This is the fourth entry in a continuing series of guest posts. Our contributor is Patricia Connelly, a fellow DC-based playwright and the co-author (with me and David Mitchell Robinson) of this year’s study of the 2013-14 DC theater season. Pat is a keen analyst of one vital story uncovered in the data this year, and I’m pleased to be able to share her thoughts.
Yes, there’s much to celebrate about theater in Washington. As playwright Laura Zam said last week at Theater J’s Town Hall meeting, Washington is on the map as a theater town. The statistics bear that out. There are more shows, more theater companies, and more opportunities for theater artists than ever before. We collected information about 142 Washington area productions slated for the 2013-2014 season. And that’s not all that will be on Washington stages in the coming year.
But what about the locally grown plays?
Theater J invited playwrights, producers, and other theater artists to “converse, strategize, and celebrate the close of this year’s” Locally Grown Festival. As playwrights, we have to say bravo to Theater J, Ari Roth, and Shirley Serotsky for their continued support of local writers. We also have to applaud Arena Stage, Active Cultures, the National New Play Network, the Kennedy Center, the Inkwell—participants in the Town Hall—for having championed the development of local playwrights’ new work. As a couple playwrights noted, things seem to be changing for playwrights in DC. There’s excitement in the air about presenting and developing locally grown work.
The statistics about upcoming productions, however, tell a more disappointing story.
During the Town Hall, Gwydion previewed the statistics we compiled. To date, only 9% of the plays being produced here in DC next season were locally grown. To be more specific: of the 142 area productions we tracked, 14 were written by DC authors or devised by DC ensembles. That’s down from 16% last season.
You can’t fault playwrights for wanting to work where they live. The truth, though, is that of all the artists involved in a production, playwrights are the least likely to live in the community in which a play is being produced. Per our analysis, for example, 70% of the directors for the upcoming season’s worth of productions are DC-area residents. That percentage might not be as high as local directors would prefer… but it’s a lot higher than 9%.
With these dismal production numbers, why the feeling among local playwrights that things are changing? First and foremost, DC area playwrights are connected—thanks in some part to the DC-Area Playwrights Facebook group and the networking opportunities sponsored by that group. We’re meeting and talking to each other, sharing information and opportunities, supporting each other’s work. Plus, as we heard at the Town Hall, there are a number of opportunities in and around DC for the development of new work.
The buzz also may be about the fact that many playwrights are making it happen themselves. More and more, playwrights are mounting their own productions, either alone or in combination with others, within their own companies, at the Fringe or in rented spaces. This is not vanity, it’s reality. Sheer numbers dictate that at least here in DC, if we want to see our work in our own backyard, we have to do it ourselves in our own backyards. Literally.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t be taking advantage of and celebrating the many opportunities for the development of new work in DC. We should be. But, as the numbers tell us, more development opportunities do not necessarily equal more production opportunities.
So DC-area playwrights, as we celebrate theater in Washington, let’s champion those theaters in our town—like Theater J—that have made locally grown a part of their season. Let’s also support and champion the playwrights among us who are doing it themselves, particularly now, as the Fringe opens its doors on its eighth year. And, as we continue to beat the drum for more locally grown work among area theaters, let’s hope—as playwright DW Gregory suggested in her summary of the Town Hall—that this year’s number might only be a blip, rather than a trend.
The ideas expressed above are a contribution to the ongoing intellectual discourse about theater. Though I’m honored to share them, they represent the thinking of their author, not necessarily my own. If you’d like to make a contribution, too, just let me know. Provocative, smart, and even dangerous discourse is always welcome.