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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2019

Giving A Platform To Playwrights: An Interview With Amy Mueller

Wednesday, June 19, 2019   (3 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Sam Hurwitt

The Bay Area Playwrights Festival has been a local institution since Robert Woodruff founded it in 1976. But since she took the helm in 2000, artistic director Amy Mueller has transformed Playwrights Foundation beyond the annual festival to an organization with year-round programs including producing partnerships, playwright residencies, and readings series. Playwrights whose careers Playwrights Foundation helped launch during that time include Marcus Gardley, Lauren Yee, Lauren Gunderson, Christopher Chen and many more. In April Mueller announced that she would be stepping down after this year’s festival, running July 19-28.

Amy Mueller. Photo courtesy Playwrights Foundation.

What made you feel like it was this was the time to move on?

I’ve really been thinking about it for a good five years. I’ve been thinking about moving on and allowing a new leader to bring in the next generation of playwrights, who I believe are going to be approaching playwriting very differently from the generations prior to them. I think theatre itself is going to transform. And I’ve been thinking about how Playwrights Foundation would address that shift, both in its taste and its ability to shift the way we support writers, because I think that’s going to be really necessary. I believe that playwrights are becoming the tellers of story for the 21st century and [addressing that shift] really requires a 21st century mindset.

How has the organization changed in your time here?

We accomplished what I set out to accomplish at Playwrights Foundation, moving it from an organization that just had the Bay Area Playwrights Festival and did not operate year round, did not have a staff—there was no office, we just had a mailbox—and transforming the scope of the organization to a full-fledged new play development center with year-round programming. And quadrupling the operating budget and moving the organization into the black and creating a studio and becoming really embedded in the community in a way that I felt we were not. When I first started at the Playwrights Festival, 25 people would show up. We didn’t really have much of an audience or donor base.

When Mame Hunt took it over she was the artistic director of the Magic, and it was small enough where she felt like it should be a program of Magic Theatre. And she had amazing taste, like Nilo Cruz, Erin Cressida Wilson, Naomi Iizuka, all these writers from that era of the ’90s, came through as they were just coming up. Because Magic Theatre produces new plays, it was a really great pipeline, and that’s how she handled it.

But eventually the board said, no, we want to be independent. We have our own 501(c)(3), we were always an independent organization. And there’s also this philosophical approach for those of us who call ourselves nonproducing play development centers. We really set ourselves apart from the producers to allow playwrights to be in the driver’s seat, to have agency and to have time when they’re not being required to write their plays according to a particular theatre’s set of demographics or their subscriber base or whatever that theatre perceives to be their audience and their taste.

So the board decided they needed to separate, and at that moment it was really difficult and tenuous. That’s when Jayne Wenger took it over and they started to do fundraising for the organization, get their first NEA grant, get their first Hewlett Foundation support. She was only here for five years, so when I took it over, it was just about to launch but not quite launched.

So I set out to create my vision of a year-round center for new play development in San Francisco. And the way I approached that was [through] connecting with community. We started doing these day-long symposia during the festival. I invited maybe 25 people to present, and they would bring their people, and they would stay for the plays. And we started to build a local audience for the work.

We started offering playwriting workshops at different times than the festival, so we could have some programming in place. Then we did a producing partnership with Shotgun Players on Dog Act, and that won the Glickman. And then the community started to really go: oh, Playwrights Foundation! We were no longer just the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. I had to rebrand the company with the actual organizational name, Playwrights Foundation. There was no logo, we didn’t have a website, so that all had to be built. And I had never done any of this. I produced a lot of theatre because I was a director, but I had never done branding and marketing. But I just used my instinct.

I think that, for whatever reason, I’ve always been really good at spotting talent. I’ve always been good at going, that’s got the juice. This is going to be something great, or this writer will become one of our treasured writers. Something about our vision of what new playwriting can be, either we’ve been really lucky or we’re good at it.

What are some of the things that you’re proudest of from your years at Playwrights Foundation?

I think I’m proudest of the way that we’ve been able to lift up emerging voices and really launch their careers, giving people early development in a professional environment. Even Annie Baker, after her reading here she said, ‘This was my first time I’ve ever gotten a reading of one of my plays, and it was an amazing experience.’ And she wins the Pulitzer like five years later.

It’s not because of us that people succeed. I’d love to be able to say that, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s because they’re hardworking, highly talented, dedicated, ambitious, pushing the envelope. But our part really helped to give them that first platform that says, we believe in you. We believe in your voice. We’re going to pick you out of the crowd and say your voice is a singular important voice for the American stage, and we’re going to give you this platform to develop your voice and your work.

Most of the writers we’ve worked with are just coming onto the scene, and we offer them support, oftentimes over multiple years. We worked with Marcus Gardley starting in 2002 on his very first play. He was still in his first year at Yale. And that became a long-term relationship. We must’ve worked on five or six plays until we finally decided to produce …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi with Cutting Ball. That was 2010, so that was eight years into our relationship.

I’m very proud of the work we’ve been able to put on stage in the Bay Area because of our choosing it. Even this season at Cal Shakes, House of Joy by Madhuri Shekar was in the festival last year. And they hadn’t read the play. Somebody from Cal Shakes came, and it just happened to perfectly fit their empty slot. That’s happened over and over again.

We’ve done 16 producing partnerships so far. Chris Chen’s Hundred Flowers Project is a perfect example. We had worked on three or four of his plays. And he came to me and said, I have this idea for this project. And I went, “Whoa, okay!” Marissa Wolf at Crowded Fire and I co-commissioned it, and then we did a bunch of development. I did not understand that play and neither did Marissa, but we both really believed in Chris. We put it in the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. It had several Rough Readings. We did a design workshop just to figure out some ideas around the video design. That year we got two NEA grants, one for the festival and one for that project. And it took two years. I felt really proud of that process that allowed Chris to have enough time and the team to develop their ideas so that this crazy idea that almost seemed impossible to actually work as theatre worked. It was brilliant. It launched his career.

We talked a bit about why it’s an opportune time for you to step down in terms of the organization, but why is it a good time for you personally?

Between developing Playwrights Foundation and really putting my life’s blood into it and my two kids, I haven’t been directing at all. I don’t even direct at Playwrights Foundation because I’m shepherding the whole dang thing and raising most of the money, and I just haven’t had the bandwidth to explore my artistic self. And I really want to get back to that.

In the last five years I’ve realized that the thing I enjoy most about my work here is the producer side, pulling the teams together and making deals and raising money for exciting projects and having conversations about casting.

So I’m thinking about creative producing, possibly doing my own thing, possibly joining someone else’s, possibly doing Broadway work. I’m leaving the door pretty open. The other option would be to be an artistic director of a producing theatre. I want to direct more and work more as an artistic producer, now that I have a lot of connections and relationships with playwrights.

I feel like Playwrights Foundation is in a really good place right now. We have really strong partnerships and ties to every theatre in the Bay Area that does new work. We’re really tied in with the National New Play Network, and there are theatres throughout the country that pay attention to what we do and follow the work and ask for scripts. So whoever comes in here is going to be able to really use that as Playwrights Foundation’s next platform for having a strong impact on the American theatre. I do feel that Playwrights Foundation and I have had a very strong, impactful time here, and we’ve launched the careers of some of the most important playwrights that are working today.

Sam Hurwitt is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright. Follow him at


Edna C. Hall says...
Posted Saturday, June 29, 2019
From a "1000 years ago," we met when you were the director assigned to me & my play-in-progress (The Locust Tree) @ Bay Area Playwrights Fest (1986!). It was the only bit of good luck I had that year. Congrats on returning to your directing roots. All the very best to you. Edna Coulson Hall.
Pamela S. Rickard says...
Posted Thursday, June 20, 2019
Yea Amy Mueller!: For your brilliance, your tenacity, your courage and your heart. The Bay Area has been lucky to have you!
Marjorie B. Crump-Shears says...
Posted Wednesday, June 19, 2019
Well done, Sam Hurwitt! Thank you, Amy Mueller, for the wonderful journey!!! Marjorie C-S