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.
I’ve been wondering about something lately. How often do you think a theater actually manages to “flip” its programming? I’m not even thinking about a radical shift: from Grand Guignol to theater for young audiences, for example, or from Shakespeare to solo performances. I’m thinking about moving from fairly unambitious programming full of time-tested, broadly-accessible musicals and comedies, imported hits, chestnuts, and money-makers to a renewed focus on engaging, sharp, smart, new work. How often do you think that actually happens? Seems like it might be a difficult trick to pull off, doesn’t it?
To be honest, I think many of us carry around the assumption (which may or may not be a good one) that programming typically flips the other way—from innovative to conservative—as a theater matures and develops a more stable, reliable audience. Or not flips, rather, but slowly migrates. The question is: can change actually happen in the other direction?
We may be about to find out in DC. Not immediately, mind you, but over the next couple of years. Why? Because the artistic director vacancy at Olney Theatre Center has just been filled by Jason Loewith, who left his position as the Executive Director of the National New Play Network to take on the challenge. The appointment of Loewith, a noted national champion for the development of new work, has raised expectations significantly, among the city’s theater practitioners, about some sort of transformation in programming.
“Olney Theatre Center is known for its traditional fare,” said DC-area playwright Allyson Currin. “But Jason’s track record and premiere-oriented aesthetic are undeniable. Olney is clearly expressing its desire to innovate and expand its programming into new play premieres and development by naming him as Artistic Director.” Fellow playwright Bob Bartlett – whose new play WHALES had a reading at NNPN’s inaugural DC-Area Writers Showcase in 2011 – shared a similar sentiment: “Jason’s appointment at Olney should mean great things for living playwrights.”
Loewith shares the community’s sense of optimism… as well as its understanding of the task at hand. “I’m excited and terrified by the challenge,” he said. Luckily, he’s not really starting from square zero: “Olney’s assets include a passionate team of theater makers, multiple facilities, and a diverse and dynamic audience,” Loewith said. “And I’m not talking about one ‘monolithic’ audience, either. I’m talking about a lot of folks who adore family-friendly musicals, a lot of folks who adore form-breaking new plays, and a lot of folks who adore mid-century classics. So the trick for me is to program to each of those audiences rigorously and separately while maintaining a coherent overall artistic vision.”
On a modestly-related note, I wanted to share a statistic that’s emerged from this year’s slate of nominees for the Helen Hayes Awards. In an appearance on a local radio program hosted by DC’s NPR affiliate, Linda Levy-Grossman—president and CEO of theatreWashington, the body that administers the awards—noted that 49 of the 200 plays nominated for the 2013 awards were world premieres. For the mathematically disinclined, that’s a robust 25%.
In a city noted largely for its impressive achievements in classical theater, musical theater, and theater for young audiences, to have such a large quantity of new work receive recognition of that nature is a sure sign, it seems, of the health of the city’s new play infrastructure. These are definitely boom times in DC for playwrights… even without the appointment of a national leader in new play development to the artistic directorship of one of our more prominent theaters!
UPDATE: I’ve been thinking about this post today, and I want to make sure that I’ve managed to avoid putting any inaccurate or inappropriate expectations about the future of Olney Theatre out into the world. I do NOT wish to have conveyed any sense of entitlement on the part of myself or of any other playwrights. My intent in celebrating Jason Loewith’s appointment to his new post was really just to say “Hey, look, one of our heroes and friends got a great new gig!” The gig, however, ISN’T—to be painfully clear—to produce nothing but new plays by DC-area playwrights. The gig is to serve Olney’s audiences in whatever way Jason, in his wisdom and leadership, sees fit. I look forward to supporting him in that endeavor in whatever way I can—including just plain visiting his theater to see what marvels he produces—and I know many other playwrights here in town do, too.