A scene from Smokefall, a New Stages success story
  • Liz Lauren
  • A scene from Smokefall, a New Stages success story

If, in a year or two, you want to brag that you were among the first people to see the Goodman’s new production—and if you don’t want to pay for a night at the theater—you should most definitely check out the New Stages Festival, which opens tonight and runs through November 16. The festival, now in its eleventh year, features six new works, three as staged readings, three as full productions, and functions as the Goodman’s farm system: since its inception in 2004, about a third of the plays featured in New Stages have gone on to productions on the Goodman’s main stages, including the recent Smokefall and The World of Extreme Happiness, last season’s Buzzer and Ask Aunt Susan, next spring’s The Upstairs Concierge, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined.

  • Goodman Theatre
  • Tanya Palmer

“With a first production, there’s so much a playwright is still figuring out,” says Tanya Palmer, the theater’s director of new play development and coordinator of New Stages. “At New Stages, we emulated the elements of a full production without the pressures of a full production. At the Goodman, you have a fair bit of exposure. You have your work seen, but you’re also very vulnerable. A bad review could be the end of the play. We want to give playwrights a chance to explore without that pressure.”

A script, Palmer explains, is really only a blueprint for a play. The actors and production design bring it to life, and the audience provides a critical barometer to let the playwright know what works and what doesn’t. The journey from first draft to final production can be quite long and torturous.

Smokefall, for instance, was originally conceived by playwright Noah Haidle as a 24-hour cycle called Local Time consisting of 12 two-hour plays, all set in the same town using the same group of characters. Robert Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director, was sufficiently intrigued (“because it was crazy and unproduceable,” says Palmer) to commission Haidle to work on a few of the plays. Haidle and Palmer soon realized that there wasn’t enough time or money to produce Local Time the way Haidle had envisioned it. So he took pieces of the different plays and fit them together into Smokefall. It was five years before it had its first reading at the 2011 edition of New Stages, and even then, it didn’t have a real ending.

Representatives from the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, saw the reading, though, and agreed to coproduce a staging with the Goodman. The California production received dismal reviews, and the play went through another round of revisions before it opened at the Goodman to a much better critical reception. In the end, Haidle joked that he and Palmer read the play in its various forms a thousand times.

Smokefall is an unusual case, Palmer admits. “But it shows how long it takes for a play to find its footing or form.”

Much of the work at New Stages come from commissions or from the Goodman’s Playwrights Unit, in which playwrights meet regularly with the theater’s artistic staff to develop and workshop new plays. Admission to the Playwrights Unit is by application, but Palmer actively seeks out playwrights, both new and more established, for commissions. “We have a good track record of producing commissions, 65 to 70 percent” she says. “Some theaters commission a lot of plays, but we try to target. The Goodman provides money and resources for a play to become the best it can be.”

Palmer looks for a number of things when she decides to commission a work: a unique voice, a story with importance or meaning, and, finally, that it works as theater. “I look for plays that are meant to be plays,” she explains. “When you watch a play that can happen in any medium, you wonder, why is this a play? My definition of a play is very wide. I want to expand the stories being told and have a diversity of voices and styles.” New Stages is also an opportunity for the Goodman to get a first look at new and up-and-coming actors, directors, and set designers.

New Stages is not a direct ticket to the Goodman mainstage. For one thing, there isn’t enough room in the theater’s schedule. For another, when Falls and his staff plan out a season, they look for a set of plays that fit together. So every year Palmer invites her counterparts from theaters across the country to check out the festival. It’s been a successful strategy: many of the plays that don’t get produced at the Goodman find homes elsewhere.

“Play at New Stages aren’t finished,” Palmer says. “We see where they’re going and we can see the next steps. We’re excited to continue the journey.”