Wednesday, September 10, 2014
By Laura Brueckner
It took a while for the room to settle down—the room in question being the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater at Emerson College in Boston, where HowlRound and ArtsEmerson were hosting a convening of the National Playwright Residency Program cohort this past Sunday and Monday. We'd gathered—playwrights, theatre leaders and foundation officers, plus documenters like me—to discuss a range of issues and discoveries arising from the first half of a pretty grand experiment.
The experiment, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was this: to place 14 playwrights in paid, three-year residencies at theatre companies across the country. Most of the particulars of these residencies would be left up to the writers and companies to decide. Then everyone would, basically, watch what happened.
The idea to test out a residency program on a national scale came in the wake of Todd London's book, Outrageous Fortune, which exposed widespread dysfunction and even anger in the relations between American theatre companies—especially those with salaried, full-time staff—and playwrights, forced to shop their plays around to anyone and everyone, often landing only low- or unpaid staged readings and workshops for years (if that), while juggling several part-time gigs that may barely pay the rent (don't even ask about health insurance). Of course, this leaves little time, energy or mindshare for the actual writing of the new plays that could be stretching, enriching and transforming the American theatre.
The National Playwright Residency Program was conceived as an intervention in this situation. The Mellon Foundation would give each resident playwright a salary scaled to that of the theatre company's leadership, plus health insurance, for three years; each theatre company, for its part, would receive a new full-time resident playwright/staff member for the length of the program. To administer the experiment and track the results, Mellon engaged HowlRound and ArtsEmerson to host the necessary meetings and convenings and oversee the research published by the "commons producers," a group of theatre professionals (including me) retained to document the residency experiment through interviews, articles and video projects.
So the excitement in the room on Sunday was understandable. For the first time since the program kicked off in spring of 2013, all of the resident playwrights—heavy hitters like Luis Alfaro (in residence at Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Marcus Gardley (Victory Gardens, Chicago), Aditi Kapil (Mixed Blood in Minneapolis), Dan Le Franc (Playwrights Horizons, NYC), Will Power (Dallas Theater Center) and San Francisco resident playwrights Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Z Space) and Andrew Saito (Cutting Ball)—were gathered together, along with leaders from their residency theatres, to share experiences and ideas with one another. (See full list of resident playwrights.) It was a delight to get to know so many longtime and new creative heroes.
As I mentioned, it took a while for Polly Carl (HowlRound director and editor) and David Dower (ArtsEmerson director of artistic programs) to settle everyone down, but once they did, they gave us a huge treat: Todd London delivering the keynote address on Skype from his new office at University of Washington:
Part philosophical exploration, part call to action, London's talk laid down in no uncertain terms what we were actually there to do: change the world. Watch the whole thing and you'll see what I mean.
The two days' worth of conversations that followed were thrilling, hard work. Topics ranged from the highly charged question of what exactly a "resident playwright" was obligated to do for the residency theatre to mundane but important logistics around documentation.
Each residency team also reported on how the residency had progressed:
We also held targeted breakout discussions (one divided by residency role and one by theatre size), as well as "listening circles" where each group (writers, theatre staff and commons producers) talked among themselves while the rest of the cohort listened. Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose attended several sessions via Skype. Mellon Foundation program officer Susan Feder and senior program associate Katie Steger also sat in on some of the discussions, all of which were marked by animated engagement and refreshing candor. And, best of all, some playwrights—including Nachtrieb and Saito—shared scenes from their new plays.
By the time the convening wrapped on Monday afternoon, I was exhausted, and looking at the faces of other attendees confirmed that I wasn't alone in that. However, I was also hopeful about the knowledge that this committed group of theatre workers would ultimately be able to share with the field as a result of this grand experiment.
Laura Brueckner is digital content manager for Theatre Bay Area. She is also director of new work for Crowded Fire Theater, a HowlRound commons producer for the National Playwright Residency Program, and a Ph.D. candidate in dramaturgy at UC San Diego.