Posted by: Anya Martin | October 8, 2008

A Fresh Old New Work:

New New Revelations Make New Works in Theatre

The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts boasts “8 Premieres You can’t See Anywhere Else.”  Drawing from the festival title and promotions, you might well assume that all of these shows are “new works,” a description often used in the performing arts. This idiom might seem self-explanatory, but there are a few hang ups.  For example, a produced “new work” does not always mean the show or play is a “world premiere,” and vice versa “world premieres” may be years old and have had several productions already.  “Huh?” you say.  Exactly.  To help clarify up this age-old new works quandary, I sat down with Carlyn Aquiline, literary manager and dramaturg for City Theatre Company in Pittsburgh.

Aquiline has been reading new plays and working with playwrights to develop new works at City Theatre for nine seasons. She says the definition of a new work can depend on “multiple factors.” For starters, the definition of a new work is often set by the performance venue, “each separate theatre company is guided by a mission and vision,” says Aquiline.  “PIFOF will look for different types of new work than City Theatre.” She continues, “They might want to keep the definition of a new work open in a different way.”

According to their website, City Theatre’s mission includes providing, “an artistic home for the development and production of contemporary plays” which Aquiline says have usually been written “within the past few years” or even commissioned by the theatre itself.   In comparison, PIFOF works are new because these performances are all US premieres, which aim to “boldly cross boundaries, mixing film/theater/dance/music/ancient/modern/real/surreal to create something completely new” as the website boasts.

New works can also be defined by their creators. “I know of plays that have had a university production and a non-professional community theatre production but it wasn’t until they received a professional production that the playwright was willing to grant ‘world premiere’ rights,” continues Aquiline.  In similar fashion plays that have been  published for years can have new life.  Sam Shepard’s 1979 Pulitzer prize winning play Buried Child became born again when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago produced Shepard’s revised script in 1995.  Thus the sixteen year old work had its second world premiere.

So then when does a new work, become an old work?  “It’s hard to speak in generalities” contemplates Aquiline, “for any new work to remain new it does have to feel fresh.  There is such a thing as a work being perishable.”  A new work can go stale if it’s use by date passes.  A new work, “has to feel current and engage in some way with today’s world,” she concludes.

However, she also insists that, “really good works don’t go bad. They’re not perishable. They are timeless.” Ingredients for a non-perishable new work do not include high fructose corn syrup or ascorbic acids, but “themes or larger story ideas.  Touchstones to universal concerns,” even “major life questions and quests.”

But there is one more determining factor that makes a new work a new work. The audience.  “Shouldn’t the question be how to make the performance alive for a contemporary audience?” asks Aquiline.  Because in the end, each new work must be new to each individual audience member.  It must inspire new ideas, questions, and understanding.  In this sense every good play is new in a good production.  “Every production is new, because every single performance is new,” says Aquiline.  The theatre, “it lives as it dies, it dies as it lives.”   That’s live performance.



  1. […] will make its U.S. premiere as a part of our Festival of Firsts. (For more new work trivia see A Fresh Old New Work.) With eight or nine other Jo Stromgen Kompani works on tour at the moment, I ask Stromgren why he […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: