Washington playwrights struggle to be heard

Theaters need actors and directors. They need stagehands, wardrobe supervisors and lighting technicians. And, of course, spectators.

But they do not need playwrights. Libraries are lousy with scripts, many conveniently free from copyright. These are called “classics” or “revivals,” although Harry Bagdasian, who ran the District’s New Playwrights Theatrefrom 1972 to 1984, has a more pungent term: “used plays.”

(Matt McClain/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Playwright Gwydion Suilebhan at his Silver Spring home.
  • (Matt McClain/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Playwright Gwydion Suilebhan at his Silver Spring home.
  • (Courtesy of Allison Currin/ ) - Playwright/actress Allison Currin.
  • (Courtesy of Ernie Joselovitz/ Courtesy of Ernie Joselovitz ) - Playwright Ernie Joselovitz.

(Matt McClain/ FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Playwright Gwydion Suilebhan at his Silver Spring home.

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A snapshot of major theater venues in the Washington region
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A snapshot of major theater venues in the Washington region

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Writing for the stage is “one of the few jobs where you’re constantly competing with dead men who get more work than we do,” says Karen Zacarias, who is among the area’s more successful playwrights. Zacarias’s work has been produced at 10 local theaters, and she’s one of the few D.C. dramatists with a professional position: She’s the only local among five playwrights in residence at Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute.

There are other area playwrights who’ve been widely produced, including Allyson Currin, Renee Calarco, Ernest Joselovitz and Gwydion Suilebhan. Many more are waiting offstage.

Currin calls Washington “a hotbed of new play development,” but that doesn’t mean that local writers’ work makes it to the largest stages, either here or elsewhere. In addition to the competition from “dead men,” area playwrights generally haven’t established strong individual voices. Instead, they’re known for versatility, moving between adult plays and the “young audiences” fare that’s a more reliable source of work.

Rich Amada, a Washington-Baltimore regional representative for the Dramatists Guild, says the organization has “in the neighborhood of 150 area members.” The DC Playwrights Facebook Group — created last year by Suilebhan because “there was just no sense of the vibrancy and diversity of the voices in the city” — has 200 members.

Those numbers are comparable on a per capita basis to Chicago, perhaps the country’s liveliest regional-theater town. Chicago’s guild has 382 members, says Douglas Post, the representative for that region, which is roughly twice as populous as the Washington area.

“Right now, we’re bringing in far too many of the stories we tell in our theaters from around the country,” says Suilebhan, who is the resident playwright at Taffety Punk Theatre. “Ultimately, my goal is to help transform D.C. from a net importer of culture, and a new importer of stories, into more of an exporter.”

Smaller venues

If the names of these potential exporters are not widely known, that’s probably because their work is rarely staged at the city’s top-tier theaters, which generally do classics, revivals and the work of established contemporary authors.

The principal exceptions are Arena Stage and such children’s venues as Imagination Stage, Glen Echo Park’s Adventure Theater, Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater and the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. These aren’t exactly the big leagues, but they’re well-funded, draw large audiences and are often affiliated with influential larger institutions.

Although local playwrights’ work for grown-ups is often staged, it’s generally for smaller crowds. Zacarias’s “The Book Club Play” finished a run at Arena in November, but other upcoming productions are at less-conspicuous venues. Calarco’s “The Religion Thing” opened Jan. 4 at Theater J near Dupont Circle. And Currin’s “Hercules in Russia” begins Feb. 10 at Doorway Arts Ensemble in Silver Spring.

The Religion Thing” was developed by Theater J’s “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art From Our Own Garden,” which also will present readings of plays by four other local authors, including Suilebhan. Other programs that nurture work by local writers include the Fringe Festival, The Inkwell, First Draft at Charter Theater, the Theater of the First Amendment’s First Light Festival, Artists’ Bloc and Playwright’s Forum.

Such programs allow writers to test their material and get guidance from more experienced authors. Calarco says, “It’s more of a process, for me, of clarifying, does the play work? The more times I can see it, or hear it read, in front of an audience, the more clarifying it is for me.”

