Peter Marks imagines a White House that encourages playwrights

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010; E03

It feels like such a farfetched notion, imagining a White House that pays more than lip service to the performing arts.

I've covered theater in New York and Washington for the better part of a decade and a half, and though a president or first lady is occasionally spotted at a play -- Laura Bush turning up, say, at "I Am My Own Wife" at the National Theatre or the Obamas making a date of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" on Broadway -- I recall few occasions on which drama at the White House has ever had much to do with an actual stage.

So wouldn't it be a lovely anomaly if members of this administration decided to become patrons of sorts, to have more actors and, especially, playwrights waiting in the wings -- whether the East or the West?

The significance of the Obamas embracing aspects of the American theater, of course, would be largely symbolic, given the laughably negligible financial support this nation gives its artists. But inviting more of them to Pennsylvania Avenue, in whatever way the White House accommodates performance (I wouldn't know; I've never been), would be both a psychological shot in the arm for a form perennially struggling to assert itself and a motivational act for people all over the country looking for signs that their leaders have a stake in our creative well-being.

I'm not talking here about sending Elphaba and Glinda down on the Acela to sing a selection of songs from "Wicked" -- not that there's anything wrong with that. "Wicked" is doing very well on its own. The spotlight that needs to be intensified is on dramatic writing, and on the practitioners who can make American drama a real force in the world again. It's embarrassing that many embassies in Washington are more aggressive about showcasing their nations' plays and players than is the hometown administration.

Why couldn't a request go out to the country's leading playwrights for original plays -- one act in length or in some cases even longer -- and have them debut on a regular schedule at the White House? The list could start from the ranks of Pulitzer Prize winners: Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Donald Margulies, Paula Vogel, Doug Wright, David Lindsay-Abaire, Nilo Cruz. They could be linked over time by themes, or dwell on any American topic that the writers felt compelled to address. (The office of Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and himself an influential Broadway producer, would be a natural coordinator.)

What playwright could resist such a platform? What accomplished actor, from Al Pacino to Meryl Streep, would not volunteer his or her services? Perhaps the roster could be expanded to include prize-worthy dramatists such as Jon Robin Baitz, Christopher Durang, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Sarah Ruhl, Christopher Shinn, Geoffrey Nauffts, Bruce Norris. With this national level of encouragement, you wonder if the temptation would be diminished just a bit for any of these writers to defect to the likes of HBO.

No doubt the evenings could get provocative, but I have a feeling the Obamas could take it. They are, after all, from Chicago, a great, bare-knuckled theater town.

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