Q&A with Nan Barnett – New Play Development and 21st Century Voices

Nan Barnett is the Executive Director of the National New Play Network. She will be speaking about new play development during a special panel as part of 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival on Sunday, March 1. Read this exclusive question and answer session to find out more about her, why new play development matters and why you should join us for the festival. 

Tell us a little about the National New Play Network, and what your role there is. 

Oh, I have the best job in the American theater! NNPN is the nation’s alliance of professional theaters that collaborate in innovative ways to develop, produce, and extend the life of new play. More than 125 theaters around the country – at all budget levels and in towns and cities of all sizes – are linked via their commitment to new work and to working collaboratively to bring those works to their audiences. 

I’ve been a part of the organization since early in its history, first as the Managing Director of one of its Member Theaters, then as a member of NNPN’s Board and Executive Committee during the 2000s. In 2013, after a career as an actor and producer, I joined the Network as its Executive Director. I have been able to spend the last seven years growing the organization, its programming, and its budget, raising the Network’s profile, and overseeing NNPN’s expanding impact for the artists and audiences of the US and beyond. I get to travel the country, talking to people about the importance of works by living writers, helping coordinate partnerships that result in getting new works in front of people and new people in front of the work, and of course, reading, seeing, and sharing plays. NNPN recently decided to embrace its standing as the national service organization for the new play field, and I am delighted to have the honor of serving as its Ambassador to theaters, audiences, artists, and the larger theatrical ecosystem.

Why is new play development important? 

New plays are important because they reflect the here and now of where we are as individuals, as a society, and as an era. Development is important because honing the story is critical to the essence of the storytelling, the part that makes a work feel resonate and impactful. At NNPN we believe that the only way a new work is fully developed is through its interaction with audiences, preferably multiple audiences that bring varying viewpoints to the production. The audience has to be a part of the creative process; otherwise, the reflection is only of its generative artist or artists. So the work continues far beyond the rehearsal hall and opening night, with the critical and personal responses of not only those who have worked together to make it but also those who have seen and shared the experience integrated into the fabric of the next draft/rehearsal/ production. 

What can people gain from attending new play festivals like 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival? 

Audience members gain the magic that comes from being one of the first to discover something wonderful, being in on the ground floor of something amazing, of being an artist themselves because they are being a part of the creation of a work of art. You get bragging rights for the rest of the play’s life – can you imagine what it felt to be one of the first to hear Hamlet, to see a reading of A Streetcar Named Desire, to listen to the score of Hamilton? Every development process brings with it the possibility of lightning striking. Plus in these intimate settings, you have a chance to meet the artists, to see behind the curtain, and to gain an understanding of what it actually takes to create a piece of art and bring a new work to life. Who doesn’t want to be on the inside of the start of something big?

What advice do you have for aspiring playwrights? 

See as much theater as you can, read what others have written, find your people. Figure out with whom you intersect in terms of voice, genre, locale, and do anything and everything you can do to forge a community. This business is all about building relationships. Know that it’s a long game, it requires constant collaboration, and that in order for your work to be seen it has to be shared. 

Oh, and (shameless plug) join National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange. Members can have access to more than 30,000 plays by living writers and get your work in front of hundreds of thousands of people looking to read new works. Many of them are also looking to develop and produce said new works. It’s amazing!

What are you most looking forward to during the festival weekend? 

The camaraderie of it. I love a festival atmosphere where you bond over the shared experiences, learn something you didn’t know, see old friends, make new ones, and get to fall in love – with a play, an artist, a line, a comment. The possibility of it all is so exciting. I can’t wait!

For tickets and more information about 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival, please visit americanstage.org/new