Arena Stage gives playwrights higher billing by putting them on payroll

By Peter Marks and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

Names of major American playwrights are often familiar, even to those who never attend the theater: Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and August Wilson come to mind. Less well known is their traditional status as itinerant workers: They hand over plays to theater companies for a fee, show up for rehearsals and opening night, then move on.

Arena Stage, Washington's Tony Award-winning regional theater, is trying to break that pattern with a simple idea that is almost revolutionary. If the initiative works, the way theater treats these key players will change dramatically.

Essentially, Arena is hiring playwrights as employees, with salaries and health benefits -- and even access to office supplies.

The venture is part of a major change at Arena, which is preparing to open a $125 million three-theater campus in the fall and to try to rebrand itself as a national center for American theater.

Over the next three years, five playwrights will be part of Arena's American Voices New Play Institute, which was formed in August and financed by a $1.1 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The writers will be paid to write on any project they please during their three-year tenure, with the promise of a stage production and an additional pot of development money under their control.

"It certainly is a radical change from what the course of play development has been in recent years," said Lisa Kron, one of the playwrights.

It might sound as if bringing playwrights aboard would be the most routine of customs for an industry in the business of putting on plays. Playwrights, after all, supply the basic building blocks of theatrical life. In reality, though, American theaters rarely effectively put dramatists on the payroll.

As a result, few writers ever become integral parts of a performing arts institution. And this, in turn, may help to explain why many in the business think the deterioration in the process of getting new plays to the stage has reached a crisis level.

Arena's initiative changes the equation and gives writers far more prominent perches in the organization.

The five playwrights, chosen by Arena's senior leadership, are Kron ("Well," her comedy about illness and her mother, made it to Broadway in 2006); Amy Freed, a San Francisco-based playwright and onetime Pulitzer Prize finalist ("Freedomland"); Washington-based playwright Karen Zacarias ("Legacy of Light," produced by Arena last year); Charles Randolph-Wright (most recently the director of Arena's "Sophisticated Ladies"); and Memphis native Katori Hall, whose "The Mountaintop" won London's coveted Olivier Award for best new play this year and is being talked about for Broadway.

American theaters like Arena have long commissioned plays and musicals: "Sycamore Trees," for instance, an original musical running at Signature Theatre, was developed with money from that theater's American Musical Voices Project.

Some companies have writer-residency programs to forge relationships with playwrights for whom they have an affinity. But Arena -- and New York's Public Theater -- are setting the pace in creating structures with some permanency for writers.

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