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; A01

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.

The Public Theater, also supported by Mellon, has created a Master Writer Chair position. This three-year residency, currently held by prize-winning Suzan-Lori Parks, includes a salary competitive with those of other Public Theater officials, health care, a retirement package, plus a professorial appointment and housing at New York University.

"Certainly, it has been noticed that the administrators of these organizations are paid a salary and most artists are paid on contract," said Diane Ragsdale, associate program officer in performing arts at the Mellon Foundation. "It's hard when you have to juggle two to three part-time jobs."

Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director, said, "What the theater says to playwrights is, Why don't you do television and movies, and when you are slumming, come do theater."

Arena is taking the residency concept one step beyond the Public Theater's approach -- in the number of writers getting assignments, compensation (in the mid-five-figure range), the manner in which they are being invited into the company and the measure of financial autonomy the theater is ceding them in guiding the projects' early stages. Out-of-town playwrights will also receive housing.

"It's a very interesting gamble, for them and for us," said Freed, the San Francisco playwright. "It hit in a zone for me, with my despair with the American theater and the pressures that are deforming it."

Zacarias, one in a small band of Washington-based playwrights, had an unabashedly emotional response to being offered a spot. "I wept," she said. "I did. There are health benefits, which a playwright has never really gotten. And you can join their gym! Because being a playwright is a very solitary thing."

Zacarias has begun her tenure with Arena and spent the first few months of it refining several plays she had long wanted to revise. Soon, she said, she will begin thinking about a new play for the company. This summer, she will be joined in the program by Freed and Kron. In January, the final two, Randolph-Wright and Hall, will come onboard.

Arena Associate Artistic Director David Dower said that the company will always have one resident playwright from the Washington area in an effort to keep a local focus as it looks to become a national force.

In addition to the five chosen, two other playwrights -- David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") and Lynn Nottage, a Pulitzer winner last year for "Ruined" -- will be given money for one new play each to be produced at Arena in what are being called "project residencies."

The thinking is, said Molly Smith, Arena's artistic director, that each playwright has a specific way of doing things that might or might not jibe with the institution's. "This will give an opportunity to have artists embedded in every level at Arena," she said. "Part of what this program does is give them the tools for their best work. And it will give these writers an artistic home, with all the pleasure and pain of an artistic home."

The Arena initiative was praised by Polly Carl, the director of artistic development for Steppenwolf, a regional company based in Chicago. "This is awesome, what Arena is doing," she said. Playwrights yearn for more involvement with theater companies, she said. "The depth of what Arena is doing is really impressive."

The playwrights will be free to work on outside projects during their tenure and can write wherever it suits them, although they will spend a good amount of time in Washington. In addition to the yearly salaries, the playwrights will have $15,000 budgets to spend as they see fit for the workshop phases of their creations.

Playwrights are so unaccustomed to having theaters respond quickly, Kron said, that she was stunned to find that after expressing a need for a computer printer, an Arena aide went right out and bought her one.

"It's an amazing thing, to be able to work like this, to be able to say, 'This is what I need,' " Kron said. "That's a really big deal."

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