The Pluses and Pitfalls of Premieres

KC’s theater companies embrace the risks and challenges of first-time productions.

In “Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves,” Brendan Kiley of Seattle’s entertainment newspaper, “The Stranger,” urges theater companies to produce premieres — frequently. Directors must seek them out, he says, playwrights must hasten their submissions, critics must review them consistently and unions should allow equity actors to perform in them.

[block pos=”right”] “There is labor, risk and terror. There is vulnerability and openness; we grow new muscles and greater perspective.”
—Carla Noack, actress and acting professor at UMKC on premieres [/block]

A “premiere,” the term first used in 1889, simply refers to the first performance of a theater piece. Premieres can be local, regional, national or world. There are rolling premieres, simultaneous premieres, professional premieres and ones commissioned.

From 2003 to 2013 there were 317 world premieres in American theater, according to the statistics website Statista. Backstage.com lists the “11 Theater Companies Known for Producing New Works” — in New York City, Chicago, D.C., Minneapolis, San Francisco and Louisville.

Kansas City is now challenging those cities.

Cynthia Levin and the Unicorn Theatre paved the way decades ago, as one of the founding 11 companies that created the National New Play Network, which now includes over 100 companies sharing resources, playwrights and scripts. They read over 500 new plays per year. The Unicorn often gets the rights for plays first. Of the 316 plays produced at the Unicorn, 64 have been world premieres, such as “How to Steal a Picasso,” “Blacktop Sky,” and “Women Playing Hamlet.” In January “How to Use a Knife” will open.

Across the board, other KC theaters have followed suit.

  • Eric Rosen and KC Rep have developed several new works, including the hip-hop opera “Venice” and “The Christmas Story,” which have gone on to be produced in New York.
  • Jeff Church and The Coterie Theatre have seen “Lucky Duck” and “Seussical” staged in New York, “U: Bug: Me” in Milwaukee and “Afflicted” now in Nashville.
  • Melting Pot has sent “Echoes of Octavia” to New York, “The Frowning Viajajays” to California and “Truth Stands” to Chicago and Dallas.
  • Two of Martin City Melodrama’s original works, “Harriet Hopperdoodle’s . . . ” and “There Was an Old Woman,” have been performed in New York.

As Jeff Lunden, NPR performing arts journalist, states, Broadway is “a kind of shop window for musicals and plays that have been developed in regional theaters across the country.”

Clearly, premieres can glorify a company and establish its national reputation. They can enthuse talent and bring in new audiences. In some cases, they can even engender grant money.

But they are a gamble. Nicole Hodges Persley, KU acting professor and Melting Pot associate artistic director, states, “Bringing a new work to the stage is 99 percent risk to a producer. There is no history to pull from, so we ask our audiences to take the risk with us.” Melting Pot offers one to two premieres a season. These have included “The Session,” “JFK” and “On Shoulders Now,” “Rachel,” and, coming up in 2017, “The Ironing Man” and “2121.”

The Coterie has produced one or two premieres, including world premieres, each season since 1991, when Church took the helm. These have included world premieres “Madagascar,” “To Whom It May Inspire” and “Red Badge Variations” (commissioned). In 2017 “No Talking” will debut.

Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman of Spinning Tree agree that a company owes new material to actors and to audiences. Their patrons are “savvy” and “curious” and want “a certain amount of new, uncharted territory.” By the end of their current sixth season 60 percent of their productions will have been professional premieres, among them “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Shipwrecked” (a new version in 2017), “Black Pearl Sings” and “13.” “Nine” opened this season.

Heidi Van has developed the 50-seat black-box Fishtank Theatre into “a unique venue for experimental work.” “Marilyn/God,” her one-woman show in collaboration with Jeff Church, was one of 2016’s undeniable hits. This next season she will premiere “Death by Shakespeare” in conjunction with the Shakespeare Festival, followed by “Dry Land.”

