In an ongoing series of posts, I’m examining the current state of affairs for those of us writing and making new plays in the DC metropolitan area. The series began with a look at what I call the audience problem, and it will continue throughout the next few weeks. Today’s subject:
A Lack of Civic Pride
True lovers of the performing arts know that, as much as it’s consoling to feel the powerful resonances of old works, the true measure of a nation’s artistic vitality is what the art-makers are creating right now.
I love this quote so very much — naturally, because it places those of us making new plays where of course we belong: in the most important position within the theatrical ecosystem. (Note my tongue in my cheek, please. Or at least mostly in my cheek.) While the central importance of new play makers might be true in theory, however, in practice we’re often (though perhaps less so of late) relegated to the fringes of the ecosystem. (The Fringe Festivals, even.) Even though the whole enterprise of theater (I think it’s safe to say) would sputter and come to a sad end within a decade or so if there were nobody making new plays, we still don’t seem to matter in people’s minds as much as I think we should. Not in general, and not (especially) in DC.
But how do we articulate why we think we deserve that position of prominence… or least more attention than we currently get? What arguments do we make? I’ve asserted that new stories invigorate the minds our citizens, that they de-calcify rigid beliefs that might be holding us back in one way or another, and I think those things are true. I think new plays can be an important part of how our culture imagines new possibilities for itself as well… which, despite those who treasure the status quo, it does still need to do. But that line of reasoning, I’ve been forced to admit, is a bit too nebulous to convince people. We need something simpler. I’m starting to think that what we need, more than anything, is a campaign for civic pride.
There’s a well-known quote that’s attributed (I believe incorrectly) to Winston Churchill. During World War II, he was supposedly asked by his finance minister whether Britain should cut funding for the arts to support the war effort. Churchill’s apocryphal reply? “Then what are we fighting for?” I don’t know whether the story is true or not, but I certainly wish it was. I wish Americans held theater so close to their hearts that they’d protect arts funding against all comers. For a lot of reasons, however, that’s probably not realistic.
But why can’t we at least just be proud of all the art we create? Why can’t a new play, made here in DC by DC artists, be something to show off? Why isn’t every artistic director in this city producing, say, one play by a local playwright every two or three years (at least), just to say “Look at what we did!” to the rest of the country? (I’ll give the Shakespeare Theater every seven years.) I can only speculate that some (but not all, of course) of our city’s artistic directors think of themselves (even subconsciously) as collectors rather than creators. They’d rather shout “Look at what I found,” in other words, than “Look at what we made.” They gather plays from all over the country and put them in their theaters like paintings in museums. Don’t they have some obligation to create plays for other artistic directors in other cities to collect?
I’m not saying — please note — that DC’s artistic directors don’t have plenty to be proud of. I just wish they’d think of themselves differently: perhaps as venture capitalists, willing to invest in new work (which is, one must admit, always a bit speculative) in the hope of having something amazing to share with the world. And investment doesn’t have to mean production, of course. It could also mean commissioning and workshopping new plays, like Theater J just did with its Locally Grown Festival. It could mean inviting playwrights to join special projects, like Forum Theatre’s (Re)Acts program or Rorschach Theatre’s Klecksography productions. It could mean telling one or two playwrights every season that they can have comps to any show they’d like to see. It could mean putting together a reading of a promising playwright’s work. And yes, it could also mean offering a playwright a full-time job like Arena Stage. There are innumerable options.
I’d like to see a future in this city in which theater companies boast about how much help they give playwrights. In which they subtly compete with each other, comparing the new work they develop and send out into the world. That would be a very fine future indeed.
Next post: Making Space