On 14 January, the New York Times ran “Leaving the Light on for Playwrights,” a story by Patrick Healy about a new play initiative from Washington’s Arena Stage. The new scheme aims to provide, in the words of Arena Stage’s artistic director Molly Smith, “a small, enveloping cradle where we could nurture and stage newly birthed American plays.” It will be an expensive cradle indeed, funded through a $7.5 million grant. At its center is the use of a new 200-seat theatre, but as the story explains, Arena has also developed the American Voices New Play Institute, which this week is holding a “From Scarcity to Abundance” convention. There is also a dormitory of sorts, according to Healy:
Bringing the idea of an artistic home into literal life, Arena has rented a town house with four bedrooms for playwrights to live, work and sleep close to the theater, which is near the Potomac River in a part of Southwest Washington where new condominium complexes and coffee shops look out on boarded-up multistory buildings. … Among the playwrights who have spent time in the town house recently are Katori Hall, whose drama The Mountaintop is probably coming to Broadway next season, and Karen Zacarías, whose plays, including the recent Legacy of Light, have been produced at several regional theaters. Ms. Zacarías, in an interview, described traveling around the country for her play productions and sometimes wishing that she had a home base, artistically. While she lives in Washington, and so has no use for a bed at the town house, she sometimes writes there or hangs out and cooks with colleagues, which invariably leads to discussion of their work.
The cradle is not only a metaphor, but a formal name: the new theatre has been christened the “Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle.” It shares a name with Scott Walters’ “CRADLE” project, which aims to strengthen “the expressive life of small and rural communities through localization, participation, stability, and self-reliance.” There is a bit of this going about; at manhattan theatre source, some of my early plays were developed as part of their “Playground Development Series.”
All three of the programs I mention above (I’m not sure about the Incubator Arts Project) receive funding from the ever-beleaguered National Endowment for the Arts, so when NEA chairman Rocco Landesman spoke to the “From Scarcity to Abundance” conference the other day, perhaps it was appropriate that he apparently took the tone of a stern paterfamilias addressing his spendthrift children, or a high-school teacher playing Devil’s Advocate to get class discussion started. “Look,” Landesman said in discussing the limited audience for theatre and new plays, all capitalistic free-marketeer rhetorical cylinders firing, “you can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” With the NEA supporting these new play programs, I’m doubtful that he was entirely sincere. At another session on the first day of the conference, as J. Holtham noted, a plethora of new programs for playwrights could be listed in just a short period of time:
The Alliance Theatre has committed to doing a full season of new work by playwrights less than a decade out of school. HERE has increased its fees for playwrights. Penumbra is working with 16 new playwrights every year. The Network of Ensemble Theatres has been working with the Playwrights Center and the LMDA. The Bay Area Playwrights Foundation is working with new writers every year. The Hip-Hop Theatre Festival is commissioning new work. The McCarter is producing 80% of its commissions, 5 plays by women, all directed by women. The National New Play Network has increased its commissions, eliminated subsidiary rights and forged new partnerships. Z Space is creating new support for new work. The Playwrights Center is breaking down the barriers between playwrights and artisitic directors and building new connections with the local theatres. The work of the Steinberg Foundation was singled out by Actors Theatre of Louisville and their tremendous financial support for writers. Tuscon Borderlands Theatre is making partnerships with theatres in Mexico, bringing new plays to both communities. Cornerstone has linked up with New Dramatists and has produced every play they’ve commissioned.
And this is just over the past year.
A disinterested observer can distinguish a number of mixed signals — many plays, few outlets, but that apparently is changing; a government agency doing something, but not enough, to promote the arts. And dramatists are proliferating everywhere. Nonetheless, as the above indicates, there is still some concern that the American drama is in crisis at the moment.
These metaphors of babies, cradles and children perhaps are meant to attach more to new work than to the dramatists who write it. Molly Smith is careful to specify that she’s talking about plays, not people: “When you look inside two cupped hands, you have a cradle. That’s what I wanted: a small, enveloping cradle where we could nurture and stage newly birthed American plays,” she says (emphasis mine). But I’m not sure what’s worse: characterizing drama as a form that needs parental support from institutions formed for the purpose (and that is indeed Arena Stage’s plan, according to Healy: the Cradle is “Arena Stage’s effort to brand itself as a national center for producing, presenting, developing and studying American theater”), or characterizing dramatists as a class of artists who need to be paternally or maternally nurtured under the same governmental and institutional aegis, dormitory-style or otherwise. I can’t think of another art form in America — dance, music, visual arts — whose development programs so condescendingly and patronizingly characterize both the work of artists and the artists themselves who create it.
As usual, though, none of the participants in the dialogue (and oh, they do dialogue) discuss either content or form, and whether the limitations of that content or form may be responsible for the declining status of American theatre in the 21st century. Not only does the non-profit theatre seem stuck in a cycle of adolescence, of course; the most talked-about theatre event in the news currently (and the most expensive theatre event on Broadway in history) is a comic-book musical. Nothing against dramatists, new plays or comic books, but the willingness of many American playwrights to be characterized as small children, and to have their work characterized as immature and in need of proper schooling and parenting by both the government and production organizations, leaves this 48-year-old parent-of-two with a lingering bad taste in his mouth.