Create a playwrights collective that lasts for generations
Take on a new class of artists and embed them into the organization before passing it on
A rigorous application process and a year of overlap with Welders new and old
Rotating job responsibilities from show to show
Future generations of Welders and (they hope) a healthier artistic ecosystem
Some years ago, as the playwright collective 13P was on the brink of implosion and I was beginning to see the dim light at the end of graduate school’s tunnel, a few other playwrights and I decided we’d start a producing group of our own.
We sent an email and cast a wide net—too wide, in fact, as we assumed no one would actually show up—and held a meeting that I look back on with equal parts amusement and horror. There were too many people—we numbered 31 in all, I think—and too many ideas (good, bad, even a few fraudulent ones!). The task, which seemed simple enough at the start of the meeting, proved too complicated to name and too daunting to even begin. Our fledgling 31P, as it was jokingly called, never created a lopsided circle in anyone’s living room again.
But what if the idea wasn’t just to produce a series of shows, then implode, but rather to pass the organization on to other writers? A Washington, D.C.-based group, the Welders, began with an original cohort of six members in 2013; this year, as planned, those founders pass the torch to the next “class” of Welders.
“Our slogan was, ‘Three years, five plays, pass it on,’” says playwright Gwydion Suilebhan, an original Welder who works as director of brand and marketing for D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. “It’s the ‘pass it on’ that makes people sit up and take notice—it’s the ‘pass it on’ that resulted in three different foundations giving us grants we didn’t even have to ask for.” (These were Venturous Theater Fund, the Hollister-Clagett Family Foundation, and the Reva and David Logan Foundation.) For Suilebhan, going big on generosity has been the key to the Welders’ success. “‘Will you join me in supporting something I’ve taken four years to build and will give away?’ is better than, ‘Will you give me money for my play and my friends’ plays?’”
The original Welders started with very little, just a donation of $1,100, which bought them a brochure, a website, and a photographer. Over the years the group has accrued 501(c)(3) status, a board of directors, a $10,000 matching grant, eligibility for Helen Hayes Awards, and a fan base. All this, including the group’s logo, donor base, bank account, and nearly $10,000 from original Welders performances, will get passed on to the next group.
Initially the Welders thought they would select individual artists to take over their organization, but eventually they decided on encouraging groups of artists to apply en masse. “We wanted them to have the experience of writing an application together,” explains Suilebhan. The Welders narrowed it down to two groups and spent five hours with each, grilling them with questions about their vision, engaging in group exercises, picking brains, and then observing how the incoming group would create a marketing strategy.
“We ultimately chose the group that was a bit different from us,” says Suilebhan. For one thing, the inaugural Welders are mostly playwrights, but the next class includes a dramaturg, devisers, a designer, and a solo performer. “They all claim ‘playwright,’ but they are more artistically diverse than we were. They are also a lot younger,” says Suilebhan.
Six months to prepare an application led to a half dozen “beta” months of being a Welder in secret before the new class was officially announced. “The first six months they shadowed us, and then the last six months they joined our committees and chipped in and more actively trained,” says Suilebhan.
He expects that the new class of Welders (Brett Abelman, Annalisa Dias, Rachel Hynes, Ronee Penoi, Alexandra Petri, Hannah Hessel Ratner, Deb Sivigny, and Stephen Spotswood) will avoid some of the missteps his class made. Among them: swapping jobs.
“Initially there was some thought that we’d trade jobs from show to show,” says Suilebhan, “but the fact is, I’m a marketing director and I’m good at marketing, so I ended up doing that for all the shows except my own, when I was A.D. and also acting in my own piece.” Role-switching aside, Suilebhan confesses that had he known the work involved all around he might not have signed on at all. “I work full time at Woolly Mammoth, I’m a playwright, I have a son and a wife, and I work with NNPN—I might have been too intimidated.”
Youth is on the side of incoming Welder Ronee Penoi and her new cohort. Though she admits that she and her group aren’t starting from scratch, she points out, “We still need to make the organization our own, which takes drive, clarity, and buy-in.” In other words, there are still plenty of challenges.
Among those are big questions that Penoi and company are asking, such as, “How can Welders’ relationships with community members be stronger and more fruitful? How can we make the artistic work even more rigorous? Can we create efficiencies while not sacrificing quality?”
One of their biggest tasks, Penoi says, is to grow the Welders fan base. “We want to leave the third generation of Welders with a strong community of invested stakeholders that is invested more in the ideals of the group than in being part of the following of individual Welder playwrights,” says Penoi, who works as a touring producer for Theatre from the District. Welders 2.0 won’t reinvent the wheel, though: She says they’ll hew to the schedule of one production every six months, with each playwright or lead artist being their own artistic director for that period, in a model similar not only to 13P but also to Minneapolis’s now-defunct Workhaus Collective.
It all sounds a little rose-colored, and I, for one, am not entirely convinced that Suilebhan doesn’t harbor some small desire to stay on and reap the benefits of the organization he helped found and grow. But, he insists, “The measure of my success is handing it off and sitting in the audience at the next show without hardly having lifted a finger to make it happen.” And it’s not like the original Welders are abandoning ship; they’ll still be on hand as advisors and supporters. The work isn’t done.
“We made an anti-capitalist model,” he says. “The Welders is owned by the city of D.C., and the playwrights who have it for three years are merely its stewards. We are the temporary caretakers of a public good. I really wish more not-for-profit leaders would explicitly think in those terms as they plan seasons and make structural decisions about their companies.”
Penoi echoes Suilebhan, saying, “I hope that each future generation of Welders strives to leave it better than they found it.” She says she hopes future cohorts see involvement as not just an opportunity to have projects produced but also “a chance to collectively reimagine how theatre is brought into the world. We need empathy and powerful, positive narratives more than ever before, and it can be easy to feel like what we do doesn’t matter. The Welders assumes that theatre matters and asks the question: How can we do it better?”
Playwright/performer Eliza Bent is a former senior editor of this magazine.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.