Stirring the Pot – how do you support playwrights without having a million dollars?

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. 

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  1. David Dower says

    Hey, Clay-

    Thanks for the h/t here on the residency program at Arena. A couple of points to make.

    First, the residencies don’t take a million dollars. They are part of the whole program of the New Play Institute, Including the convenings, the map, the livestreaming, and Howlround as well as other efforts aimed at advancing the #newplay infrastructure that is suported by that funding. Moreover, the money is supporting seven writers, five with salaries and healthcare and their own development dollars. So a theater wanting to provide a residency to a writer based on this model would be looking at something much, much less than the million you’re referencing. There’s a way, where there’s a will.

    Second, the resident writers on salary also have a commitment from us to produce at least one play during their three year term. It is not sight unseen, though, it will be a play Arena and the writers mutually agree two. The two writers not on salary have “project residencies” focused on a specific play and we have committed to producing those plays. All of this is about testing and developing the notion of residency and is based on work taking place in other theaters as well. Dozens of places have found the will and made the way.

    Your story about Vietnam and malnutrition is taken from a book called Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. It is the basis of our focus on bright spots in the #newplay work we do. Highly recommend it to anyone trying to effect change.

    • says

      I like your example of “centering.” I belong to several circles of playwrights — some more formal, like playwriting workshops, and some larger and looser, like list-serves and conferences. From every one of them, though, I have found support (and hopefully given support). We share submission opportunities, we share work, we commiserate and cheer each other on. We ask questions and receive advice.

      There are times when I long for a less cobbled-together life. (And health insurance.) But there are also a lot of times when I’m really, really grateful for this life, patchwork as it is, and the communities of playwrights and other theater-makers I belong to. I’ve been able to write a bunch of plays, and find them homes, and see them come to life. Which is exactly what I want to do with my life. (I feel lucky to *know* what I want to do with my life, let alone be able to do it.)

      New Dramatists seems like the ultimate example of “centering” for playwrights — helping them, but also helping them help each other over a span of time. Is there an example that could be taken from them? Not even in the residencies themselves, but in creating — in each theater town, large and small — a room in which people from all the theaters are welcome to come together for coffee and conversation, or just a place to rest and kvetch?

      I’m glad that the conversation about how to make this a workable profession is continuing! Thank you for the post.


  2. says

    David is quite right that it doesn’t cost a million to do this. There are new play programs across the country that all do it for much less. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which I recently joined, is starting a major initiative to commission, develop and produce new plays. Our annual budget for this will be a fraction of what you describe, and I think it will be ambitious compared to many others.

    Much of this involves large, mainstream theatres like Arena Stage, the Rep, and others recognizing their obligation to pursue such programming. It’s not necessarily that we have the money to spare, but we do have the heft in our communities to raise new money for it. It involves, among other things, explaining how the local community benefits from this national program being in your building. More theatres our size should be doing this than there are at present.