Portland Theatre Works was founded for the express purpose of providing playwrights with a place to further develop their plays and their craft; we are exclusively a play development organization. We currently have 2 developmental programs: the FreshWorks series and the LabWorks program.
What is the FreshWorks program?
The FreshWorks series is a monthly series of readings of new plays. They are unrehearsed concert-style readings (i.e. actors in chairs or at music stands), often produced under the Equity Staged Reading Code. Each reading is followed by a talkback session with the audience (using the process outlined by Liz Lehrman in Towards a Process of Critical Response). For more information on this series see the FreshWorks page.
What is the LabWorks program?
I worry that readings are too often used as the only play development tool, and I believe that there is a real danger in a play being reshaped to be most effective for a reading, rather than for a production. As Portland Theatre Works develops as an organization and improves the resources we can put toward a play's development, we are also producing longer, more intensive workshops on plays culminating in presentations that more closely resemble productions (i.e. actors up and moving about, albeit most often with script in hand). These workshops run under our LabWorks program.
The focus, however, remains on development, not production. While a reading has some dangers, so too does a more fully realized workshop. Once we start to think of a workshop as a production, we start to lose our willingness to completely focus on development. Instead we want to give the best presentation of the work possible, even though the workshop is not meant to be the best presentation of the work possible; that would be a full production. Once we start thinking about the workshop as a production, actors begin to focus on refining a performance rather than exploring possibilities, directors focus on setting staging as opposed to remaining fluid in the face of changes, and playwrights get less inclined to do substantial rewriting (often with the truly noble purpose of trying to avoid throwing the actors with a lot of changes). I would rather look at our workshops as rehearsal periods where anything can change from rehearsal to rehearsal, from minute to minute, culminating not in a performance (though certainly actors will always try to give the best performance possible) but in an "open rehearsal" where the audience is truly seeing a work in progress, rather than a pseudo-production, freeing all collaborators to keep trying any ideas which seem worth pursuing all the way through the workshop.
The whole point of this is for the playwright to have a large number of people--director, dramaturg, actors, perhaps designers or other collaborators, and, importantly, audience--focus for a time on their play and give the playwright their reactions. Much of rehearsal is spent asking questions and trying ideas, and following most presentations we have a talkback session with the audience (using the process outlined by Liz Lehrman in Towards a Process of Critical Response). Prodded, provoked, and propelled by this dialog the playwright is free to explore their play in whatever way they wish.
What are you looking for when selecting a play or project for FreshWorks or LabWorks?
We are currently only accepting submissions for our FreshWorks program. For our LabWorks program we generally chose a play that has already had some development through FreshWorks as a way of continuing to support a piece of work by a playwright with whom we've already developed a relationship.
Since our mission is simply to develop new work we will consider just about anything that seems to be a potentially interesting piece of theatre. We're not focused on a particular kind of play or style, and since we don't fully produce these works we are also not as concerned with "producability" as other theatres may be (that being said, there are limits to what we can do: if your play requires, literally, a cast of thousands, we may not be able to pull that off).
What we are looking for is something which excites us; something that, though not yet fully realized, makes us want to devote our energies to it. What does that varies. Also, in trying to decide whether or not to take on a particular script, we consider the submitter's statement of intent as much as the script. Developmental readings tend to be brief and intense, and we want to know that the playwright has some idea of what they're trying to accomplish and where they might want to focus their attention.
So what do you mean you don't do productions?
I have found that whenever production goals (the best presentation possible) and development goals (the best exploration possible) come into conflict (and they inevitably do) production wins. That is, the focus tends to be more on what is going to happen in performance rather than what is happening in the script's development. I describe this a little above. We want the script to develop, and then go on to a strong production elsewhere.
That being said, a LabWorks presentation, in the end, might strongly resemble a production. The actors may certainly be up and moving around (with scripts in hand much, but perhaps not all, of the time), they may be somewhat costumed, there may be crude props, perhaps the suggestion of a set, etc. It all depends on whether or not this type of exploration of the script will serve the development of the script in the course of the workshop rehearsals, not just in the end presentation.