I have often noted that as a secular humanist, I am more likely to change my mind if you use evidence-based reasoning than any other persuasive technique, particularly if your reasoning involves the use of math. (I love math.) This isn’t always true in practice—one must admit one’s faults—but it’s an ideal to which I aspire.
The other night, a friend who also happens to be a very seasoned theatrical veteran—a director and playwright of renown and skill—used a bit of both reasoning and math to mount a serious challenge to my recent calls for theaters around the country to work more often with local playwrights than they currently do. It threw me for a significant loop.
We were speaking in DC, where we both live and work, so our discussion was centered on the DC theatrical ecosystem. A bit of the data that went into our mathematical wrangling (and my own formulations both before our conversation and after it):
- 10,000 playwrights nationwide
- 200 playwrights in DC
- 1,950 regional theaters nationwide
- 4,000 university theaters nationwide
- 75 theater companies (of all sizes) in DC (roughly)
My math, working from that data, had been as follows:
- If there are 10,000 playwrights nationwide, and a total of almost 6,000 theaters, then – given the fact that theaters are increasingly adding as many as five playwrights to their staffs and companies – almost all of us could, theoretically, have an official affiliation with a theater.
- If there are 200 playwrights in DC, and 75 theaters, there should be ample opportunity for the work of DC playwrights to be seen on local stages
My friend’s math was radically different, however:
- Of the 10,000 playwrights across the country, only 10%—or 1,000—are really producing polished, high-quality work ready for the stage.
- Of those 1,000, 500 probably live in NY, 200 live in Los Angeles, 100 live in Chicago, and the other 200 are scattered in small pockets around the country.
- He then estimated—without, to be clear, making a list—no more than five top-tier playwrights living in DC. That’s five in DC, mind you, and 995 elsewhere, which gives DC (by his math) a whopping .5% of the best playwrights in the country.
- Of the 75 theaters in DC, he noted, there are several that simply don’t produce new work, or produce it very infrequently, because of their missions. For the sake of argument, let’s say there are 40 theaters left, each with an average of five slots a year, for a total of 200 slots.
- If those theaters are looking for the best plays they can find, no matter where their authors live, then only .5% of those open slots should go to local playwrights.
- That means we should expect one production (200 slots x .5%) a year, especially at the best/biggest houses in town.
Now, there’s one bit of his math that I just have to disagree with: his assessment that there are only five playwrights producing work good enough for those good/big houses. My guess—and I haven’t made a list, either, nor will I—is that there are probably more like 10, or 1% of the top-tier playwrights in the country. But that’s where things got challenging for me: with 200 slots, that would still only warrant two productions across the city in a given year… which is just about where we are, in fact. (We might even be a touch higher than that.) So are we already doing just about as well as we can expect to be doing?
That’s the moment at which I entered my existential crisis. Have I been blowing meaningless steam all this time?
I started to think about one key assumption built into his argument: namely, that a theater should always look for the best plays, nationwide, to put on its stages. I realized that if I ran, say, Woolly Mammoth, I’d certainly find it hard to say “Well, PLAY X is terrific, but the playwright lives in Kansas, so I’m going to choose PLAY Y, which is less good but written by somebody who lives here in DC, to produce instead.” Can any of us argue that we’d make that choice? What if our mission was to be a nationally-relevant theater doing nationally-recognized work? Wouldn’t we be undermining that mission if we did?
My friend’s contention—and I think he’s right—is that theaters like Woolly Mammoth have no real prejudice against working with DC-based playwrights. They simply look for plays they believe in and consider of great quality and significance, and if those plays happen to be written by people living in Los Angeles or St. Louis or New York City, they produce them. If they found a play by a playwright living in DC that they liked, they’d produce it in a heartbeat.
There are, however, tragic consequences to this perfectly reasonable approach. First and foremost, it does nothing to address the systemic problems that arise from the fact that so many of our top-tier playwrights live in what my friend Scott Walters calls NyLaChi (New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago). As long as this is the case, the stories they write are (generally speaking—naturally, there are many exceptions) going to be informed by an urban worldview and less connected to the lives of the people elsewhere in the country. There will be fewer plays about people in, say, Alabama, and Alabamans deserve to see their lives and concerns reflected in a genuinely national theater. As a result, nationwide audiences for theater (and new plays in particular) will continue to diminish.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the pressures on playwrights to live in large urban centers—in which their meager earnings get spread terribly thinly—are immense. I do believe playwrights would still live in groups if the NyLaChi system were eliminated by fiat—I was convinced of that by Steven Johnson’s brilliant Where Good Ideas Come From, which argues that clusters of like individuals benefit from the environment of networked minds for innovation—but I don’t believe the clusters would be nearly as top-heavy or urban. We’d at least be somewhat more evenly distributed around the country.
