By Peter Marks
Saturday, January 29, 2011; C01
Marking its emergence as a center for asking big questions about the future of American theater, Arena Stage brought together more than 100 writers, directors and artistic managers from across the country this week to brainstorm on a topic central to the theater's survival: how to reform a piecemeal development system and get the best new American plays onto as many stages as possible.
The four-day event, which ends Saturday, is a significant advance for Arena's ambitious agenda in its newly glass-enclosed campus in Southwest Washington, renovated at a cost of $135 million. In addition to devising an upgraded roster of self-produced shows and productions created elsewhere, Arena is trying to establish itself as a sort of think tank for the American stage. The idea is for practitioners to devise more productive links among the nation's amorphous collections of regional theaters.
David Dower, Arena's associate artistic director and the architect of this "national convening," said it is intended to encourage theaters of all sizes to start thinking about the large amount of resources being devoted to making new plays, and the rather minor cultural impact the plays tend to have. "I think the organizations that work in this field haven't figured out how to work effectively together," he said. "They aren't having a field-wide conversation about what we're doing."
The gathering has an aptly wonky title for a meeting in the capital: "Capturing the Moment for the New Work Sector." It even featured a talk by the nation's theater-wonk in chief, Rocco Landesman, the longtime Broadway producer and now chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. But if Landesman's remarks were any indication, finding a baseline agreement on the state of the theater may be easier proposed than achieved. In a session Wednesday, Landesman suggested that the field may be too crowded for its own good.
"We're overbuilt," he declared, to an audience in Arena's newest space, the Kogod Cradle. "There are too many theaters."
Landesman was addressing comments to an issue he's pondering at the NEA: whether his agency would have more impact if it made larger grants to a smaller number of institutions. That sensitive subject got tongues wagging at this conference, whose attendees included organizers of embryonic rural arts initiatives as well as leaders of established new play outlets, such as New York City's Under the Radar festival. Representatives of smaller groups in particular spoke out witheringly at the suggestion that the NEA might set its sights only on larger and richer organizations.
Dower's goal, however, was to spread a counterintuitive notion: that while the prevailing view in the country finds a dearth of new work for the stage, the exact opposite is true. It's simply that the balkanized systems for nurturing new plays and playwrights prevent the theater movement from absorbing this reality. "I feel that this is a golden era for the new play, in that we have so many programs and so much money funneling in," Dower said. (Arena, for instance, in a project financed by some of the proceeds from a $1.5 million Mellon Foundation grant, has put on its payroll five dramatists who are creating or revamping plays for the company.)
"It's largely because we haven't recognized the abundance," Dower added. "It's as if we're snatching scarcity from the jaws of abundance."
This mind-set may sound academic. But developing plays is such a quirky process, and the cataloguing of new drama across the nation is so sketchy, that some noteworthy work inevitably fails to get the exposure it deserves. Another of Arena's initiatives is seeking to combat this knowledge gap, with the unveiling of a digital New Play Map, an online compendium (www.newplaymap.org) of what's being done and who's doing it in all 50 states.
Vijay Mathew, co-director with Jamie Gahlon of Arena's American Voices New Play Institute, has supervised over the past 14 months the creation of the map, a Wikipedia-style site that allows users to feed it information. Clicking the map provides the history of a given new play and where it has received a workshop or full production. Theaters and playwrights can plug in data about pieces in progress.
"It's a knowledge and information cooperative," Mathew said, as he sat at a computer screen and brought up the history of one play. A red dotted line traced the play's path across the map, from theater to theater. "Some people may find it useful," he added, "as a way to discover a play they don't know."
Jason Loewith, executive director of the Washington-based National New Play Network, said that he found an encouraging consensus at the meeting about the ways in which new play development could be bolstered. His group uses Mellon Foundation grants to subsidize new plays in what are known as "rolling premieres" - instances in which three theater companies agree to debut the same piece with their own productions in a 12-month period.
"I've never had a sense of such alignment of passions," Loewith said, adding that "alignment" had become the buzzword of the event. "That's the feeling you get here, with 100 or so people who are among the very most committed to new work."