Capitalism and theatre are strange bedfellows. Actually prospering from your work as an actor, dramaturg, director or playwright has never been particularly easy. The reasons why are hardly a mystery—there’s a surplus of talent and not enough financial resources. But, historically speaking at least, finding an artistic family or a professional home has not been so hard—even if the money wasn’t always plentiful. Ancient Greek writers had the Theatre of Dionysus; Shakespeare had the Globe; Molière had the Comédie-Française.
In the U.S., playwright/theatre marriages were a felicitous side effect of the regional theatre movement that picked up steam in the ’60s. Sam Shepard set up shop at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, Tony Kushner was installed at the same city’s Eureka Theatre and Lanford Wilson co-founded and wrote for the Circle Repertory Company in New York City. Many playwrights had informal but vital affiliations with theatres that produced their work. Playwrights weren’t necessarily on staff at these theatres, and the economic relationship between artist and institution varied widely. Nevertheless, any number of theatres had strong associations with local artists, who in turn were part of the life blood of that institution. Typically the artists, whether they were actors, directors or playwrights, lived in the community where the work was happening.
So when did things get so out of whack?
Theatremakers and enthusiasts would have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the abundance of commentary in recent years contending, in no uncertain terms, that artists need to be more fully integrated into regional institutions. These dialogues, debates and diatribes have unfolded in casual settings, but also formally—at TCG national convenings, and in documents like David Dower’s 2007 report for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “The Gates of Opportunity,” which surveyed the infrastructure of new-play development in 15 communities, or, even more tellingly, Todd London’s 2009 book Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play.
Some artists, not surprisingly, have addressed their own alienation loud and clear. Mike Daisey’s 2008 monologue How Theater Failed America described his view of a broken system in which the people earning a living from theatre aren’t necessarily the artists but the administrators. Plucky scribes have taken matters into their own hands, forming temporary producing structures like 13P, which began in 2004 in NYC and imploded last year after accomplishing its task of producing 13 plays.
“This issue has been a matter of discussion for 30 years,” says London, who is artistic director of the playwright support and advocacy group New Dramatists. “But in the past 10 years or so we’ve been naming the problem, which is the inability of the theatre we’ve all created to meet the financial needs and expectations of its own artists.
“Historically, a playwright or a director or an acting company determined the voice of a theatre,” London allows, but as theatres began to grow and open up to more artists, it became harder to maintain a specific and authentic institutional voice. In many ways, as the national theatre movement grew, localism diminished. Though London’s book (co-written with Ben Pesner and published by Theatre Development Fund) looks mostly at playwrights being out of sync with theatres, he argues that “it stretches to the loss of acting companies and theatres being less distinguished by a single director.”
Polly Carl, director of the Center for Theater Commons at Boston’s Emerson College, agrees that artists of all disciplines struggle with the state of the field, but says the studies have indicated “playwrights in particular were left out of the institution and the not-for-profit setting.” Like Dower, Carl has been in talks with the Mellon Foundation for years, dating back to her leadership of Minneapolis’s Playwrights’ Center, about how best to support playwrights. Meanwhile, ideas percolated in a series of “Field Conversations” and a 2011 “State of the Artists” survey spearheaded by TCG and funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
All these conversations and studies have resulted in some changes—among them, the advent in 2009 of Arena Stage of D.C.’s American Voices New Play Institute (which Carl and Dower ran before moving to the newly created Center for Theater Commons), as well as a “master writer chair” established at New York City’s Public Theater in 2008. But an even bigger playwright-centric effort is afoot. At the start of this year, 14 different theatres in 11 cities across the U.S. announced they would benefit from a new $3.7-million playwrights-in-residence program funded by Mellon. Fourteen playwrights will receive salaries and health benefits for three years as staff members of these theatres. (See sidebar, page 35, for a full list of grantees.)
Money has also been allotted for freelancers to report on the residencies via HowlRound.com’s platforms (managed by Carl and her team) and social media. The program is ambitious in its breadth and scope and feels, to some experienced observers, like the dawn of a new age. While many of the people I spoke with proclaimed that the program is a new model, it is in fact a rather old concept—reinvigorated with a considerable injection of funding.