In 2010 Rusty Sneary and Shawnna Journagan opened The Living Room Theatre to showcase thought-provoking works, often by local and/or undiscovered playwrights in an unconventional, intimate space. They most recently staged “Justice in the Embers,” “Bank Job” and “Annapurna.”

Jeanne Beechwood of Martin City Melodrama describes her team as “showbiz archaeologists” and the premiere process as “baking” a show. They produce at least four original shows a year. The Barn Players Community Theatre under the direction of Eric Magnus had three KC Premieres this season. Melissa Blair Anderson of the Jewish Community Center’s White Theater sees it “growing to become a venue for new works.”

Carla Noack, actress and acting professor at UMKC, has been featured in three world premieres — “Grounded” and “Lasso of Truth” at The Unicorn and “Lot’s Wife” at KC Rep — and compares it with giving birth. “There is labor, risk and terror. There is vulnerability and openness; we grow new muscles and greater perspective.”

Of course, premieres are demanding. With world premieres, companies often host the playwright, and the constant working and reworking is exhaustive and time consuming.

They also require additional marketing. Karen Paisley of Metropolitan Ensemble declares, “I don’t find premieres difficult to produce — they can be harder to sell.” Fortunately, social media now presents a tremendous advantage to companies as they plan premieres. Everyone involved, from producers to actors to designers, can rally interest in the new work as it’s being developed, through to its final performance. Word of mouth is crucial; with luck, sales pick up after the opening.

Maggie Boland, managing director of the Signature Theater in Washington D.C., claims, “There’s no question that the rise of social media as a tool for engaging with audiences has changed everything, in terms of how we generate content and think about what we’re putting out there.”

KC Rep, The Unicorn and The Living Room regularly hold new play readings. Many theater companies have playwrights in residence or active playwriting workshops. KC Rep’s OriginKC, The Living Room’s Writer’s Den Series and Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals act as veritable research and development departments.

And let’s credit Cheryl Kimmi and the KC Fringe Festival. Now in its 13th year, it offers budding playwrights, directors, actors and designers a platform on which to introduce their works-in-progress with relatively little risk and minimal expense. Last year 108 different theatrical pieces were staged. Many of these have been expanded to full productions, including “Young Black Victorian” from The Fishtank, “Bond: A Soldier and His Dog” from the Unicorn and “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” from The Living Room.

Some companies have a slightly different take on premiere material. Sarah Crawford and Musical Heritage Theatre occasionally do “in-house” shows highlighting an author, period or genre, but their mission is to celebrate the American musical in new, more intimate ways. Karen Paisley and Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre dedicate themselves to revitalizing forgotten classics, little-known works or ones seen as too challenging to stage. Examples include: “Parade,” “The Kentucky Cycle” and “Not About Heroes.”

How do companies choose new works? Damron Russel Armstrong of Black Repertory Theatre Kansas City, states, “A good theater holds a mirror to the community in which it serves. So in choosing world premieres, you are looking for stories that ignite, incite and inspire.” His “The African Company presents Henry III” last October did just that.

Seth Greenleaf, Tony award-winning producer, adds, “Every producer chooses first with their heart.” He admits “it’s very tough, if not impossible, to predict what is going to engage an audience and what isn’t” but feels “it’s our responsibility to push these things out into the world.”

Marissa Wolf of KC Rep also chooses the term “mirror” to describe premieres. Not only regarding the content material and its reflection of societal issues, but in describing the premiere audience. The Rep’s premiere audiences “look a lot like KC itself” — often more diverse and younger than their subscriber base. Furthermore, she notes a greater “stickiness,” a greater engagement between the play and the audience. KC Rep programs two to four new works each season. “Man in Love” and “What Would Crazy Horse Do?” are world premieres on the 2017 schedule.

Successful premieres have ongoing life when they resonate with the audiences because they deal with the emotions we struggle with and the issues we face. Karen Paisley reminds us, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A View From the Bridge” were new once. Today’s premieres have the potential to be as provocative, compelling and ageless. They can, in Wolf’s words, “unlock a powerful space for conversation and empathy.”

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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