This is a post about defining success.
On Sunday night, as Polly Carl’s post about defining success was landing on HowlRound, the Arts news of the New York Times broke the story of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Initiative, which places playwrights on the staff of fourteen theaters in eleven cities around the country. The Boston Globe followed the next morning with an article that shared the full list of participants. This capped a busy couple of weeks for playwrights and residencies in the press.
I should have been celebrating. This is a drum I’ve been pounding for nearly a decade. Instead I was struck by the gulf revealed in the reporting between what I perceive as a movement gathering steam and the way this movement is perceived by my colleagues in the press. The disconnect between the news of this $3.7 million dollar investment in playwrights and the tone of articles in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and The New York Times reveals the full importance and challenge of defining success in our field in terms that are relevant and organic, in particular when those terms buck the traditional narrative.
The present-day drive toward an improved system of support for American playwrights in the nonprofit theater was sparked, in large part, by the confluence of investments from the Mellon Foundation and the publication of Outrageous Fortune, written by Todd London and Ben Pesner and published in December, 2009 by the Theater Development Fund. Early interventions included the appointment of Suzan Lori Parks to the new position of Master Writer Chair at the Public Theater and the naming of five writers to three-year residencies in the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage (AVNPI), launched in January of 2010. New York’s Signature Theatre further advanced the efforts by creating five residencies of their own in 2011. The National Playwright Residency Initiative is a direct outgrowth of the cumulative impact of these initiatives and others like them around the country.
From a mere handful in 2010, there are now more than thirty American playwrights in salaried positions in the nonprofit regional theater. There have already been dozens of productions around the field emanating from those residencies and even more new works in development for the coming seasons. In addition to increased earnings from the traditional playwright’s royalties, the writers have a secure income, health benefits, and artistic homes committed to producing their plays, not just reading them. So I was surprised that the general tone of the reporting in the recent spate of articles on American playwrights depicts a backsliding in our field’s support of writers and the residency concept as a failed experiment.
In part, what we are seeing is the intractable nature of established narratives of success.
In January, 2010, Karen Zacarias officially began her three-year stint as one of the five resident playwrights of Arena’s AVNPI. In June of that year the full slate was announced to front page headlines in the Washington Post. Here’s theater critic Peter Marks’ lede in that story:
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.
The AVNPI residencies committed to three years of salary and benefits for the five writers, at least one production during their tenure, and created a budget for them to use to enhance the development path for their new works. Significantly, the residencies also committed to this support without encumbering the work product of the residency and without enforcing exclusivity to Arena. Where many commissions and developmental processes tie up the rights to a work for extended periods of time for the host institution, the AVNPI residencies were essentially an experiment in supporting five writers to be playwrights for the nonprofit American theater, rather than for one institution. The just-announced NPRI carries forward many elements of this design, including the three years of salary and benefits, the developmental budgets, and the commitment to produce.
So, over the holiday break I read the latest post in the intermittent New Play Blog of the AVNPI with great interest. It’s a snapshot of the progress of the resident writers embedded at Arena. In reading it you get a sense of the sweeping impact the residencies have had, not just on the playwrights and their capacity to support themselves through writing, but on theaters around the country that have successfully mounted work by these writers since the residencies began.
This post was accompanied by a Washington Post article that announced the departure of Katori Hall from the program and called into question the success of the residency program based on the Arena Stage productions that have resulted from the initiative, now entering its third year. Writes Post theater critic Peter Marks:
One feels some deflation of the hope that an uptick in writerly energy, fostered by the two-year-old residency initiative, would have ignited the institution’s programming—or at least yielded something immediate by one of the higher-profile dramatists among the five initially selected for coveted salaried spots.
The disconnect between the Post’s assessment of the residencies at Arena and the direct relationship between those residencies and the NPRI provides, for me, a stark example of both the difficulty and the importance of defining success loudly, clearly, and repeatedly in face of the narrative of hierarchy that Polly addressed in her essay. The Post had already twice delivered its failing grade to Arena’s program, once in October, and again in December. The evidence used was the lack of premieres of new plays produced by Arena by these playwrights. The Boston Globe picked up the mantra, reporting the Post’s assessment of Hall’s departure at the two-year mark.
