I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people about the subject of “starting our own 13P” in DC. Playwrights have out-and-out asked me to do it, or asked me whether I wanted to do it, and various other theater practitioners have asked me why there isn’t one already. I think it’s time for me to respond.
First, a bit of background. About a decade or so ago, when I was a new playwright in DC, I took a couple of classes at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. My first teacher was the incomparable Irene Rosenberg Wurtzel—a fabulous woman, if you don’t happen to know her—and my second was the then-current senior dramaturg at Arena Stage, Michael Kinghorn. I learned a lot from both of them and had a great time.
My fellow students in those classes included people who were rather serious about playwriting as a career, novelists and photographers and journalists who were exploring other genres/art forms, passionate theatergoers who were getting to know drama from the inside, and people who were just plain looking for something fun to do. A great group, really.
Within that great group, there were a few who felt the urge to keep meeting after the last class was over: seven of us, to be exact. We’d enjoyed reading each other’s writing, we liked each other personally, and we thought we might be able to keep growing and learning together. So… we formed our own group.
For about a year or so, we met once a month. We gathered in a Starbucks at first, then in a little-used meeting room in the Waterside Apartments, where our last teacher lived. We shared work, reading it aloud and discussing it, and we also shared our dreams and good news and aspirations and plans. In time, we began to call ourselves the Waterside Seven. It was nice.
So, who were we? Let me share the names and brief bios of my six compatriots.
First, there was Catherine Trieschmann, who has continued to thrive as a very successful playwright and theater blogger. There was Scott Suchman, one of my closest friends in the world, who many of you might know as one of the leading theater, restaurant, and travel photographers in DC. There was a lovely woman named Mary Lane, who passed away a few years ago; she’d been a literature professor. There was Nani Power, a well-regarded novelist with many publications to her name. And then there was Peggy Levay, a woman who’d spent her early career inventing several very popular lines of candy. We were, as you can see, a diverse bunch.
After about a year of simply sharing our work with each other, we decided it was time to take on a new challenge: producing something as a group. We decided to give ourselves a writing challenge—a prompt that would inspire seven different ten-minute plays—then produce whatever we came up with. The prompt we chose couldn’t have been any more simple: the color red. We found a director willing to work for peanuts and provide his own rehearsal space, rented the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint for a weekend, and all pitched in both time and money to produce RED: An Evening of Short Plays. It was fun. I loved the whole thing.
It was also, I should admit, very hard. Getting seven people to collaborate on a regular basis? Many of whom had very demanding day jobs and families? And different opinions? And different career paths and goals? And different aesthetics? By the end of the weekend, we all still liked each other… but it was pretty clear that we never wanted to produce together again. I mean… we didn’t lose much money (it was more of a career investment and learning opportunity anyway). We had big crowds, and we entertained people, too. But the work involved was just too much for a few members of the Waterside Seven, so that was that.
In fact… that was really that. After RED, we met (as I recall) for perhaps another six months, then started to drift our separate ways. Several members went back to largely non-theatrical lives, and though I continued to share my new work with the others on a regular (if informal) basis for a few years, it wasn’t the same. Now, only Catherine Trieschmann and I still actively maintain careers as playwrights (though others may still write from time to time), and we now live 1400 miles apart. (Miss you, Catherine!)
All of this is to say: I’ve actually already tried to make a 13P in DC. (Well, a 7P.) And while I really, really enjoyed the attempt, it just didn’t work. And here, I think, is why.
First, we weren’t all genuinely committed, long-term, to being playwrights: to making the writing of plays our foremost identity. I think that’s genuinely essential.
Second, we weren’t “collective-minded,” by which I mean that not all of us were interested in the necessary subjugation of (some) personal desires for the greater good. This, too, I believe to be critical for the foundation of a producing playwrights group.
Third, we were more interested in writing than in producing. We only produced because we wanted to see our work on stage. It was a necessary evil… emphasis on evil. (Not for all of us, but for some of us.) A genuine interest in producing is also, I think, absolutely necessary.
Fourth, we were too young: perhaps not with respect to age, but definitely with respect to our time in the theater. We didn’t really understand where we existed within the theatrical ecosystem.
(The one nice quality we did have, incidentally—that we all really liked each other—is probably somewhat inconsequential. Of greater importance might have been the ability to have productive conflict with one another: to trust each other enough to speak truth, to be vulnerable, to take risks, to let things get ugly, and to persist until we worked though issues, all of which I think are unrelated to positive fellow-feeling.)
