New D.C. playwrights collective to produce 5 plays over 3 years

July 9, 2013

There’s a new player here in Theaterland. Introducing: our very own local playwrights collective.

It’s called the Welders, named for Cherrie Moraga’s poem (“I am the welder. / I am taking the power / into my own hands). The Welders are five playwrights — Bob Bartlett, Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Caleen Sinnette Jennings and Gwydion Suilebhan— and an executive and creative director, Jojo Ruf. They have a simple game plan, Suilebhan said.

“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.”

Suilebhan is the D.C. area representative for the Dramatists Guild of America; Calarco was a Helen Hayes Award nominee for “The Religion Thing,” produced at Theater J last year; Currin is regularly produced around town, most recently at WSC Avant Bard for the world premiere of “Caesar and Dada”; Jennings is a theater professor at American University whose 2012 play “Hair, Nails & Dress” was produced by the D.C. Black Theatre Festival; Bartlett’s play “Swimming with Whales” was a runner-up at the 2011 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The hope, Suilebhan said, is that “if we imbue the Welders with significance, when the next five new playwrights come along, they gain significance by being Welders.” He has bigger hopes beyond that, too: “The centers for cultural creation in America are still Chicago, New York and L.A., whether we like it or not, and I honestly think that’s changing. And I think we’re in a position, as a city, to lead that change, and it’s going to take things like the Welders to do that.”

Spooky Action’s dreamy season

Spooky Action Theater artistic director Richard Henrich said the three plays in the 2013-14 season “open a window on dreams of the subconscious mind.” It’s a topic so near and dear to his heart that he named his theater after it: “When, in a play, you get the conscious mind and all these other things synched up, that’s what I call ‘spooky action.’ It puts you in what athletes call ‘the zone.’ It puts you in the theater zone.”

The Two-Character Play

By Tennessee Williams, directed by Richard Henrich

Oct. 3-27

A brother-sister acting duo are on tour and find themselves in a middle European country where no one speaks their language. “The company has deserted them because they say the two are insane,” said Henrich. “It’s a surrealistic treatment, not a naturalistic treatment. And these actors, you can’t always tell when they’re acting and when it’s their real life.”

The Wedding Dress

By Nelson Rodrigues, translated by Joffre Rodrigues, directed by Rebecca Holderness

Feb. 13-March 9

A woman is in the hospital after a serious car accident; the play explores her unconscious mind, “trying to figure out how she got here and what it means,” Henrich said. “The playwright calls it hallucination, but I’d say it’s the work of the unconscious mind trying to put together disparate pieces.”

Kwaidan

By Lafcadio Hearn, directed by Izumi Ashizawa

May 29-June 22

Pronounced “KI-don,” this collection of stories “all deal with going even beyond the unconscious to what I’d call the collective unconscious,” said Henrich, to the idea of spirits trapped among the living because of unresolved business. “They give us wonderful food for thought. What is this other world?”

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