What New Stages Participation Has Meant to its Playwrights

By Thomas Connors

In the theater—as in so many professions—it’s all about getting that break, the chance to show what you’re made of. And from there, who knows? But in a business where one is never sure where or when the next job will appear, a successful theatrical career is really a matter of many breaks, one after another. And that goes for playwrights, as well as performers.

For 16 years, the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival has played a key role in helping dozens of playwrights get their work out into the world. Under the direction of Tanya Palmer, it has championed a wide array of writers—from Pulitzer Prize winners to emerging playwrights. “New Stages is our most robust and most public pipeline for new work,” says Palmer. “It’s a way for writers to really explore their work, to see how it plays when presented before an audience.”

New Stages has helped develop such works as Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize); Smokefall—Noah Haidle’s bittersweet family drama that appeared twice at the Goodman, brought back by popular demand; and Lauren Yee’s self-exploration of culture and tradition, King of the Yees—all of which enjoyed full productions at the Goodman.

King of the Yees by Laurent Yee. Photo by Liz Lauren.

“The New Stages experience was huge in terms of moving me on in my career,” shares Yee, whom American Theatre magazine has just identified as the second most produced playwright of the 2019/2020 season. “It was my first experience working in a large regional theater—one which everyone respects—and that introduced me to a great number of theaters that commissioned and produced me afterwards.”

Making those connections is certainly a great bonus for New Stages participants, but as Yee notes, the process is the core of the experience. “King of the Yees is all about community and just being a game and ready member of the team. A real, can-do spirit pervaded the workshop production at the Goodman,” she says. “And performing before a diverse audience—some of whom had little exposure to theater, others who were Goodman Members—was a real joy.”

How to Catch Creation by Christina Anderson.
Photo by Liz Lauren.

For Christina Anderson, whose How to Catch Creation was included in the 2017 New Stages Festival and received its world premiere in the Albert Theatre in January 2019, that first outing with the Goodman afforded her a much-appreciated opportunity to fine-tune the overlapping time frames and intersecting lives in her tale of a couple drifting apart; a once-imprisoned man determined to adopt a child; and a single female academic who has lost her way professionally and personally.

“Tanya was really clear that she wanted me to feel comfortable and open enough to continue working on the play,” recalls Anderson. “I had a character whose arc I was still trying to figure out, and it was super helpful to be able to do that even as we approached the public reading.”

“I think anytime that you have an institution with the resources and reputation of the Goodman behind a workshop, you feel this deep sense of support and you are part of a kind of community that is taking the work to a very high professional caliber,” observes Seth Bockley, who has been a New Stages participant several times since 2010. “Being in a room with professionals like Tanya Palmer helping you see, hear and develop the work definitely inspired me. And it inspired me to think of myself as a playwright on a different level than I had seen myself before.”

Ask Aunt Susan by Seth Bockley. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Bockley’s first project with New Stages was CommComm, an adaptation of short stories by George Saunders, followed by Ask Aunt Susan, which was given a full production in the Owen Theatre in 2014. In 2015, his emerging adaptation of the mammoth Roberto Bolaño novel, 2666 (a collaboration with Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls) was given a reading in the New Stages Festival and a fullout production at the Goodman in 2017. Like Lee and Anderson, Bockley found New Stages a rich and rewarding experience and he relished the opportunity to push himself creatively. “I never come into any developmental process with a script set in stone,” he says. “I think of it as a living document, and I let it continue to grow right up until the point where it is read by the actors.”

2666 adapted and directed by Robert Falls
and Seth Bockley. Photo by Liz Lauren.

While all three playwrights have benefitted from the exposure New Stages offers, a stint at the Goodman—or a workshop production anywhere, for that matter—is no guarantee of accolades and opportunities down the road. Breaks can be elusive. “I’ve been doing workshops for long time, and when I was a younger writer and one of these opportunities came along, I’d think, ‘It’s going to Broadway!,” laughs Anderson. “But over the years, I’ve decided that the only thing I can control is the work I put into the play. Regardless of what people are saying or not saying, it’s all about getting work done on the play, rather than thinking, is this going to get me to the next thing?”

Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.