Like all good New York artsy types, the bulk of my theater-going involves shows in which my friends are performing, in order to support them. If they also wrote, directed, or produced those shows, so much the better. Recently, a friend of mine had a new musical of hers accepted into the New York New Works Festival, which for the past five years has allowed new works to be viewed by a panel of industry insiders in a curated setting. It’s a really nice honor for a show to be selected for this festival. This festival is also a competition, with selected shows determined by audience vote to move on to each subsequent round. I was unable to come to my friend’s first performance (she was one of the four actors in the piece, as well as its author), but her show made it to a semi-final round performance on Saturday, and I was able to go to that, determined to help her advance.
However, little did I realize that on the same Saturday evening bill for the NYNW semi-final rounds was a piece co-written and directed by another friend of mine. And thus, I was in a bit of a quandary – two of my friends were in competing shows, with only one likely to move on and be one of the six pieces presented at the final round. Who was I to root for?
And why on earth do we have to think in these terms?
The structure of the NYNW Fest is by no means atypical. Lots of festivals, especially for short pieces, use this exact competition structure, with audience voting determining who advances to the next round. The Samuel French competition, the Strawberry One-Act Festival, and countless smaller organizations set up these tournaments, with prizes like publication and stipends available to the “winners” (whether those be one show or several). It’s set up as if it were March Madness, with cultural engagement reduced to a betting pool.
True, there are plenty of playwriting competitions out there, with all sorts of incentives being offered. Some of them – like the Yale Drama Series competition, and such newer prizes as the Relentless Award and the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competitions – have awards in the five figure range. But by and large, these are jury prizes, with (hopefully) objective readers making the final determination. There’s a whole different element that’s added when we’re dependent on popular vote tallies to determine our artistic merit, and any ancillary prizes that come with it. We start campaigning. We start recruiting people to come to our shows solely for the purpose of voting for it. Theater is a collaborative art form, and in order for it to thrive we all need to help each other out – and a system like this makes that incredibly difficult.
Especially if you have two friends’ shows in the same competition. How exactly is one supposed to choose?
Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to. NYNW’s voting policy allowed each of us to vote for two shows to move forward – and since my two friends’ shows were also conveniently the most polished of the evening, it was an easy choice for me to make. I just feel ambivalent about being forced to make it in the first place.