Residencies are not the only way theatres build ongoing relationships with playwrights, of course, but a number of companies have been successfully bucking the trend of playwright disassociation by fashioning their own variations on the playwright-in-residence model. Many of these efforts have been supported over the past few decades by TCG and the Pew Charitable Trust’s National Theatre Artist Residency Program (which assisted no fewer than 135 artists and 99 theatres between 1991 and 2005 with grants totaling $10 million); by the similarly expansive NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights; and even, in an indirect way, by the Duke Foundation’s game-changing 2011 initiative of major, virtually unrestricted cash grants to individual artists (which benefitted musicians and dancers as well as theatre folk).
James Still, who has been the playwright-in-residence at Indiana Repertory Theatre for the past 15 years, is a case in point. His arrangement with IRT, which was launched via a grant from Pew/TCG’s NTARP, is a curious one. As artistic director Janet Allen puts it, Still is “dramaturging the institution.” He does not technically reside in Indianapolis, though he visits at least once a month. IRT produces Still frequently, but does not hold a “Still slot” in its annual programming. (For more, see Eric R. Pfeffinger’s “Staying Power,” Oct. ’08.)
Salt Lake Acting Company in Utah has been quietly collecting resident playwrights since 1997, when the theatre received funding from the NEA/TCG’s TRRP to support Al Brown’s One Last Dance. “It was a wonderful and meaningful gift that made us realize the importance of having a writer in residence at SLAC,” according to Keven Myhre and Cynthia Fleming, executive producers of the theatre, which has gone on to utilize funding from both TCG-sponsored residency programs as well as project-based grants from the Edgerton Foundation to host playwrights Julie Jensen, J.T. Rogers and Kathleen Cahill. The SLAC residency, which (apart from grant awards) is not a paid position, has no pre-determined time frame. Myhre and Fleming point out that the company acts as a resource for playwright development, workshops and in-house readings, such as SLAC’s New Play Sounding Series.
A loosely structured approach also works for Pittsburgh Public Theater’s relationship with Rob Zellers, who doubles as the theatre’s education director and unofficial resident playwright. (Zeller co-wrote The Chief, which, according to communications manager Margie Romero, is the most successful play in the theatre’s history and has been produced there eight times.)
Survey the national scene, in fact, and you’ll spot a number of smaller companies who host resident dramatists with varying degrees of formality. The D.C. area’s Wanderlust Theater Lab, which is producing a trilogy of Tom Block’s plays, is an example. Though Block does not receive a stipend, he finds the residency satisfying, “not only from the point of view of learning about theatre and all of its constituent parts, but also due to the ongoing relationship with the literary manager and director of the play.” Red Tape Theatre, a nine-year-old Chicago company, has just transformed its Fresh Eyes Project, which has workshopped 17 plays in its six-year history, into a six-month residency newly occupied by writer Brooke Allen.
It is essential to acknowledge that the resident-playwright tradition has also been regularly carried on by a number of smaller artist-led ensembles. “Everyone is hot to find out more about devised work,” London huffs good-humoredly. “But most of these so-called ‘devising’ ensembles are more like ensembles with artists embedded at every level.” Austin’s Rude Mechanicals and NYC’s Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company are examples of ensembles in which a group of actors work in close alignment with a playwright—Kirk Lynn and Lee, respectively. (To read more about regional theatres supporting ensembles, see Steven Leigh Morris’s companion article, page 24.)
Yet another piece of the residency pie is supplied by the National New Play Network, which matches playwrights to host theatres. NNPN is currently supporting pairings between J.C. Lee and California’s Marin Theatre Company; Martyna Majok and New Jersey Repertory Company; and A. Zell Williams and Pennsylvania’s InterAct Theatre Company. (For more on NNPN, see Celia Wren’s “Rolling with the New-Play Surge,” Oct. ’12.)
Some of the nation’s largest theatre institutions have found their own ways to keep artists at the center of their enterprise. Since 2003, for example, Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company has hosted playwriting “fellows” whose two-year residencies involve a modest grant and a biweekly writers’ collective.