And that’s when I began to think about affirmative action and leveling the playing field. (If you oppose affirmative action for either intellectual or emotional reasons, you might as well stop reading now; we can debate some other time.) I am beginning to think it might be the only way to address the issues I’ve identified. Because I don’t think theaters like Woolly Mammoth—which, for the record, produces (to my mind) beautiful, brilliant, big, bold theater all the time, and which I frequent as often as I can—are ever going to stop making the choices they make unless some external force requires them to do so. Why? For the same reason that automobile manufacturers, for example, didn’t raise fuel efficiency until they had to: it wasn’t in their short-term best interest, even if it was in their long-term best interest.
So what if we could magically just “require” that every theater set aside, say, 10% of its production slots (to start with) for playwrights who live within, oh, 25 miles of the institution? Since I’m waving a magic wand here, let’s imagine that we can exempt Shakespeare-centric theaters, or theaters with specific missions that would preclude working with nearby writers. (We have a theater here in DC that produces only Irish plays, for example; its mission is to bring Irish culture to the United States.) Let’s only focus on theaters, in fact, that regularly produce new work.
We have to be honest and admit that the first few years might be rough. We might lose audiences accustomed to a certain kind of writing. The quality of work might take a bit of a dip… but perhaps not as much as we might fear. Is that possible? Is it possible that audiences might, in fact, be intrigued by the notion of playwrights living and working among them, telling stories about their daily lives, or even about the lives they aspire to have? And if we waited a few years, might the lure of opportunities in other cities draw a few top-tier playwrights out of NyLaChi? Say, to Tempe or New Orleans, perhaps with the side benefit of living less expensively or living near a family member? And might the new system eventually mean that stories written in Boulder and Grand Forks and Tallahassee, just to choose a few places, might end up on stage in NY, enriching and broadening the artistic life of the city?
That’s what I think would happen. It’s a hypothesis, anyway, and it’s one I’d like to test. But to be more realistic for a moment, how exactly might we make such a thing happen? For a variety of legal reasons I can’t honestly begin to understand, as well as a host of practical reasons that should be obvious, the DC government couldn’t pass a law requiring any theater that wants to operate in the city to work with DC playwrights. Intervention of that sort seems rather impossible.
My first thought: a general strike. Every living playwright withholds the production rights for their plays until the nation’s regional theaters agree to implement a new 10% rule (or a 5% rule, gradating by 3% a year to 20%, or something like that) for the production of plays by local playwrights. But who wants a nasty struggle of that sort? I don’t, even if my sympathies would like with the strikers. And I’m not sure it would work, either. We might just drive the country farther and farther toward a dying, chestnut-laden theatrical landscape, which would do none of us any good.
I would much rather be able to find a way to convince the nation’s theaters to institute the 10% rule on their own, as an act of good faith, in a brave (and even counter-intuitive, as rational things often are) attempt to inject new life into the theatrical ecosystem. I would much rather they willingly steered the ship in the direction I think it should go. I would gladly get on board for the ride. And if the experiment didn’t turn out the way my hypothesis would suggest, I would also quite gladly help get us back on course… or onto some new course yet undreamed-of.
But what my existential crisis has forced me to accept is the fact that in advocating for this change, I am also really asking every single theater in my city to change (or at least broaden) its mission. The Studio Theatre, for example, does what it does—“producing the best of contemporary theatre,” according to its website—because that’s what it sets out to do. In fact, their mission statement talks very directly about the fact that they want to produce “provocative new writing from around the world.” How audacious of me to ask them to amend that vision!
So this is where I now arrive, in an intellectual and emotional quandary. I want things to change. I believe things need to change, for the future health of our discipline (and, by extension, our country). But I suddenly feel as if I have no real right, ultimately, to ask the theaters I live and write among to do anything differently than they’re already doing. And I even feel, oddly, as if I owe Woolly Mammoth et al. an apology for being so presumptuous in the first place. I feel as if I ought to just keep trying to write better and better plays until they find one they like and decide to produce it.
At the same time, I can also see quite clearly that there’s a movement afoot. Here in DC, Arena Stage has determined that one of its five playwright residencies will always be held by a DC resident playwright. Theater J has established the Locally Grown festival, commissioning five plays (one of which is mine, I should note) from DC-area playwrights. Nationally, there are discussions about similar developments at theaters in Seattle and San Francisco. Articles on the subject are popping up with greater and greater frequency everywhere I look. Something is happening.
So how do I reconcile those two competing impulses: hoping for change, but not asking for it? It feels like all I can do is expose the contradictions in my heart and mind: tell it like it is, at least for me, and hope that something resonates for others. Maybe things will change, after all; or maybe I’m wrong, and they don’t need to. Time will tell. But at least I will have been honest along the way, taking the simple action of affirming my wishes and my struggles and my dreams. What else can one do?