Moving on In: Playwrights, in a Generously Funded New Wave, Are Taking Up Residence at U.S. Theatres Large and Small

By Bent, Eliza | American Theatre, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Moving on In: Playwrights, in a Generously Funded New Wave, Are Taking Up Residence at U.S. Theatres Large and Small


Bent, Eliza, American Theatre


1 Capitalism and theatre are strange bedfellows. Actually prospering from your work as an actor, dramaturg, director or playwright has never been particularly easy. The reasons why are hardly a mystery--there's a surplus of talent and not enough financial resources. But, historically speaking at least, finding an artistic family or a professional home has not been so hard--even if the money wasn't always plentiful. Ancient Greek writers had the Theatre of Dionysus; Shakespeare had the Globe; Mohere had the Comedie-Francaise.

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In the U.S., playwright/theatre marriages were a felicitous side effect of the regional theatre movement that picked up steam in the '60s. Sam Shepard set up shop at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, Tony Kushner was installed at the same city's Eureka Theatre and Lanford Wilson co-founded and wrote for the Circle Repertory Company in New York City. Many playwrights had informal but vital affiliations with theatres that produced their work. Playwrights weren't necessarily on staff at these theatres, and the economic relationship between artist and institution varied widely. Nevertheless, any number of theatres had strong associations with local artists, who in turn were part of the life blood of that institution. Typically the artists, whether they were actors, directors or playwrights, lived in the community where the work was happening,

So when did things get so out of whack?

Theatremakers and enthusiasts would have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the abundance of commentary in recent years contending, in no uncertain terms, that artists need to be more fully integrated into regional institutions. These dialogues, debates and diatribes have unfolded in casual settings, but also formally--at TCG national convenings, and in documents like David Dower's 2007 report for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, "The Gates of Opportunity," which surveyed the infrastructure of new-play development in 15 communities, or, even more tellingly, Todd London's 2009 book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play.

Some artists, not surprisingly, have addressed their own alienation loud and clear. Mike Daisey's 2008 monologue How Theater Failed America described his view of a broken system in which the people earning a living from theatre aren't necessarily the artists but the administrators. Plucky scribes have taken matters into their own hands, forming temporary producing structures like 13P, which began in 2004 in NYC and imploded last year after accomplishing its task of producing 13 plays.

"This issue has been a matter of discussion for 30 years," says London, who is artistic director of the playwright support and advocacy group New Dramatists. "But in the past 10 years or so we've been naming the problem, which is the inability of the theatre we've all created to meet the financial needs and expectations of its own artists.

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"Historically, a playwright or a director or an acting company determined the voice of a theatre," London allows, but as theatres began to grow and open up to more artists, it became harder to maintain a specific and authentic institutional voice. In many ways, as the national theatre movement grew, localism diminished. Though London's book (co-written with Ben Pesner and published by Theatre Development Fund) looks mostly at playwrights being out of sync with theatres, he argues that "it stretches to the loss of acting companies and theatres being less distinguished by a single director."

Polly Carl, director of the Center for Theater Commons at Boston's Emerson College, agrees that artists of all disciplines struggle with the state of the field, but says the studies have indicated "playwrights in particular were left out of the institution and the not-for-profit setting." Like Dower, Carl has been in talks with the Mellon Foundation for years, dating back to her leadership of Minneapolis's Playwrights' Center, about how best to support playwrights. …

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