Last August the Goodman announced director Henry Wishcamper and playwright Seth Bockley as the latest additions to the artistic team. Bockley, as playwright-in-residence, will work with the Goodman for the next two years. According to Goodman’s director of new-play development, Tanya Palmer, Bockley’s residency grew out of a pre-existing relationship he had with the theatre. “It’s not tied to any specific funding,” says Palmer. “Nor is it something that will necessarily continue after his tenure.” Still, it’s part of the Goodman’s larger commitment to artist involvement. For Bockley, the newly named relationship feels like a commission with a twist. “After two years of coming into the Goodman for readings or meetings, I now have a desk of my own and a little ID card.” For Bockley, that ID is crucial. “To have a commission is to be working under contract for a short time. To have a residency is to have an identity.”Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has maintained a whole cadre of artists at its core over many years. Artistic director Robert Falls draws leadership inspiration from England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and Scotland’s Citizens Theatre, companies where, Falls believes, “instead of the ‘single ego’ artistic director structure, there is a collaborative vision aimed at one goal.” Falls, for his part, implemented an “artistic collective” when he began as artistic director at the Goodman in 1986. Today that collective includes such artists as Brian Dennehy, Rebecca Gilman, Henry Godinez, Steve Scott, Chuck Smith, Regina Taylor and Mary Zimmerman. As with many programs covered in this article, a loose arrangement offers welcome flexibility. “There is no one set of responsibilities for an artistic associate,” says Falls. “But they are key to season planning and they play a critical role in engaging with our audience as advocates for the theatre.”
If residency equals identity, then New York City’s Signature Theatre may be the DMV of theatre IDs. Founded in 1991 by James Houghton, the theatre has always devoted entire seasons to the work of one playwright—and, when it moved into a larger home last year, it expanded that mandate to a whole batch of playwrights. The inaugural class of the theatre’s new Residency Five, announced in 2011, included art stars Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan and Regina Taylor, recipients of $50,000 over the course of five years plus a stipend for theatre viewing, health care and three guaranteed productions at the Signature. (Funding is provided in part by New York City’s Theatre Subdistrict Council.) The playwrights also have access to a shared office. “It’s nice and big and has a window and door,” volunteers literary director Christie Evangelisto, whose own office is adjacent.
“I feel like the normal programming model involves choosing which play goes into which slot,” she says. “We don’t look at it that way. We look at writers and their whole body of work. It’s one of the only ways to get to know what a writer does because the audience gets to see a play in the context of a writer’s other plays. I don’t know why more theatres don’t use this model!”
In January of this year the Signature announced its newest members of Residency Five—Martha Clarke and Branden Jacob-Jenkins. So far Evangelisto does not foresee any major changes to the program. “It seems to be working. We’re only in the second year but growing this program has always been something that Jim wanted to do.” (For more on Houghton’s vision, see Carol Rocamora’s “Loving One Great Writer a Time,” Sept. ’10.) Writers aren’t the only beneficiaries—Signature’s staff is enthusiastic, too, at being in open communication with the artists down the hall.
Mandy Hackett enjoys the same thrill when she goes to work as associate artistic director at NYC’s Public Theater and encounters Suzan-Lori Parks, the first inhabitant of the Public’s master writer chair. Says Hackett, “It’s a great feeling to get off the elevator and hear her clacking away on an actual typewriter!”
The impetus for bringing Parks to the Public in a sustained way—in 2008 for a three-year Mellon-funded residency, which has been extended through the present day—started with artistic director Oskar Eustis, who had spent a lot of time at Brown University and was “interested in having a theatre mirror what a university can do for a tenured professor,” Hackett explains. For the Public, the goal of putting a playwright on staff was to provide that person with as much economic stability as possible. Parks gets a full-time salary and full health care benefits. (In addition to her work at the Public, she teaches at New York University, where Eustis is a faculty member. )
There is no stipulation in terms of the amount of productions Parks’s residency will yield—having installed her within the theatre’s ecology, “we didn’t feel like we needed to lock in specific guidelines. It’s a very pure vision,” says Hackett. Part of the vision was to provide Parks with an assistant within the literary office, which “frees up a lot of Suzan-Lori’s time to write and focus on bigger artistic goals.” Since Parks has held the master writer position, the Public has produced her Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 8 & 9) (2009) and The Book of Grace (2010), as well as an ongoing series called “Watch Me Work,” wherein the public is invited to the theatre’s lobby to do just that. Hackett and her team are hopeful they can endow the position and expand it to include multiple writers.
More defined, but with equally expansive goals, is Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute, which began in July 2009 and grew in 2011 with Mellon support. “We created the American Voices New Play Institute with a focus on research and development of effective practices, programs and processes for new-play development,” Arena artistic director Molly Smith says. The first resident playwrights to be appointed for three-year stints were Amy Freed, Lisa Kron, Charles Randolph-Wright, Karen Zacarías and Katori Hall. (Hall completed her residency in December 2012 and Samuel D. Hunter came on in 2013 for a yearlong residency.) Playwrights receive a full array of support: a full-time salary, health benefits, housing, work space, access to Arena Stage meetings, meetings with dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke and an annual budget of $15,000 to cover artist fees and development expenses.
