Last night, while standing outside a theater waiting to enter, I bumped into an actor of my acquaintance—a woman with good comic timing and presence as a performer, at least from what I’ve seen of her work, which isn’t enough. I was on my way to meet the director of the show we were about to see, but I stopped to chat for a bit, and she took a moment to introduce me to two of her companions: “This is Gwydion Suilebhan,” she said, “a local playwright.”
For some reason, the word “local” really landed awkwardly in my ear. I mean, I understand it—I’m a playwright, and I live in the area—and I hold no grudge against the nice woman who said it, but it bugged me nonetheless.
The problem (for me) seems to be the implication that I’m “only” a local playwright: that my work is only (good? well-known?) enough to be produced in DC. Never mind the fact that the implication is wrong—because my work has been seen in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, St. Louis, and soon Minneapolis, let alone DC. (In the last year or two, my work has been produced outside DC far more often than inside it.) What matters is that she thinks of me that way. Perception is out of line with reality.
But here’s the thing: I don’t actually think it’s about me, and I don’t take it personally. (At least not TOO personally.) I think her observation stems from the fact that DC just isn’t seen as the sort of place a playwright might actually live. Yes, there are a great many theater companies here—we have more theater seats for sale now in a given year than ANY other city in America, save for New York; that’s right, Chicago, you’re now the Third City (I still love you)—but it’s really not a city in which new plays are given their due. (In that category, I’d rank it behind New York AND Chicago… and Minneapolis, and probably a few other cities as well.) We have half a dozen Shakespeare companies, companies doing nothing but chestnuts, and companies doing a lot of what was done the previous year in New York.
Many of the companies that DO produce new plays, furthermore, produce new plays by playwrights who live in other cities—notably, of course, New York, but elsewhere as well.
Now, I’m NOT eating sour grapes here—far from it. I’ve had more than my fair share of success here in DC, and the companies I’ve worked with have treated me no differently because we shared the same postal district. I like working here. I have access to a wide variety of tremendously talented actors to call on for readings of my work—I have little doubt that if I asked the woman I met in line last night whether she wouldn’t mind reading a scene for me, she’d be happy to do it. I can see brilliant, inspiring theater any night of the week. (Last night was In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play—well done, Woolly Mammoth.) I can pick the brains of any number of talented directors and scenic designers and lighting designers. I meet new theater practitioners of every stripe all the time. It feels like an embarrassment of riches.
What I don’t have—and what I wish I had—is a community of playwrights. Now, to be clear, I can name at least a few dozen other playwrights in the area, from the somewhat-well-known to the should-be-better-well-known, without breaking a sweat, and I bet if those few dozen of us sat in room together and talked we could drum up a list of a couple of dozen more—and even then, truth be told, we might not have a complete list. But if there are a total of 6,000 self-identified/working playwrights in the country (as I recently heard in a meeting with The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis), is it right that only a few dozen are in DC? The second-largest theater city in the country? My math skills have eroded somewhat, but the percentages seem to be off.
I do know, however, what would balance the equation: more local theater companies producing the work of local playwrights. If that happened, we’d start developing a reputation as a city in which talented playwrights can collaborate with great theaters, find their audiences, hone their work. In time, we’d become a city that produces its own star playwrights, rather than bringing them in from other cities. We’d become a net exporter rather than an importer of stories… or at least even things out a bit. And that, really, is what this is all about for me: the people who live here writing stories for the people who live here, because we understand the sensibilities and concerns and questions of our neighbors. If that was what it meant to be a local playwright, you could sign me up immediately.
Now… it is worth noting that there are lots of people here in our nation’s capital trying very hard to address the issues I’ve raised here. The folks at Arena Stage, with everything they done in the last year or so (all of it well documented elsewhere, so I won’t go into it), have taken a strong leadership position. The establishment of the Source Festival, which has commissioned a great deal of new work by DC playwrights, has become a notable new-work incubator. There are a few new-ish companies—the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Active Cultures, Dog and Pony, and Longacre Lea among them—that have particularly emphasized the development and production of new local work, and some of the more established institutions (Theater J, Rorschach Theatre) have at least kept the door to new local work open. (Forgive me if I’ve forgotten anyone.) There are also now a few new play development programs in the area—Inkwell Theatre, First Draft, and Theater of the First Amendment—which can only help matters greatly, over time. In fact, having written this paragraph, I’ve almost convinced myself that the problem is half-solved.
In the end, though, I think it will only be fully addressed when the city becomes synonymous with excellent stories well-told. Once that happens, I believe, my few dozen colleagues and I won’t be introduced as “local” playwrights any more—or perhaps, if we are, it won’t feel like a disappointment. To be a DC playwright might even become a badge of honor—one that more playwrights might be glad to wear.