Okay, so… after yesterday’s blog post in which I question the use of the word “local” when critics describe me and my work, I am now going to do a 180 and embrace the word with everything I’ve got. (Sort of.)
I promise I have a good reason. To explain, though, I’m going to need to backtrack a bit.
Actually, let me start by asking a question: what percentage of the plays produced last year in the city (or region) in which you live were written, do you think, by playwrights who live nearby? My recent blog post outlining the wealth of DC-area playwrights notwithstanding, I suspect that the percentage for my home city is rather low: on the order of 5%. (Does anyone have better information on this?) This strikes me as fairly typical; I suspect the percentage hovers between near 0% and 5% for most of the country, but soars much closer to, say, 90% territory for New York (and similarly high figures for Chicago and LA).
It also strikes me as terribly disappointing. I have argued in several venues that I strongly believe we would be serving our cultural needs so much more effectively and appropriately if our theater was sourced locally more often than not. (I’ll not re-state the arguments here, but I will definitely bring them back in a future Michael Pollan-inspired blog post.) Allowing for productions of Shakespeare — with whose work my city is (if you ask me) a touch obsessed — and a healthy amount of cultural influx to ensure that we experience differing perspectives, I’d put the ideal percentage at, oh, 65%. In other words, we’re really far off from where (if I can speak for myself) I would like us to be.
All of which is to say that I could not be any more proud to have been awarded a commission by Theater J, here in DC, in support of its forthcoming Locally Grown: Community-Supported Art from Our Own Garden project. I’m drafting a new full-length play that’s been simmering for some time, and I’m going to be working with the theater throughout the summer and fall to develop it. The project — which involves four other great DC-area writers — will culminate with a series of readings in January and February of the work we’ve created. Oh, and the whole thing is happening during the run of a play by another DC-area writer, the talented Renee Calarco.
Did you catch those last two references to DC-area writers? (For the record, the others are the equally talented Stephen Spotswood, Jackie Lawton, Laura Zam, and Jon Spelman.) You see… subscribing wholeheartedly, as I do, to the notion of community-centric theater does not mean I want to start embracing the word “local,” which still carries for me too many negative connotations, as I outlined yesterday. To my mind, though, there’s no reason that my preferred label — DC-based (or DC-area, to allow for the fact that I live, technically, in Maryland) — can’t inspire the same sense of civic, regional pride. Because I am very proud to be making art here for the people who live here, and if I could ensure that 65% of my productions were local, I would. (The actual percentage is probably much lower, though I haven’t calculated.) The fact that Theater J is doing so much to get us closer to the ideal percentage is a big part of why I’m such a fan. But it’s only a start.
And what of labels if we do get there one day? They will no longer matter. If 65% of our plays, all around the country, are locally-grown, the terms “local” or “DC-based” or “DC-area” will all be unnecessary. We’ll all share a tacit assumption that of course the play was probably written by somebody who lives here and who is connected to our community. We’ll only need to note when playwrights don’t happen to live nearby. And what term will we use then to describe them? We’ll probably refer, as I’ve suggested so far, to the cities in which they typically work.