WRITING THE FUTURE by Digby Wolfe & Jim Linnell

Because we live in a culture enthralled by "the numbers", where almost all human endeavor is measured by whether or not it "sells", the unfamiliar bears a special burden. Whether it's the occupation of Iraq or a car that runs on recycled bath water, the challenge of creative thinking is trumped by the gospel of quick results.

The message this sends to student writers is as follows: a place in Elysium is predicated on their ability to become artful parrots. The lesson of all those multiple musical revivals is that replication presents a better flow-chart than innovation, that software which delivers a laundry list of soiled plots makesmore sense than the existential dark night of the soul that comes with devising one of their own.

Madness. What we believe is that you must find your own voice, ignite your own passion, go where you cannot go without pain and fear and hardship. You must take that plunge into the abyss and trust that it's just one of the many obstacles on the rocky road up the mountain.

We believe you must approach the work, as Balzac said, "With clean hands and composure," that there are no shortcuts, no gimmicks, no safety nets. We believe that no writer is an island, that if we are to learn from the writers who went before us and keep the faith for those who come after, there is no choice but to pick up the gauntlet of concern for the human condition that has been abandoned by the mass media-in service of the bottom line and the top dollar.

What we know is that new work in the theatre is often regarded as a special event, something that has had to go through the hoops of "development" before being treated to full production. Regional theatres, with some exceptions, profess an interest in new work but only interact with a new play in the limited format of the staged reading, followed by organized audience response sessions, but with no serious offer of an actual production. Playwrights could move around the country from theatre to theatre being treated to this exceptionalized interest in their work but never getting an actual production. This syndrome is known as "development hell" where the writer feels as if stuck on level seven of Dante's Inferno tantalized upward toward a brightly lit marquee with the name of their play in lights but is always thrown back down again into the pit of play readings by Devils in green eyeshades chanting "Too risky! Who ever heard of this title? Who is this writer anyway? We'd lose our shirt! We can't do it until it's proved itself elsewhere. In the meantime-go away!"

Something is wrong with this picture. No other art is so afraid of the present and the future-other than, perhaps, concert hall music, as the theatres in this country. It appears that the credibility of a contemporary theatre artist is based on the ability to present, stage, perform work from the past, from times and cultures we no longer live in or know much about when all about us are cultures we live in and are pushing to burst through the door onto the stage. The writer is not a tabula rasa for the present age but a messenger that brings a personal and a cultural past to the work. When it comes to who is invited to the table when theatres decide their season, we believe that the living writer is the voice that needs to be heard.

The human condition is not made anew in each generation by shoving all that came before into the dustbin. It is made anew by observing and voicing the terrors and joys of our condition, our need for connection and hope spoken aloud to each other in the unique forum of the theatre-where the purpose is not judgment but the experience of the human.

Think of humanity huddled by the sea: are the people better off if they say, "We've got enough food. Our forebears caught it and it's nourishing enough. We have it safely stored. We no longer need to go onto the ocean and fish for ourselves or search for what else might be there-to find and bring back new forms of sustenance, to overcome the storms, the cold, the loneliness, the fear." You will starve is what we think. If you believe this you may not die, but you will lose the taste for the dark and mysterious deep. You will create reality TV.

When it comes to new work we say make it big, put in more chairs at the table-but other voices say: "Is there enough room?" and, "What's the matter with you? New work is that rare thing. It takes years to develop, I can't remember the last time I saw one."

Our position is this: Is that re-staging of Shakespeare or O'Neil so blinding an example of the art of theatre that the rest of us should just shut up and go home? We believe that new work can be like a cold shower bracing, surprising, thrilling experience.

We are not in the business of second-hand plays. We are in the business of youth and vitality and courage, serving rare and exciting dishes that say, "Try this-it has quite a kick and it may be an acquired taste but you haven't experienced anything quite like it."

This is the mission of the University of New Mexico Dramatic Writing Program. To be the place where the unfamiliar thrusts itself onto the stage, a place that inspires writers and audiences ever deeper into the mysteries of human experience, to startle us with their stories, their desires, the worlds they inhabit. To make us want to run to the shore and hail them as they arrive in their battered boats, to see what they've caught in their nets and hear what dangers they've overcome. Then to look around us and see who's next-so we may help them into the boats and watch them steer toward the horizon.

It is clear to us-if you have the determination, devotion to task, and sheer creative chutzpah this is what we seek for our program. Should you come here, you will not be idle. We will press you for scripts, rewrites, more rewrites and always want to know what have your written for us lately. We will upset you, praise you, and want ever more.

...Digby Wolfe writes from Santa Monica, California; Jim Linnell, Chair of the University of New Mexico Dramatic Writing Program, writes from Albuquerque