It hasn’t been long since we all learned that major components of the American Voices New Play Institute were leaving Arena Stage — and DC — for Emerson College in Boston. At the time, as I recall, there was more than a little concern about what the change might mean for the new play sector in our city. Some focused on the loss of David Dower, Polly Carl, Vijay Mathew, and Jamie Gahlon, all of whom have made our city richer for their presence in it. Others were worried about the loss of the programs they’re taking with them, from the New Play Map to NewPlay TV to HowlRound, although (to be fair) those are virtual endeavors that don’t actually “live” in DC. Still others lamented that DC was losing something vague and undefinable: a kind of “new play luster” associated with all of those people and projects put together.
All of that may come to pass — as I write this blog post, no one and nothing has left town yet — but I expect we’ll find that our fears, while natural, are unfounded. Those of us committed to making new plays in DC will continue to be enriched by their presence in our lives, though perhaps a bit more virtually than before… and we’ll still be facing the same challenges we’re facing right now.
What are those challenges? What is the state of the new play sector in DC? What opportunities and assets do we have? What’s it like to tell new stories in our nation’s capital? How do we start to think about moving the city forward? These are questions with which I have become thoroughly obsessed. I have decided to make it my own personal mission to coax this city in a new direction — to help build capacity and interest and excitement around new plays — and if that’s what I plan to do, I thought, then I really ought to start by taking a snapshot of where things stand today.
The subject is far too big, in my mind, for a single post, so here’s my plan. For the next few posts — this one and two others — I’m going to focus on the three biggest things I believe we need to overcome. (And they are big.) Then I’m going to look at all the things we’ve got going for us… and there’s more, I think, than we realize. Abundance is real: we just need to notice it.
So, with no further preamble… the first challenge:
The Audience Problem
Recently, when I was leading a panel discussion at Theater J about the State of the DC Playwright (yes, the “state” meme seems to have gotten the best of me), I asked the following question:
In DC, audiences have grown absolutely fat on Shakespeare, chestnuts, American classics, and Shear Madness. Most of the “new” work in the city has already had productions elsewhere, particularly New York, which means it arrives here with a road-tested seal of approval. The goal seems to be to minimize the sense of risk associated with going to the theater. “This is a good product, a known quantity,” we seem to be telling our audiences. “You have nothing to fear.” So how on earth do we begin transforming audience expectations, after decades and decades of messages like that, most of them subtle and insidious? How do we start to develop an atmosphere that’s welcoming to new plays?
To be honest, I was shocked by how little my fellow playwrights responded to my question. I consider this the single most insidious factor against which we are working in DC. Of the two million (or is it 1.2 million?) theater tickets sold last year here in the metropolitan area, only a small percentage were for plays having their first productions. The percentage gets larger if you consider plays that are new to the DC area, but that’s missing the point: those productions come with reputations attached to them. They’re like snowballs rolled downhill at DC from elsewhere (typically New York), having already accumulated size and expectations. As a playwright, that does me no good, unless of course my plays get produced elsewhere first and return home to DC, like an Amish teen after rumspringa, to be welcomed back into the family. If I had to guess — and I do, because I don’t have the data I wish I had — I’d say no more than 70,000 tickets (including SOME of the 30,000-ish sold by the Capital Fringe Festival) sold last year were for brand new plays. That’s not, if you ask me, nearly enough.
(Too many similes in that paragraph. I apologize. I get myself worked up about this.)
But it’s not about the numbers. It’s about what’s behind the numbers: a city of people who expect familiarity from theater. Who go to see productions of plays they’ve already seen or that others have already seen and told them about or that they’ve “heard” are good from reviews of productions in other cities or the titles of which they recognize from the American canon. What, I wonder, do stories that meet one or more of those criteria have in common? I suspect that what they share, in large measure, is an inability to surprise us and disrupt our lives and cause turmoil, either emotional or intellectual or (goodness forbid) political. I’m not saying this is true of everything we see on our stages, mind you… but almost.
Is it really that surprising? Think of where we live — or, rather, think of the psychological profiles of the people who buy those two million theater tickets, many of whom toil either inside or in the shadow of the immense hierarchical bureaucracy of the United States government. These are (largely) people who either implicitly or explicitly endorse the stability of that enterprise, or who at least consider it a given circumstance. They may not be looking for disruption, at least not overtly, in their visits to the theater.
On the other hand, I sincerely believe that in all of us there exists a desire for revolution of one kind or another, a desire that does need to be kindled from time to time, and periodically stoked into full flame. Are we taking care of that need with the stories we’re telling here in DC? Barely, I believe. Insufficiently. I think we need to get better at it. We need to choose stories for that part of the human soul much more often than we do. We need to learn how to market those stories to people, too. We need to expand this city’s understanding of what going to the theater can be: not only familiarity, but discovery; not only comfort, but a healthy rattling of the cages.
Hell, to whatever extent our work can refresh and reinvigorate the minds of the people who make up our government, we owe it to the rest of the country to be trying like mad to do so right now.
Next post: A Lack of Civic Pride