“We’re going to produce five plays — one play by each of us — over the next three years, and [then] hand the reins over,” he said. “Each of us will serve as the artistic director for the duration of our slot, about six months out of the year. While each of us is serving as artistic director, two of the other Welders will serve as executive producers for that slot.” At the end of the run, the Welders will choose five new playwrights and hand the keys of the organization to a new class. The Welders will be in residence at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE; Suilebhan anticipates that at least four of the five plays will be produced there.
The plays that typically get produced in Washington, Suilebhan said, “get produced in part because they’re of high quality, often but not always, and in part because the playwrights who wrote them have the right connections and the right credentials to be noticed and paid attention to. American theater is often experienced as a series of gatekeepers with increasingly high demands for artists who want to enter the castle.”
“The model of an arts institution, sitting like a castle on the hill and only allowing into that castle the people who come bearing the right gifts for the king, is aging,” he said. “I won’t predict that it’s going to die, but it’s aging.”
Who gets across the moat, as long as we’re sticking with this castle analogy? Graduates of the top few MFA programs, said Suilebhan, as well as those who “have the right relationship with the right artistic director, and have access to resources in order to be able to afford to spend a month workshopping a play at a theater. . . . Those things just aren’t accessible to lots and lots of people.”
As for who is stuck on the outside, Suilebhan maintained that “only 27 percent of the plays being produced next year [in Washington] were written by women. Only 14 percent are by playwrights of color, in a city that is more than half people of color. . . . I think there’s an ‘emperor has no clothes’ situation. I don’t think that the work appearing on the stages of the main theaters in D.C. is as universally good as we’d like to believe.”
The new playwrights collective’s aim, Suilebhan said, is “about subverting that aging model and replacing it with a living, more sustainable model that will serve the artistic community and the citizenry of D.C.”
Challenges abound. “We have to establish a new brand that audiences haven’t heard of and have to take a risk on,” Suilebhan said, which is why he thinks the only way something like the Welders could work in Washington is “five relatively well-known names get together and do it.”