Features NYC Features Published 6 March 2015

The Implosion Model

13P was formed in 2003 by 13 mid-career US playwrights - including Anne Washburn and Young Jean Lee - who wanted to explore new models of making and staging work. Loren Noveck speaks to those involved about the project and its impact.
Loren Noveck

“We don’t develop plays. (We do them.)” When Madeleine George and Rob Handel met at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2002 and shared their frustrations with the current landscape for emerging playwrights, “development” had started to feel like an insult to them. It signaled a process of endless readings, perhaps minimally staged workshops for a limited, invited audience.

Playwrights, especially those who created challenging work that might be opaque on the page might get to hear their words spoken by professional actors, but never see their plays come fully to life, or evolve through a rehearsal process and a run. (As George says, readings “train your ear more and more and more, but you lose contact with other incredibly important aspects of production”and then “plays function on a narrower and narrower bandwidth.”) New plays were still getting produced, of course, but the barriers to entry into major institutional theaters, the kinds that actually pay playwrights, seemed to get higher and higher.

George and Handel wanted to do something; as Handel says (in the invaluable documentary A People’s History of 13P, an oral history of the company and its work), they wanted to find “the alternative to just complaining a lot, which is mostly what playwrights do.” They started with the thought that perhaps five or six writers would get on board with the model they’d devised for a company: writers would pool their resources to fundraise, generate audience, cast, and so forth, and each writer would serve as the company’s artistic director for the term of his or her own production.

By the following summer, Handel and George had, through an informal recruitment process, invited eleven more writers—Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Ann Marie Healy, Julia Jarcho, Young Jean Lee,Winter Miller, Sarah Ruhl, Kate E. Ryan, Lucy Thurber, Anne Washburn, and Gary Winter—into the enterprise that would become known as 13P. In June of 2003, the members set out their plans in a founding document: “We will pool our energy to produce one production by each member of the group….When the cycle is complete, we will decide whether to start a new cycle, restructure the organization, or disband.”

Almost twelve years later, 13P has come and gone, producing one play by each of its member writers between May 2004 and October 2012. They began with Anne Washburn’s The Internationalist, a play that seemed particularly timely, and about which Washburn says, “I don’t think [it] ever would have been produced if 13P hadn’t done it.” And after play #13, Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play in the fall of 2012, the company, as they’d planned, threw a party to celebrate their “implosion.”

Over the course of the past twelve years, the members have seen their careers grow: in addition to a slew of productions in New York and across the country, they’ve acquired an impressive set of award nominations, including two Susan Smith Blackburn Awards and several other nominations, one Tony Award nomination, three Pulitzer Prize nominations, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Award, and several Obies (in addition to the ones won by 13P itself). Many hold teaching appointments (among others, Rob Handel heads the dramatic writing program at Carnegie Mellon; Erin Courtney teaches alongside Mac Wellman in Brooklyn College’s respected MFA program; Julia Jarcho, after getting a PhD at UC Berkeley, is an associate professor in NYU’s English Department; and Sarah Ruhl teaches in Yale’s MFA program); two (Julia Jarcho and Young Jean Lee) run their own theater companies; and Sheila Callaghan has a screenwriting career (currently for the Showtime series Shameless) alongside her ongoing work as a playwright.

So, what has the American theater, and what have the thirteen writers, learned from this experiment? In the 2014-2015 theater season, five of the thirteen have shows at Broadway or Off-Broadway theaters in NYC: last fall, Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy at Lincoln Center and Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at the Public; running now, Lucy Thurber’s The Insurgents at Labyrinth and Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch at Rattlestick; and coming later this spring, Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 at Soho Rep. And in conversations with more than half of the writers, certain definite themes emerged—as well as certain caveats. As Sheila Callaghan notes, “It was such a long project, and . . . simply being around ten years longer” has of course advanced their careers.

Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch

Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch

Still, the writers acknowledge that 13P did have an impact, and did intervene in a problematic situation at a crucial moment—though they are all reluctant to take more than a small share of credit. Anne Washburn notes that they became “a convenient shorthand for encapsulating a discontent shared by many.” And the word “zeitgeist” came up frequently; as Rob Handel says, “It was a zeitgeist-y thing, where we weren’t the only people talking about it but I feel like we helped push forward on the agenda the whole question of opportunities for playwrights, and the fact that all these great playwrights were known to people in theater but ‘real people’ didn’t get to see their plays. We wanted to help the conversation move forward, and I think we did that.”

Helping the conversation move forward also meant changing the terms of that conversation; Julia Jarcho says, “I feel like 13P provided a rhetorical alternative to the language of development.” And Lucy Thurber adds, “There was such a feeling of hopelessness in the United States around this idea of development—and a group of us came together and took the bull by the horns and said, actually, that the final stage and one of the most important stages of development of a play is production, that it has to be on its feet for you to really see what it is. And the timing of it was perfect in terms of reacting to a state of frustration—we were at the crest of a wave.”

But they do want to make clear that although 13P invented one approach to the problem and executed it well, they were neither the only ones having it nor the only ones trying to solve it. Still, after bursting onto the scene with an extremely successful first production—Washburn’s The Internationalist was later produced by the Vineyard with the same director and most of its cast intact—they did get a high public profile very fast. They were also fortunate to have Handel, whose day job had always involved fundraising for nonprofits, as their administrative head: “People got very excited about the idea, because it was a good story. Raising money requires that you tell the story really well. Taking control was an attractive idea, and people got very excited about it. It was something new, and I think those are the keys.”

