At her keynote address on Thursday night, Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith hinted at a math equation she didn’t quite complete. (It was very dramaturgically smart of her to suggest a few details and let her audience fill in the rest.) After touting the fact that her theater has five playwrights on staff, she noted that there are 1,950 regional theaters in America and 4,000 university theaters. The only inevitable conclusion of her thesis, of course, rests on the fact that there are 10,000 playwrights in America. If Molly’s theater can accommodate five playwrights all by itself, and there are 5,949 other theaters out there with only 9,995 other playwrights to support… well, you can do the rest of the math yourself.Â Or you can let Arena Stage’s associate artistic director David Dower do it for you: he laid out the case more clearly on the TCG Circle blog.Â I know there are concerns about how we might implement the obvious solution — playwrights on staff at every single theater in the country — but (with all due respect to my friend Amy Wratchford) I consider them small potatoes.
Then again, perhaps (as Todd London suggested in HIS keynote the next day) the solution isn’t for theaters to bring playwrights on board but for playwrights to simply take over the whole of American theater by force. Inspired by Todd’s talk — which began with the Outrageous Fortune doom-and-gloom with which we’re all familiar by now but pointed to a few bright spots in the darkness — I asked him whether he could envision a career path that one might follow from playwright/theater blogger to artistic director. (Yes, I was thinking about myself.) His response, in essence: don’t think of it as a career move, but as a revolution. In other words, rather than applying for jobs, I should create my own thing and lead it. And maybe I will.
If there is going to be a revolution, though, it should perhaps be led by Julia Jordan, whose inspiring, emotionally-charged talk about gender parity blew the doors off the joint. (Though the energy was momentarily hijacked by the boneheaded male playwright who asked why there are female-only writing contests.) I was deeply moved by the substance of her talk AND by the courage with which she delivered it. On the other hand, when it comes to racial parity, I have to note the stunning and near-complete lack of diversity among speakers and panelists all weekend long, which made me rather grumpy every time I thought about it. I have no doubt that the Dramatists Guild shares my grumpiness, too… but we have to do better on this front.
The weekend wasn’t without one or two other clunkers worth noting, too. History will show (if it bothered to record anything) that the last few words of the conference were, oddly enough, “Stop writing realism!” Shouted by Mame Hunt at the end of the last conversation, they seemed both ill-advised (with realism/naturalism making a significant return to artistic importance) and unnecessarily negative. Speaking of that last conversation, the panelists seemed to be an oddly un-curated jumble: smart folks, to be sure, but not somehow fully of a piece with each other.
There were also, I would suggest, far too few workshops and panels addressing new technologies, the development of which is surely (as I have written elsewhere) the most important change in our field in the last ten years. For goodness’ sake, there should have been a panel on Twitter all by itself. Furthermore, where were the discussions about devised work and transmedia storytelling, just to name two hot creative growth areas? I think we could have done with a few more sessions on the cutting edge and one or two fewer on what seemed like dated New Age-flavored inspiration, though maybe that’s just me.
In some ways, the conference came off somewhat like the Dramatists Guild itself: a bit too conservative and old-fashioned for its own good at times. That may explain why — while the conference seemed to be jam-packed with relatively unknown (and lesser-known) playwrights — there were so very few hot mid-career playwrights in attendance. The speaker list was full of elite stalwarts, but where were Molly Smith Metzler and Jordan Harrison and A. Rey Pamatmat, just to name three younger-but-very-successful playwrights with whom I recently spoke? Where were Young Jean Lee and Kristoffer Diaz and Mike Daisey? I would very much have appreciated a chance to have heard from a greater diversity of voices. (For the record, I hope like heck that the reason they weren’t there isn’t that they aren’t Guild members. We need everyone.)
Those few criticisms aside, however, I really have to say: the conference was a smash hit. The sessions were generally either entertaining or informative or inspiring, the food was far better than anyone could have expected, and the esprit de corps was high. I suspect I’m not the only playwright who left George Mason University (which did a terrific job as host) feeling far less alone as a playwright and far more energized than terrified (though surely some of both) by the changes in our field. If for nothing else than that, the Dramatists Guild done good. And this was only the first time around: I have no doubt they’re going to get better.
I spent at least two-thirds of the conference in informal huddles with several of my fellow DC playwrights: Renee Calarco, Ally Currin, Anu Yadav, Rebecca Gingrich-Jones, Caleen Jennings, and Patricia Wolf chief among them. We sat together during the roundtable discussion among DC artistic directors and dramaturgs and cheered on our local friends; we ate together at almost every meal; we debriefed and discussed what we experienced in sessions; we introduced each other around; and it all felt great. My hope is that next year — and I sincerely hope there is a next year, no matter where the conference is held — there are more of us in attendance. Between now and then, however, let’s seize the moment, as David Dower has suggested, and begin reshaping our corner of the theatrical world. Let’s have new stories to tell the next time we get together. That would be grand.