Can Washington more successfully cultivate its own gardens of playwrights and composers?
It’s not yet the case that this city, with its healthy appetite for theater, routinely looks to its own soil for a diet of new plays and musicals. The vast majority of original material on the stages of the region come from, well, everywhere, and only a relative few from laptops and PCs plugged into the metropolitan area’s own power sources.
But attitudes seem to be shifting, at least insofar as how we might become more creative-energy self-sufficient. Last season, Theater J initiated a festival, “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art,” in which a comedy by Washington dramatist Renee Calarco premiered. Readings of plays by other writers who live in and around the city were also featured. Every summer, the Capital Fringe Festival provides a boost to MFA graduates, start-up troupes and budding playwrights, all looking for entryways into the local theater scene.
And now, Arena Stage is intensifying its investment in locally growing talent, with a new project that offers an operational base, a cadre of advisers and, perhaps most psychologically important, a sense of belonging to six Washington scribes of varying degrees of experience.
Calling it the Playwrights’ Arena, the company has invited six writers to spend 2013 working on new pieces, meeting every other week in Arena’s sprawling Southwest Washington headquarters to chart their progress and discuss aspects of the work’s development with one another as well as with Arena professionals.
Although the theater is offering no commitment to produce the plays — nor is there any stipend extended to the playwrights — the initiative seems more than a mere gesture. If it helps engender a sense of Washington as a place eager to have playwrights regularly creating work to be seen by this community, then the effort will no doubt be viewed as a success.
“I came in and was dreaming about this,” said David Snider, Arena’s new associate artistic director and spearhead of the project. “Playwrights, having their own time with their process, and feeling they have an artistic home at Arena. More artists need to know they can have a full artistic life here.”
Nurturing new work is one of the American theater’s highest ambitions — and one of its most difficult tasks. Arena’s own efforts in this regard have of late yielded spotty results at best, even with a high-cost and high-visibility playwright residency program that it established in 2010 with more than $1 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Of the 10 subscription shows and special event productions announced for its current season, for instance, not a single one is a product of the three-year paid residencies offered to a separate contingent of writers.
One of them, Katori Hall, ends her Arena residency this month, an Arena spokesman said. Thus far, no original works by her have been scheduled by the company. “The Mountaintop,” her play about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the night before his assassination, — which ran on Broadway last year starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett — will be at Arena this spring, in a new staging co-produced with Houston’s Alley Theatre of Houston.
Perhaps in the long run, the humbler goals of the Playwrights’ Arena might bear a higher percentage of early results. Beginning in January, the six local writers — selected from a pool of nearly three dozen applicants — will have work space at Arena and meet in sessions conducted by Snider twice a month.
“We’ll dive into what they’re writing, asking all those great dramaturgical questions, and after that, we’ll have intersections between the artists and the Arena staff, from all walks of development,” said Snider, who also heads Arena’s New Play Institute, of which the program is a part. “We’ll take the summer off to write, and then in the fall, we’ll do actor laboratories, where actors will come in and workshop the work. By the end of the year, they will have a first draft of a new work.”
To qualify, Snider said, the writers had to have plays produced professionally, and live within 30 miles of the District. The six playwrights for 2013 are Norman Allen, a longtime Washington playwright, whose locally produced plays include “Nijinsky’s Last Dance”; Randy Baker, whose plays have been presented by Rorschach Theater, of which he is the co-artistic director; Jacqueline E. Lawton, author of Theater J’s forthcoming “The Hampton Years”; the widely produced Heather McDonald (“An Almost Holy Picture”); Danielle Mohlman, a recent MA graduate of Emerson College, whose comedy-drama “Stopgap” was staged at last summer’s Capital Fringe Festival; and Shawn Northrip, the writer and composer of, among other shows, “Titus X,” a punk-rock musical adapted from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”
“The goal was to find an eclectic group challenging each other, and that’s what’s really exciting,” said Allen, who had taken a hiatus from playwriting to earn a graduate degree and teach at an urban school. “Now I come back to the theater, and I have this different sense of collaboration and what it can produce. That’s a perspective that I could bring to this group of people.”
At the opposite end experientially is Mohlman, who has been writing plays for only five years and been in Washington for less than two years; she works in human resources at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“I’m very excited that it’s structured, that there’s an organization to it,” she said. “David was saying to me earlier, ‘If someone can’t make it, the rest of the six of us don’t meet.’ If you cancel on us, nothing is going to get done. I love that as well. He feels that this is an ensemble of playwrights. It communicates that this is not a casual thing for us.”