So… with these lessons in mind, when I think about “starting a (new) 13P in DC,” I always ask myself first: how would I choose who I wanted to do it with? How would I find experienced, collective-minded, committed playwrights interested in producing as well as writing? How would I find even one person, let alone another 12? (And who says it has to be 13 total anyway?)
More importantly, how would I find other playwrights whose work I also really respect and admire and believe in? Because you know what? This is a lot of labor we’re talking about. Years and years of commitment and focus. Does anyone really want to sign up for that without really knowing, deep down, that you’d be giving so much of your life and energy to something valuable and real and good? I know I don’t: I’ve got a lot on my plate already, so every investment of time has to be weighed very carefully.
Bottom line: I honestly don’t know that there are 12 other P in DC that I know well enough to put on my personal short list. And I probably know and love you all (and your work) about as well as anybody. Even if I could come up with, say, five other people, what’s to say that those five people would even WANT to start a producing playwrights collaborative… much less with me? (I mean, the love has to be requited, doesn’t it?) This feels like a significant hurdle.
But perhaps it can be overcome. Perhaps among the 225 of us who write plays in the DC area there are, say, half a dozen who want to work together in that way. (I’ve been hearing about various nascent groups for a while—versions of the Waterside Seven?—so perhaps they’ve already begun.) If those people do exist, though, I really want to ask: why a new 13P?
I ask that question in several ways, but primarily in this one: why replicate what’s already been done elsewhere? What is it about the 13P model—which is, after all, only one possibility—that appeals to you?
I’ve heard the argument (and repeated it loudly to anyone who will hear) that playwrights need to wrest control over the production of plays away from institutions. (Or at least SOME of that control, but that’s another blog post for another time.) Fine… but why can’t we do that by starting our own theater companies, as many of us in the DC area have done? It’s the same investment of time, the same collaboration level, and similar results. Why can’t we start devised theater ensembles, too, like playwright Stephen Spotswood has done? Or work with existing ones? What is it about the 13P model that’s particularly important?
I’m not saying it isn’t important, mind you: I’m asking those who are clamoring for it why it’s important TO THEM. Is it the ability to work closely with (and potentially learn from) other playwrights, as opposed to other kinds of theater makers? Is it the desire to create a very playwright-centric producing organization? Is it an interest in promoting a “DC voice” of some kind in playwriting? What is it?
I don’t personally have any answers to those questions myself. I’ve considered every possible permutation for my own career. I thought about starting a traditional theater company (with a scientific aesthetic, probably, and a community-service commitment). I wondered whether I might want to create a devised theater ensemble—I have a well-defined first project in mind, in fact—but aside from a few meetings with potential collaborators, I haven’t done it. And yes, I’ve considered co-founding a producing playwrights group, and I’ve talked to a few of you about that, too… but I haven’t found a genuine reciprocal interest in devoting the necessary energy to the effort. Not in others, and not in myself. At least not yet.
In the meantime, and to my great joy, I’ve been working with Dog & Pony DC instead: an existing ensemble of devised theater makers. Is it a substitute—some kind of placebo?—or is it the place that I really belong? I suppose time will tell. I do know that I love it so much. And I’ve also been serving the DC playwriting community in as many other ways as I can think of, from co-founding and co-running the DC-Area Playwrights Group on Facebook and serving as the community’s Dramatist Guild rep to producing playwright-centric one-off events at the Intersections Festival and at the Page-to-Stage Festival. That’s about all I have room for, really. Hell, I may not even have room for all that!
My hope, though, is that one day I’ll have clarity about this: that I’ll know, one way or another, whether I really do want to help co-found something; and that I’ll have some idea, really, what I think it should look like. Of course… several of my fellow DC playwrights might have up and done it by then. Honestly, I hope you do. (And IF you do, drop me a line to talk about it!) It would surely be a great thing for our community.
In the meantime: I think we should all perhaps leave open the possibility that one of our existing theaters — I won’t name names, but I have one or two very clearly in mind — might become a kind of writer’s theater for DC. We may not necessarily need to invest our energy in creating something 13P-like, in other words; it might just evolve organically. (And it might look more like Victory Gardens when all is said and done.) Moving playwrights back into institutions — helping us all get connected to the audiences we’re writing for — is really, to my mind, the most important thing. As long as that happens, no matter how that happens, I’m cool.