Want your finger on the pulse of new American theatre? Put the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival on your calendar. The annual event, which features plays by both established and emerging voices (this year’s lineup featured Paula Vogel), has become a hotbed of exciting new work.
Plays recently developed at the Chicago festival include Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees (2015), which has since had productions in London, Canada, Baltimore, Seattle, and L.A.; as well as Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs (2015) and Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans (2016), both seen Off-Broadway this year. Several of the shows featured in the festival go on to be produced on the Goodman’s stages as well, such as Dael Orlandersmith's Lady in Denmark (2016) and David Cale’s We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time (2017), both produced at the theatre this fall. In fact, of the nine plays included in the Goodman’s 2018–19 season, five were developed at New Stages.
Since its inception in 2004, New Stages has developed over 80 new plays, and since taking over the festival in 2005, the Goodman’s Producer and Director of New Play Development Tanya Palmer has helped grow the festival from a local ticket to a must-see industry event attracting artistic leaders and producers from around the country.
When Palmer joined the Goodman from the Actors Theatre of Louisville—where she led the reading and selection process for the Humana Festival of New American Plays—she recognized that while the Goodman had a long history of producing new work, the theatre didn’t necessarily have a new play development pipeline. The New Stages Festival, then just a year old, showcased plays in a staged-reading format only.
“[A staged reading can be] limiting in terms of what it can reveal about a play and how much a playwright can really dive in and ask big questions,” says Palmer, “about how a play functions, how they want to tell the story, and what kind of collaborators they need.”
Eager to give playwrights more resources to develop their work, Palmer decided to split the festival into two parts: keep the reading format for select plays, while providing others works with longer rehearsals, the benefit of certain tech and design elements, and more opportunities for audience feedback. Select works now receive two weeks of rehearsals prior to a short tech, after which the plays are performed in front of an audience before diving back into rehearsals and then returning to the festival, where they run in repertory with the other works.
“You learn so much from seeing a play in front of an audience,” says Palmer. “There’s so much you don’t know until you’re able to really be in the room with people who aren’t familiar with the story and gauge their reaction. It’s an important part of [development].”
With each festival, The Goodman opens its doors to new playwrights, actors, directors, and designers. Which means it has not only strengthened its developmental engine over the past decade, it’s expanded its community of artists. “It’s been a really useful process—not just in terms of developing plays,” says Palmer, “but it also means that we have this way of opening up the Goodman to a new generation of artists in a way that is more challenging during the regular season.”
For many of these artists, New Stages becomes a gateway to the Goodman’s mainstage as well. And while Palmer says that the theatre has a great track record of producing plays that are developed through the festival, the ultimate goal is for these works to be produced, period. With that in mind, the theatre has made a concerted effort to get key industry players in attendance. The final weekend of the festival is structured specifically for industry guests to be able to see up to seven new plays within two or three days.
“When I first started, the audience for the reading series was really just Goodman subscribers and audiences along with our artistic staff,” says Palmer. “It’s grown to attract a wider audience—people who may not otherwise come to the Goodman—as well as theatre professionals from around the country.
“We want these plays to be produced,” says Palmer. “We’re investing in them because we think they’re exciting, that they’re stories that need to be told, and that these are writers who should be supported.”
Check out the lineup for this year's New Stages Festival, which ran September 19–October 7, at GoodmanTheatre.org.