We are all well aware of the recent moves by a few larger theaters to add playwrights to their payrolls. Great stuff, right? But lately I’ve been trying to think more creatively. (That’s what we do, after all, isn’t it?) What I’ve been wondering is why playwrights aren’t on staff (or even hired as temporary workers) in a great many other places as well. Allow me to present a few highly-speculative – though I prefer to think of them as ambitious – ideas for your consideration.
The budgets of most research laboratories are immense… and the struggles that scientists live through to achieve significant results can be (I’m understating here) quite dramatic. As a counter to the increasing (and corrupting) influence that corporate money has on the scientific process, why not pair playwrights with researchers?
For what would amount to a rounding error in many laboratory budgets, a playwright could get to know the members of the research team, investigate the history of the problem being studied, understand how the problem affects real human lives, and transform all that insight into a piece of theater that would help non-scientists understand in a visceral and vital way the stakes of the lab’s research. Add a bit of seed money for a production, and opening night of the resulting play could accompany the announcement of big findings… and help humanize science (and scientists) for the rest of the world.
Personally, I’d almost rather work at a lab than a theater: I’d find it invigorating for sure.
Law Firm Playwrights
Given our cultural infatuation with courtroom dramas, doesn’t it just make sense for a few dozen of the country’s biggest firms to start putting playwrights on staff as well? Each dramatist could join a legal team working on a particularly fascinating case that might reveal something poignant and compelling about American culture. Again, there’d be extensive research, ethnographic investigations, hours in the courtroom, documents to digest… and, yes, probably (more than) a few waivers to sign. But still: the resulting work might really make for great theater, especially if the staff playwright has the liberty to explore innovations in the courtroom drama genre. (I’m assuming full artistic freedom for all of these ideas, BTW.)
How many lawyers at the average firm do you think earned undergraduate degrees in English before they started studying law? I’m guessing the number’s pretty high. I’m also guessing there’d be many attorneys who’d love to have their work documented in such a creative way: willing collaborators for the endeavor. And the publicity for the firm when the resulting play opened? (After the legal matter in question has long since been resolved, of course.) Tremendous.
As for the financial question: please. There isn’t a playwright alive who wouldn’t take the job for, say, 1/5 of the average lawyer’s salary. Some attorneys bill their clients $700 an hour; there are playwrights for whom that would make an entirely tolerable weekly salary instead.
I know: at a time when newspapers and news outlets of all stripes are letting employees go left and right, how do I dare propose they bring playwrights on staff? I must be nuts.
Actually, what I am (I hope) is clever. You see, it’s not that the news business isn’t making ANY money. It’s just not making the profits it used to make. It’s in the process of reinventing itself, and I can’t see a reason why playwrights might not play a small role in that reinvention, too. Don’t you agree? What, are you worried about the objectivity required of a news organization? How 20th-century of you! Are you thinking that producing news stories is very different than producing theater? Sure, but… so what? People can learn.
So, imagine this: when a news organization dispatches a reporter to cover a story of great national importance—a major hurricane, a coup, even (heck, why not?) the World Series—why not send a playwright as well? I’m thinking here of the kind of work that Caryl Churchill did to create MAD FOREST in Romania. Interviews of key players, improvisational on-the-spot script development, then time back at home to piece it all together into a coherent, producible narrative. A print news organization might just publish the resulting script; a broadcast news organization, on the other hand, could probably find a way to, well, broadcast it. Think of it as a kind of theatrical human interest story. Pretty cool stuff.
State Department Playwrights
The State Department is such a huge bureaucracy that if someone told me they already had playwrights on staff (say, in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs), I wouldn’t be surprised. But let’s say they don’t: why shouldn’t they?
Why shouldn’t part of our country’s ongoing diplomatic efforts involve sending playwrights around the world to spend time in other countries, get to know people in genuine ways, then bring what they learned home to America to inspire the American populace? It could make us all more tolerant of and curious about and respectful of world cultures. It would help spread understanding. It would make us less likely to want to kill people who are different than we are, to be frank, because you can’t kill someone you’ve empathized with (by seeing him or her on stage). It would, most importantly, enrich our culture.
Worried about the resulting work becoming rife with propaganda? Well, fine: put some kind of ombudsman in place to protect the independence of the artists involved. Let the general public vote on the playwrights who might hold those positions, too, so that the genuinely represent the vox populi. And the best part? All it would take to make this happen is tax dollars, which just means we need to elect the right people in order to make it happen.
What about playwrights in our biggest hospitals, visiting with patients and turning their struggles into stories about the way we wrestle with disease – stories that might enrich the lives (and perhaps speed the healing) of future patients? Or playwrights on staff at (for example) Target headquarters in Minneapolis, writing Twin Cities-based stories as a kind of corporate community service? Playwrights embedded at think tanks like the Brookings Institution, translating complex human and social issues into dramatic work? The more you start to think about it, really, the more it seems like playwrights might belong almost everywhere… if only we thought more creatively about how and where we work.