For Zacarías, the only D.C.–based resident, the program has been a boon to her career not only with respect to Arena Stage but in her relationships with other theatres. The residency has supported projects like a workshop of Just Like Us at Denver Center Theatre Company and productions of The Book Club Play at Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the latter which Zacarías reworked while in residence at Arena. Smith explains, “Resident writers are encouraged to work on new projects or revisit work they believe to be unfinished.” She puts equal importance on producing the residents’ plays at Arena and on fostering productions at theatres across the country.
Like any pioneer, Zacarías has sometimes felt “a little lost in the wilderness” during her time as an Arena guinea pig, but she also bubbles over with enthusiasm: “To have refined an American comedy, a Mexican drama, begun a viable adaptation of a Pulizer-winning book by a female author and written a piece that might trigger a thoughtful debate about immigration—plus a Latino-themed musical and two works for young people—I hope this can be considered a solid return on a less-risky-than-you-think investment.”
The Mellon 14
Fourteen playwrights have received grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will support three-year residencies, complete with salaries and health benefits, at theatres across the country:
David Adjmi, Soho Repertory Theatre (New York City)
Luis Alfaro, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, Ore.)
Pearl Cleage, Alliance Theatre (Atlanta)
Marcus Gardley, Victory Gardens Theater (Chicago)
Dan LeFranc, Playwrights Horizons (New York City)
Nathan Louis Jackson, Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Missouri)
Melinda Lopez, Huntington Theatre Company (Boston)
Julie Marie Myatt, South Coast Repertory (Costa Mesa, Calif.)
Robert O’Hara, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, D.C.)
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Z Space (San Francisco)
Qui Nguyen, Mixed Blood Theatre Company (Minneapolis)
Kira Obolensky, Ten Thousand Things (Minneapolis)
Will Power, Dallas Theater Center
Andrew Saito, Cutting Ball Theater (San Francisco)
Fourteen theatres and as many playwrights are now poised to generate their own artistic returns on Mellon’s investment of nearly $4 million. Approximately 40 theatres were invited to apply for funding to work with playwrights of their choosing, with the stipulation that the writers either live in the community where the theatre is or move to it. “That requirement came out of Arena’s program, where Karen Zacarías was the only local playwright. She has had the most impact because she was part of that community,” surmises Polly Carl.
Another key aspect to the residencies, according to Carl, was that there were “no new marriages.” As David Adjmi, the newly minted playwright-in-residence at NYC’s Soho Rep, puts it, “The residencies are really designed to formalize and give concrete support to—and deepen—relationships that already exist between artists and theatres.”
Take Ten Thousand Things Theater Company in Minneapolis, which, thanks to the Mellon program, will host Kira Obolensky. Obolensky had previously worked with the theatre on Raskol, a musical retelling of Crime and Punishment. The genesis for that project was a national competition run by Ten Thousand Things five years ago that Obolensky won. “She lived 12 blocks away from me!” artistic director Michelle Hensley recalls. Though the two hadn’t known each other previously, they hit it off: “We have similar curiosities and laugh very hard at the same things.” In May 2012, TTT produced another Obolensky show, Vasa Lisa. One imagines the artistic pairing will continue to be fruitful, and not just on stage. When Obolensky had been on staff for just two weeks, the playwright had already begun designing a webpage for audiences to explore after they have seen a play. “We both hate educational pre-show material,” Hensley declares.
One notable aspect of such residencies is the variety of planned projects. Obolensky, for example, will work on three new plays and edit a book that Hensley has been assembling, drawing on the company’s 20-plus years of work. Echoing the Ten Thousand Things core philosophy that “everyone is in the audience,” Obolensky wonders, “What if I could write a play for right-wing Republicans and for raging liberals that could help stimulate some kind of civil conversation? How would that work?”
