I was sitting in on a meeting a few days ago trying to brainstorm how to better support and create functional infrastructure around new play development, and it got me thinking. #newplay and Outrageous Fortune have cracked open a national conversation that is now being carried forward by the people at 2amtheatre and Howlround and others, and yet I often hear angst from both producers and writers that generally take the shape of an exasperated person, eyes rolled up and to the right, hands sometimes halfheartedly thrown out to the sides, saying “Enough talking already. Who is actually going to do something about this?”
The meeting I was sitting in on spent much of its time preoccupied with Arena Stage’s residency program for playwrights, which (as I understand it) provides a multi-year salary plus a commission for a play, guaranteed production of that play at Arena sight unseen (something that is almost unheard of) an apartment that the playwrights can rotate through as their work is table read and workshopped and so on. It’s my understanding that it integrates the playwright more fully into the ongoing process, and not just within the artistic staff. We were talking about this effort in part because it seems both so ideal and so out of reach to most organizations. Arena’s program is backed by over a million dollars in funding, and no one around the table was frustrated that it should have gotten that funding–and indeed the general consensus seemed to be that Arena’s program was both praiseworthy and worth trying to replicate however possible.
And yet, it seemed very much like a highrise in a city where most people live in duplexes. And I, at least, kept getting this slight sinking feeling around this question: “Does it really take this much effort to make living as a playwright a doable enterprise? If it does, where does that leave us?”
In a world where Tony Kushner writes movies to support his playwriting because the plays alone don’t bring in enough money for him, how can either a young, not-yet-known or, on the other side of the equation, a smaller-than-Arena (which is not to say just the small ones) theatre company–how can either of those entities legitimately home to maintain an equitable, affordable, functional balance?
I was listening to a story on NPR about this concept for medical care called “centering.” I don’t really know how it works into this thought thread, but it keeps floating up to my top of mind as I write. Basically, centering involves a medical facility partnering a circle of women who are all in the same stage of pregnancy, and facilitating meetings for those women throughout their gestation. The women, over time, learn to become more self-sufficient in the medical space, helping each other take their vital signs, getting the meeting to come to order, and then discussing how things are going. A medical professional sits in the room, but shifts out of the usual role of advisor into something closer to a moderator and listener, and allows the collective wisdom of a bunch of women all going through the same process to take over. In the words of one of the doctors who facilitates this type of work, “The big challenge is to be quiet, because the minute you answer the question you don’t know the group wisdom.”
I think this centering concept resonates with this larger conversation for me because it relies on the small, the simple, the innate human interaction as the core of an effort to improve the lives of a particular common group. Lessons learned from centering sessions have changed the way that some of these doctors advise their patients, have allowed out-of-the-box thinking to seep into what is otherwise a very proscriptive environment with a very stringent list of tasks to be completed on the way to birth, and so forth.
Of course, the financial support Arena provides is vital, and amazing, and the program they have crafted is such a fascinating case study. But as with many funding programs (of all scales) it is temporary and focused (as it must be). It’s an amazing, amazing program, and it gets me thinking about what other, differently-situated arts organizations can do to mimic it’s mimickable parts and augment and add what they can, utilizing the strengths they already have.
Ben Cameron tells a story about mothers in Vietnam. Vietnam was experiencing widespread child malnutrition and some researchers were brought in to fix it. Rather than working top-down they went into the villages and found the healthiest looking children and asked their mothers what they had done differently. And it wasn’t about denying themselves food in favor of their children, it was about a little ingenuity and forethought – throw some little shrimp and other protein from the rice paddies into the soup, dig deep into it so that the child wasn’t just getting broth, and feed them fewer smaller meals throughout the day. Which, of course, to these women felt not like a heroic effort, but like the way it made sense to be.