Residencies for playwrights are a rare thing, both in D.C. and elsewhere. Joselovitz came to Washington from California in 1978 to be resident at now-defunct New Playwrights Theatre after his “Hagar’s Children” became the theater’s first export in 1976. (The production was transferred to Joe Papp’s Public Theater in New York.) The NEA grant that funded his residency eventually ran out, but Joselovitz stayed in the area.

Since then, Joselovitz says, the number of local theaters has nearly tripled, and a much larger percentage of them have contracts with Actors’ Equity, the thespians’ union. But, he notes, “most don’t do new plays. Most of them aren’t interested in local playwrights.”

Arlington County-based Charter Theater was dedicated to local authors. It stopped producing in 2008, after the Wall Street quake. But it now runs First Draft, a series of readings.

“I think the Potomac area is one of the most vibrant playwriting communities in the country, if not the world,” declares Leslie A. Kobylinski, who coordinates First Draft. “I say that with a straight face,” she continues, although not without laughing.

Arena pays Zacarias a salary, but most theaters that support local playwrights don’t do so with money. Suilebhan describes being at Taffety Punk Theater as “a little bit like a band. I’m sort of, like, on guest vocals for awhile.”

One thing that would benefit the area’s theater community, he suggests, is “more mobility. I think people who are working with smaller theaters need to be able to work at middle-tier theaters, and people working at middle-tier theaters need to work at bigger theaters. People need to move more fluidly up and down that scale.”

“The playwright is very often the only person not hired by a theater,” Zacarias notes, although authors’ earning potential is more limited. “A director can go and direct six plays in a year, and an actor can be in five in a year,” she says. “But a playwright probably writes one play every three years.”

Like most other local authors, Currin has not tried to build a reputation for a single style or genre. “I write comedies; I write tragedies; I write dramas; I write magical realism; I write musicals. That makes it hard for people to figure out what my niche is. How do I stay versatile and be a marketable entity as well? I think that’s the central challenge right now in my career.”

Among the playwright’s scripts are two for young-audience theaters, which Kobylinski calls “a great, burgeoning market. It’s keeping playwrights in the Potomac area employed.”

Joselovitz’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” was produced recently in Pennsylvania. Calarco based a play on “If You Give a Cat a Cupcake,” a children’s picture book. And Currin wrote “Unleashed! The Secret Lives of White House Pets” for the Kennedy Center Family Theater.

Tougher subjects

Local journalist John Muller began writing plays while involved in a different sort of young people’s theater. He was a member of a teen performance poetry group nearly a decade ago, and later collaborated with Justin McNeil on “Bus 70” (about people who ride the Georgia Avenue Metrobus route) and “Mayor for Life” (about Marion Barry). He wants to see more plays about “the cooperation you have in communities, the conflict you have in communities.”

The occasional plays he sees that address crime, racism and gentrification in D.C. “don’t even scratch the surface,” he says. “They’re very simplistic. That’s not local theater. That’s the Washingtonian magazine theater, the Bethesda magazine theater.”

Zacarias has written two plays addressing the sorts of subjects that Muller says seldom are: “The Invisible City,” about the sections of Washington that tourists usually skip, and “The Other River,” about communities along the Anacostia River. Both were commissioned by Woolly Mammoth Theatre for its “community theater” outreach. They weren’t part of its regular season and were performed only a few times.

“Is it enough? No, it’s not enough,” she says. “Building a cacophony of different, interesting, strong voices from D.C. is really going to be important in making us a destination town for theater.”

In May, First Draft will do its part with “Nine Neighborhood Nine,” a play festival meant to encourage scripts about all parts of the city.

“I definitely think we need to do more on that front,” says Suilebhan, who’s involved in the May fest. Yet, he cautions, “People who spend their long days working for, and wrestling with the D.C. government, don’t necessarily want to go to the theater and see plays about the D.C. government.”

Currin is less concerned with theater that addresses local social issues. “I don’t feel much of an obligation to report on D.C. life,” she says. “I write about Washington in the sense that I write about urban life. But I wouldn’t say that I have a specifically Washingtonian voice.” Local playwrights, she says, “write about a greater variety of things. I think we tend to write from history a little bit more.”

“My hope is that D.C. is really going to become a theatrical destination town, the way New York and Chicago are,” Zacarias says. “We have the theaters, we have the designers, we have the directors, and fomenting a strong, diverse, vocal group of playwrights will really help the city.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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