Nathan Louis Jackson, who will be the Mellon-supported resident playwright at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, also has far-reaching goals. “As a graduate of Kansas City public schools, which have a historically underserved and predominantly minority student population, Nathan wants to develop a creative writing program that focuses on students in the urban core,” says artistic director Eric Rosen. Jackson is keen on giving youth a voice through playwriting and hopes the program will inspire kids to perform in each other’s work. He also looks forward to weighing in on putting together the season. “Playwrights know other playwrights,” Jackson says. “I have several friends whose work I admire and appreciate that haven’t been produced, or produced enough.”
Andrew Saito, in residence at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, will be “dramaturging shows, helping with season selection, and will help in guiding the mission of the theatre,” says artistic director Rob Melrose. Melrose is especially excited about Saito’s hope to broaden Cutting Ball’s exploration of classics beyond the Western canon. “Andrew has connections and experiences all over the world, especially in Central and South America and South Asia,” notes Melrose, who adds that Saito aims to complete two new commissions, two or three world premiere productions and two new translations while in residence. That’s a lot to look forward to—but consider what Saito says regarding his compensation: “Compared with what I’ve earned in the past, the Mellon grant is a huge windfall.”
“I’ve been given an entire playground, not just a single play, to explore my impulses these next three years, and that’s nothing short of complete amazeballs,” enthuses Qui Nguyen, the new Mellon-funded playwright-in-residence at Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre. And Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, new resident playwright at San Francisco’s Z Space, puts it like this: “A commission is an investment in your product, but this feels more like an investment in me.”
Nachtrieb is already dreaming of the projects to come out of this partnership. “I will certainly work on some sort of traditional play,” he says, but he also anticipates trying out some new styles. “Perhaps a show that is walked through or site-specific? Or a solo show, God forbid,” he jokes. “One of the bonuses of the grant is the freedom to not have every project be something that’s reproducible on multiple stages. I can creatively attack a project in a less ‘regional theatrey’ way.”
“Having Peter on staff, thinking as a playwright, shifts the thinking of the organization as a whole to focus on the work and the artistic process of creating that work,” says Lisa Steindler, Z Space’s executive artistic director. Steindler regards these residencies as a sea change that will “result in playwrights running organizations more, instead of directors and producers.”
Not everyone is so hopeful or enthusiastic. After the 14 Mellon-funded playwrights were announced, the Dallas Observer’s theatre critic, Elaine Liner, wrote an article titled: “Why Couldn’t the Dallas Theater Center’s New House Playwright Be Someone from Dallas?” Liner’s headline just about sums up her beef over the fact that Will Power—a recent transplant to Dallas following his 2011–12 Meadows Prize residency at the city’s Southern Methodist University—was chosen over a deserving Texan scribe. “I could list a dozen,” she laments.
Mixed Blood’s Nguyen, who used to live in New York City but has relocated with his family to Minneapolis, takes a more lighthearted approach. “A commission feels like a one-night stand, whereas this is like two people boldly moving in together after scanning each other’s Match.com profile.” (Nguyen’s work has been read in the Twin Cities but not yet produced there.) All kidding aside, Nguyen confides, “I’m U-Hauling my life into their living rooms and cramming my comic book collections onto their bookshelves. This residency makes Mixed Blood far more than a theatre that’s gonna produce my work; it makes Mixed Blood my new home.”
Arena Stage’s program has also drawn criticism for a different reason: not generating enough productions by resident playwrights. Polly Carl believes these attacks stem from a misaligned sense of success. “We have equated happiness and success with getting one’s play on the stage!” she exclaims, before adding, “Of course playwrights need productions. Absolutely.” But she emphasizes for her, and others designing and running new residency programs, “We’re after something deeper. What is the long-term relationship between an artist and an institution, and how do we look at the cultural life of a community? That’s a bigger question than just getting two new plays onstage. Our hope is that in this new iteration, writers will impact the communities they live in, which will result in more interesting work where theatre matters more.”
London takes a similar view: “On a superficial level, having a resident playwright may seem like a great investment from an economic perspective. But from a human point of view it’s a major and vital investment.”
Hackett, at the Public, concurs. “Sometimes larger not-for-profit theatres can feel institutional and bureaucratic,” she admits. “It can become easy for a staff to feel isolated from the work itself. When employees have a personal connection to an artist on staff it’s a reaffirmation of what we are doing and how our work is directly supporting the mission of the theatre.”
For Cutting Ball’s Melrose, the playwright residencies aren’t a new concept. “In fact, it is probably one of the oldest and most successful ways of developing great writers,” he says. “We just need to be reminded of that every now and then.”
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!