With the permission of the Dramatists Guild, I am re-publishing my regional reports here on my blog after they’ve been published in print and released to members. My thinking is that (in some cases, at least) the columns I write will interest other theater practitioners and non-Guild members as well.
Who says playwrights have become too alienated from theaters? Okay, well… everyone, and loudly, for a long time now, and for good reason. But in DC during the last year or so, things have begun to change.
The crown jewel in this regard, of late, has been Theater J, which created a program called Locally Grown: Community-Supported Art from Our Own Garden. In its first year, the program commissioned, developed, and supported new plays from five local playwrights. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) At the same time, Theater J’s main stage season also included a play by a sixth: The Religion Thing, by former DC Dramatist Guild rep Renee Calarco. There were panel discussions about the state of the DC-area playwright, receptions to honor us, and (most importantly) the sense that we were free to consider Theater J our home.
The program is in its second year now, and it’s continuing to offer real and valuable artistic opportunities for a new crop of playwrights. In addition, a play by one of the first year’s playwrights—The Hampton Years by Jacqueline Lawton—is part of the upcoming Theater J season. And if that weren’t enough, the theater’s also producing Andy and the Shadows, a play by locally-grown playwright (and Theater J artistic director) Ari Roth. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
During the same time frame, furthermore, a few other local companies began bringing playwrights more clearly into their folds as well. Woolly Mammoth, for example, added non-resident playwright Robert O’Hara to its company of actors and designers, in addition to programming area playwright Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird in the theater’s current season. Likewise, Round House Theatre will be staging Young Robin Hood by DC’s Jon Klein this season, too. And this is only to name two examples.
Of more significance, though—at least in my opinion—was the addition of DC-based playwright Stephen Spotswood to not one, but two ensembles hosted by local companies, one larger and more established (Forum Theatre) and one smaller and just getting off the ground (Pinky Swear). A production, after all, establishes a somewhat transient (if real) connection between theater and playwright; ensemble membership means a great deal more, at least ideally. Again, this is only one example; I can think of a good handful of others. These are relationships that seem destined to be very fruitful.
The most recent addition to the playwrights-in-theaters revolution (if that’s not too strong a word) has come from the theater that got the whole thing started, really. Arena Stage made a big national splash a few years ago when it actually but a handful of playwrights—including DC resident Karen Zacarias—on staff, giving them salaries and benefits and treating them like dignified professionals. The theater’s newest development is the Playwrights Arena: a bi-monthly writers group composed of DC playwrights who’ll be sharing work-in-progress with each other and with Arena Stage’s staff. As of the writing of this column, those playwrights had yet to be identified… but it sounds like a good professional development opportunity for whoever they are.
By my (very rough) count, the sum total of the opportunities I’ve just listed (and their kin around the city) mean that roughly 10% of the playwrights in DC now have locally-based creative homes of one kind or another. That may not sound like much, but it’s a huge increase from where we were a year ago. And there’s still more space to be occupied here, too: a wide variety of theaters large and small that have yet to bring a playwright in house. (We make great roommates, trust me!) With any luck, this is the beginning of a trend… and the end of playwrights’ alienation from theaters. See me again in another year for an update.