But attitudes seem to be shifting, at least insofar as how we might become more creative-energy self-sufficient. Last season, Theater J initiated a festival, “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art,” in which a comedy by Washington dramatist Renee Calarco premiered. Readings of plays by other writers who live in and around the city were also featured. Every summer, the Capital Fringe Festival provides a boost to MFA graduates, start-up troupes and budding playwrights, all looking for entryways into the local theater scene.
And now, Arena Stage is intensifying its investment in locally growing talent, with a new project that offers an operational base, a cadre of advisers and, perhaps most psychologically important, a sense of belonging to six Washington scribes of varying degrees of experience.
Calling it the Playwrights’ Arena, the company has invited six writers to spend 2013 working on new pieces, meeting every other week in Arena’s sprawling Southwest Washington headquarters to chart their progress and discuss aspects of the work’s development with one another as well as with Arena professionals.
Although the theater is offering no commitment to produce the plays — nor is there any stipend extended to the playwrights — the initiative seems more than a mere gesture. If it helps engender a sense of Washington as a place eager to have playwrights regularly creating work to be seen by this community, then the effort will no doubt be viewed as a success.
“I came in and was dreaming about this,” said David Snider, Arena’s new associate artistic director and spearhead of the project. “Playwrights, having their own time with their process, and feeling they have an artistic home at Arena. More artists need to know they can have a full artistic life here.”
Nurturing new work is one of the American theater’s highest ambitions — and one of its most difficult tasks. Arena’s own efforts in this regard have of late yielded spotty results at best, even with a high-cost and high-visibility playwright residency program that it established in 2010 with more than $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Of the 10 subscription shows and special event productions announced for its current season, for instance, not a single one is a product of the three-year paid residencies offered to a separate contingent of writers.
One of them, Katori Hall, ends her Arena residency this month, an Arena spokesman said. Thus far, no original works by her have been scheduled by the company. “The Mountaintop,” her play about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before his assassination, — which ran on Broadway last year starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett — will be at Arena this spring, in a new staging co-produced with Houston’s Alley Theatre of Houston.