Not everyone will believe this but, believe it, the American theater has done more to foster new playwrights than any other culture in the world.
Why not? It's a worthy cause. Commendable. And championed. (What the American theater hasn't done--and the shambles of the Broadway stage is living proof--is foster its creators of musical theater with nearly as much zeal. But that's another story.)
American playwrights, if they have any talent, should have no significant trouble getting it diagnosed by the growing numbers of play clinics that dot the nation.
Some of these clinics, such as the National Playwrights Conference and the Midwest Playwrights Unit, are more perspicacious than others. The Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville has had the most enviable track record overall with plays that have moved on to other stages. Largely because of so much success, the trend is towards more, not fewer, workshops where playwrights can get together with each other, with dramaturges, directors and critics to refine their work.
Has so much focus become too much of a good thing? Has it taken on a veneer of self-righteousness? Is it, in some cases, more self-congratulatory than useful? And has it, in other cases, assumed the aspects (and proportions) of a trade convention?
The answer to all those questions is yes, which is also a little disconcerting. New-play festivals/workshops/units vary enough to elude generalities, but there is a creeping danger of devaluating the craft itself in the mass effort to improve it. In a cottage industry of such a deeply personal and fragile nature as writing for the stage, where the uniqueness of a "voice" is prized above all else, it is terrifyingly easy to lend importance to the unimportant or, conversely, to deaden the truly original by subjecting it to less than enlightened judgment.
And yet. Theater being the three-way collaborative process that it is (from writer to actor to audience) makes playwriting the only kind of writing that clearly benefits from early validation through exposure and critique. But exposure where? Critique from whom? Those are the perils. The form is so loose (there are no rules) and the pundits so various, that commentary just as easily can be confusing as constructive.
Aside from the immediate and obvious difficulty of sorting good work from bad (whose idea of "good" and whose of "bad"?), much subtler issues manifest themselves. In making selections, what standards does one apply (ultimately, one's own) and to whom does one pledge the primary commitment--the playwright? The play? The event?
If the commitment is to the playwright or the play, of what kind shall it be? Help and support for the duration of rehearsals and performance/readings--and the prayer that someone will come along to pick up the ball? Or a commitment to try to carry the play through, perhaps to a second production? While this usually depends on how the event (or the organization behind it) is structured, the time may have come to pay much more attention to follow-up, so that plays, once discovered, don't just lie there on the shelf.
When the primary commitment is to the idea of a festival so-called (and that can take over, when you consider the funding, scheduling and structuring requirements of most of them), the dangers multiply. Most festivals or workshops, operating on an annual basis, feel under some obligation to top (or at least repeat) their achievement year after year. Persistence in tracking the great American play means slogging through a vast amount of mediocrity. That can lead the healthiest intellect to early burnout. The room for error is enormous.
And there are other traps. Festivals often are locked into a specific number of plays announced ahead of time. Pressure on organizers to "deliver" increases proportionately to the amount of attention paid (media and other). But what if not enough worthy plays can be found? Do dates and quotas prevail? They usually do--at the expense of art.
(In this regard, Louisville has just announced a change in policy that will make its annual festival, formerly devoted to new work, focus on second productions of recommended plays. Smart thinking, not only because it fills a need, but also because, after 15 years of original scripts, the festival was showing serious signs of battle fatigue.)
Compounding other problems is a much touchier issue: the natural desire to support playwrights one has nurtured to success (as in Louisville over the years). Outwardly, it's an exemplary idea. Realistically, it can be the right commitment to the wrong play at the wrong time--an excellent way to undermine the soundest of professional relationships and try the patience of an audience.