The members do see a positive change coming over institutions over the past decade. As Sarah Ruhl says: “I think there’s just been a global sea change generally—and I certainly wouldn’t attribute it at all to 13P, but I think 13P was part of that sea change. Where now for example the Mellon Foundation is giving grants for writers to have a commission and a guaranteed production, which was unheard of, and then these grants to make the writer part of the institution and have an office and health insurance. All of these changes are putting the writer more squarely in the center of the process, and empowering writers in a way that I think they didn’t feel empowered ten years ago.”

Young Jean Lee's Straight White Men. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Gary Winter says, “It feels to me that theaters got the message and have made adjustments in their way of working with writers. The landscape does feel different.” More outlets now exist specifically to produce new and challenging work, including granting programs that will support only productions rather than reading series, smaller spaces/second stages at larger theaters (LCT3 at Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theatre Club’s Studio at Stage II, the Roundabout’s Underground, or Signature Theater’s Residency 5), and more writer-centric small companies. George says they don’t want to take credit for this shift, but “there was something kind of great and brash about the move that we made at that time, and it went into the swirl of people’s readiness to figure out active, non-whiny solutions to the problem.” Though, she adds, the issue is “not addressed necessarily by the proliferation of second stages—because this writing is hard, and this writing is challenging and it stays complicated for those writers to get shows… It’s not, I think, an accident that [Julia] Jarcho and Young Jean [Lee] certainly and potentially others in the future will have their own shop.” (Jarcho and Lee’s companies are, respectively, Minor Theater and Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company.)

Other playwright-centric companies have formed, like Minneapolis’s Workhaus Collective, Washington, D.C.’s The Welders, and Boston Public Works—which also intends to follow 13P’s implosion model. Handel says: “People are forming these groups and saying they were inspired by 13P, which is enormously gratifying…I think it’s pretty useful in terms of demonstrating that your career doesn’t have to depend entirely on gatekeepers.” 13P has helped to inspire other collective problem-solving efforts as well. Sheila Callaghan was one of the founders of The Kilroys, a Los-Angeles-based advocacy group of female playwrights and producers, which does not itself produce but uses its efforts to end the “systemic under-representation of female voices in the American theater.” Callaghan says: “Playwrights were feeling unempowered and disempowered and so they got together and formed a group so they could feel empowered. Women playwrights are a giant hole in the field. Most of the 13P members were women—not getting your play produced isn’t a problem for just women but being underproduced as a gender is, and I feel like both organizations were trying to find a way to react to that.”

For the writers themselves, 13P, and especially the chance to be their own artistic director, also helped spur a major evolution for the way many of them think about and approach their own careers: courage, confidence, the knowledge borne from experience, and a bedrock certainty that they don’t need to be meekly grateful for every production opportunity, because they can, and have, done it themselves. Handel uses the phrase, “the adventure of taking control”—a sentiment the writers largely agree on.

Thurber says, “I no longer thought that somebody was going to come; I was no longer waiting, I didn’t have the idea in my head that someday somebody was going to come and make it all right for me, come and see my play. I knew that I had volition and that one way or another I was going to make my work.” And George adds, “It definitely made me feel like all the moving parts that go into producing a play are graspable by me. There is an opacity that has developed over time in professional theater between the different lobes of the organism, and that’s unnecessary, and playwrights are very disempowered by that. Not everything is going to be within our reach or our control, but at least you know what the things are that you could be having an effect on.”

Winter agrees as well: “It made me realize that understanding a budget, marketing, development, etc, is invaluable and puts you in a stronger position no matter what situation you are in. Those skills are necessary.” And, in perhaps the simplest version, Washburn says: “It gave me courage, at an important point in my writing life. “

The writers also agree on the virtues of having the support of and the chance to collaborate with other playwrights. They were able to share the risks being taken. Ruhl says, “I think 13P emboldened all of us to be brave enough to fail and to feel really protected by each other.” And Callaghan adds: “We are conditioned to feel powerless—waiting around to be validated by a big entity who deems us worthy of attention. So it’s nice not to have to worry about that while at the same time not doing it completely on our own.”

Even though it was tempting to start another cycle, the group ultimately voted for implosion. And while the writers remain friends and supporters of one another’s work, there’s no intention of reviving the organization, or of putting together another company. They’ve all got plenty of their own work to do—and plenty of experience with endings. As George says: “It’s something we know so well in the theater—that sense of culmination and end. It allowed the life of 13P to be vivid and bright, to burn really brightly, and then we knew that it would eventually collapse into darkness.”

Lucy Thurber’s The Insurgents runs through March 13 at Bank Street Theater. Sheila Callaghan’s Everything You Touch runs through March 29 at the Cherry Lane. Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12 begins performances on May 27 at Soho Rep.

Exeunt’s interview with Young Jean Lee


Loren Noveck

Loren Noveck is a writer, editor, dramaturg, and recovering Off-Off-Broadway producer, who was for many years the literary manager of Six Figures Theatre Company. She has written for The Brooklyn Rail, nytheatre.com, and NYTheater now, and currently writes for The Brooklyn Paper and WIT Online. In her non-theatrical life, she works in book publishing.


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