Playwrights-In-Residence and The Meaning Of Homegrown Theatre

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(graphic created by Joe Lertola)

Eliza Bent has an article in American Theatre magazine this month about funding for playwright residencies with regional theatres.  It’s an excellent article and worth checking out.  At the top of section five, Bent raises a point of controversy slipping ashore like a decaying shark amidst the waves of good news.  While more money is available to give writers homes, for a year or more, in good theatres — breaking in encouraging ways from the model of isolated commissions – the majority of these writers are being shipped out to the regional theatres from New York.  Where is the support for homegrown playwrights?

Bent makes Dallas’ Elaine Liner the voice of dissent, quoting her Dallas Observer article about Will Power’s residency with Dallas Theater Center.  In Liner’s view, DTC ought to be working with a local playwright.  The issue is, I think, more complex than either Bent or Liner have so far indicated.

If the controversy comprises two dominant questions, I might pry them apart and call them the question of authenticity and the question of merit.

The question of merit goes something like this: there are talented writers in all parts of the country – why do only coastal playwrights get attention and support?  It’s a simple question on the surface but demands a look at the entire lifecycle of the modern American playwright.  The preponderance of well-known playwrights move to New York during their developing years.  They do this largely because New York is where the most theatre is.  Artists need community, and, as practitioners of a collaborative art, playwrights in particular need places where their work might be produced. To earn major grants, a playwright must have an impressive resume of produced work, and it’s hard to build that resume in regions with fewer opportunities.

The northeast is also home to the densest cluster of MFA programs for playwrights.  In the lifecycle of the American playwright, grad school years provide a nurturing environment for artistic growth and invaluable contact with other artists.  The degree also offers the hope of future stability in teaching positions.

Of the fourteen playwrights receiving Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grants to furnish three-year residencies, ten have MFAs (this is from half an hour of research; feel free to let me know if I’ve missed one).  Approximately ten – depending on how you slice it – have spent significant time in the New York or Los Angeles areas, studying, training, working, teaching, seeing their plays produced.  Talented playwrights exist all over America.  Statistically, however, they spend their developing years in New York and California.

Even that truth disguises a degree of complexity that challenges the homegrown argument.  Few of the fourteen Mellon winners simply moved to New York, made their names, and got shipped out to parts unknown in the grand expanse of America.  There was no sorting from a hat, no flattened Midwestern syllables intoned for the ears of a trembling City Artist about to be stationed in the theatrical equivalent of the Peace Corps.  David Adjmi gained prominence in the Northeast, and there he will stay.  Pearl Cleage, a lifetime ATLien, earned her residence with Alliance Theatre.  Nathan Louis Jackson may have his degree from Juilliard, but his Mellon sends him back to his hometown of Kansas City (this time on Missouri side).  Peter Sinn Nachtrieb remains in San Francisco, where he was born and where he attended grad school.  Many of the degrees in the Mellon group are from New York area schools (I’m including Yale School Of Drama), but others were won in Ohio, in Iowa, in Massachusetts.  To see these writers as products of a Northeast or SoCal complex is to miss much of who they are.

And this brings me to the question of authenticity.  Who gets to be called a local playwright, and what are we really asking for when we say we want more of them on-stage?  Andrew Saito and Kira Obolensky, like Nathan Louis Jackson, will be doing their Mellon residencies in communities where they have spent far more time than in New York.  Aren’t they local playwrights?

And couldn’t you argue that the extended residency creates a local playwright?  Qui Nguyen, who is quoted in Bent’s article, has moved with his entire family to Minneapolis.  He will be there for three years, living and working in the community.  He may start as an outsider (and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of getting the outside artist’s view of our city), but his continued presence will tie him deeply to his new home.  Some might contend that three years is too short a time to become a true local.  How long does it take, then?  Ten years?  And how would you hook a high-quality playwright for ten years if not by luring them first with a residency?  At a certain point, the argument resembles an old townies v. students dust-up, and complaints seem narrow and counter-productive.  Do New Yorkers complain about young men and women of the Midwest clogging up their stages?

The demand for local playwrights is a demand for playwrights who speak to the local audience, and it is a demand for local theatre.  Funding extended residencies in regional theatres actually serves those demands.  It supports the regional theatres with high-powered new artists, and it puts those artists in position to speak to the local audience.  Because provincialism is something that happens to artists; it is not a condition of having spent a few years in New York.  Sam Shepard’s career was born in the East Village scene of the 60s and 70s, but he moved on to a fruitful relationship with the Magic in San Francisco, and how many people today think of him as a New York playwright?  One underestimates audiences by assuming them capable only of connecting with plays about their hometowns, but if it is plays about local topics they want, then paying the writers to stay there a while is a positive action.  Meanwhile, if Nguyen is still writing insane comics-inspired mash-ups in Minneapolis, we might just learn that Minnesotans have a taste for zombies and ninjas, too.

But I suspect part of the underlying concern here is developing regional theatre scenes such that the young artist turned on by Nguyen’s geeked-out theatre doesn’t pack off for the coast as he did, once upon a time, but stays right there in Minnesota, taking up shop with the company down the street from her mentor.  It’s a noble goal, and one the Mellon already did make possible for two of the fourteen recipients.  Though the grants are not explicitly targeted at long term growth of the scenes surrounding the involved theatres, supporting a healthy relationship between major writers and local institutions can only help.  Theatre does not have to be a zero-sum game.  If Will Power’s work with Dallas Theater Center is successful, it could well benefit theatre in Dallas generally, with new audiences, more attention, better funding.  The larger environmental imperatives that drive playwrights away from home will not be resolved by a trend towards residencies, but residencies may very well keep more writers in the theatre.  And that’s something theatre supporters in New York, LA, and every city in between can agree on.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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