opinions deeply, so I was happy to invite her to be part of Indie Theater Now (and am happy that we did!). And she, recognizing the value of karma, went on to recommend new playwrights to us as well. So the circle keeps getting larger.
The other way we find new playwrights and plays is through our curated collections. For example, Jeni Mahoney curated a collection of plays from the Seven Devils Playwriting Conference, which her company runs every year in Idaho. She introduced us to about a dozen playwrights whose work I would never have had a chance to see because many of them are from outside New York. And we’ve gotten to know these playwrights and have added many of their plays besides the ones Jeni selected.
We build a FringeNYC collection every summer with the help of our reviewing squad—playwrights and other theater artists who help us figure out which new plays at the festival we should include. We couldn’t do this without them, and they do a remarkable job locating the work that needs to be put in front of readers.
DS: How inclusive are you able to be?
MD: Inclusiveness is incredibly important to us. We never want to sacrifice quality—we want people to always know when they’re looking at Indie Theater Now that they’re looking at work of quality and import, and that’s why we rely on our growing team of expert advisors to help us find plays and playwrights for the program. But within that rubric, we are very interested in representing the vibrancy and diversity of the theater scene.
So we work hard to make sure that in terms of subject matter, genre, style, and format, the plays on Indie Theater Now cover a broad spectrum. We have lots of solo work and lots of large cast plays and everything in between. We have works that are very traditional in form—so-called “well-made” plays in two or three acts—and we have works that are remarkably inventive and non-traditional: postdramatic work by Chance Muehleck and Julia Lee Barclay, for example. Naturally most of the plays on Indie Theater Now premiered here in NYC, which is our home base, but these include works by playwrights from all over the United States, and by people who emigrated here from many different countries (like Donald Molosi, who is from Kenya, and Danusia Trevino, who is from Poland). We have playwrights who are very very young (one of our newest is Sean Patrick Monahan, who is 20) and others, like Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow, who have many decades of experience making theater. We have plays that are about what the world is like right this minute (the aforementioned “how I learned to become a superhero” is a great example) and adaptations of timeless stories and wonderful mashups like James Presson’s “Friends Don’t Let Friends,” which puts the “Hedda Gabler” story in a contemporary TV sitcom.
DS: Do you seek out plays, or is work submitted to you/the site?
MD: We do NOT accept submissions, so if you’re reading this, please don’t email me something unsolicited. We simply don’t have the resources to adequately respond.
But we are always interested in seeing new plays by playwrights who are new to us! Be sure that your producer/publicist/whatever has firstname.lastname@example.org on their press list. When you have a production going up, send a good descriptive press release to me, so that I can decide if your work might be a good fit for Indie Theater Now and check it out in performance here in NYC.
DS: Feel free to add anything else as well.
MD: Only this: thanks, Doug, for taking the time to ask these great questions, and for your support—and NYIT’s support—of our work at Indie Theater Now. I hope people reading will take some time to check out Indie Theater Now if they haven’t already done so, and start to make it part of their repertoire of resources for discovering amazing new drama.