In this most recent article, Mr. Marks wonders, “was this program, part of the American Voices New Play Institute, mislabeled? Should Arena theatergoers have been better apprised about the meager early rewards?” And had the program been labeled as one designed to generate premieres of new plays for Washington audiences, the traditional presumption of “success,” he would be on to something. But, in fact, as he wrote in his 2010 story announcing the program, the label affixed to the program was one that was hoping to “break the pattern” of the traditional ways the field approached the role of the playwright.
In all the early press on the AVNPI residencies, in all the blog posts, the terms of success are clearly laid out: give the writers the stability to focus on their playwriting. Give them the developmental, financial, and structural support to keep their plays (and their careers) in motion. Create no obstacles to productions of their plays. And commit to at least one production during their residency. In reading Arena’s blog post, all but the last marker for success has been achieved. There is still time for that one, though it will be a race now that the program is entering its third year with two playwrights still awaiting productions. And yet, even if Arena does not produce those outcomes inside the three-year clock, there is much to celebrate here.
But I also understand the disappointment Mr. Marks expresses with the “output” in terms of productions for Washington D.C. audiences. By that measure, the Arena residencies have little to show for the investment. It is true that there has yet to be an Arena premiere of a new play emerging from the program. There are real questions to explore in terms of why, for instance, Arena was not among the several theaters that premiered new works by Hall during her residency period or why so many projects by these writers are developing in other institutional settings. There are also interesting things to be learned from her exit, a year early, from the program. And an honest and open conversation on those questions would be an important contribution to the learning about residencies in general.
I also understand Mark’s skepticism of the theater’s assertion that these production outcomes are the result of choices made by the playwrights. Of course the playwrights are not making their own decisions about which plays Arena produces and when. All of the writers have new works that they are eager to see mounted and, if they had such freedom to schedule productions at Arena we would surely have seen some of those by now. Those are the choices of the artistic director. To claim otherwise is to call into question everything else.
Setting new rules for defining success requires transparency, clarity, and integrity. When institutions or artists succumb to “spin,” or make efforts to bury the challenges and failures and report only the good news, our colleagues in the press and around the field have every reason to be cynical and to revert to the old narratives.
But there’s another casualty of this sort of spin creeping into our self-reporting. Our colleagues in practice and in the press stop paying attention to what’s actually happening in the field and revert to their old habits of simply rehashing the press releases.
Two other news items that hit before the holiday season were stark examples of the retreat from engagement on the part of the press, trumpeting as “news” things that read more like backsliding than progress in the effort to address the state of the American playwright. One was a blurb in the New York Times Arts Beat that heralded a collaboration between Manhattan Theater Club and Ars Nova that would create four commissions of $5,000 - $10,000:
Such commissions are increasingly common as nonprofit theaters try to forge stronger ties with their favorite writers, enabling them financially to remain playwrights (rather than move into television and film work) and helping spur new works that might run in the theaters someday.
It also announced that the theaters would be seeking foundation support for these fees and to continue the practice, that there was no commitment to producing the plays at either theater, and that the projects would not be happening if not for these commissions.
For an organization the size of Ars Nova, the commission amounts are laudable, and partnering with a larger company to be able to increase their capacity to support and advance the writers and their plays is smart, effective design.
But for a company the size of MTC, while the commitment to aligning their resources and brand with Ars Nova is notable, these commission amounts are not newsworthy. And, for the writers they’ve commissioned, neither are they sufficient to enable them to “remain playwrights” except in combination with a number of other such opportunities. Samuel Hunter, for instance, is commissioned via this program, a resident playwright at Victory Gardens in Chicago, and was added to the program at Arena for one year (presumably filling the vacancy left by Ms. Hall who departs before the end of the three year term). This is actually decidedly old news and takes the conversation backwards. The habit of putting the burden on playwrights to piece together a living wage, of seeking foundation support for things that are modest commitments of major institutions, and of employing what marketers term “semantic stretch” to make the modest seem newsworthy (“enabling them to remain playwrights”) is all old school. It is not even business as usual, it is business as was.
The other item again came from The Washington Post’s Peter Marks. Please note that both Mr. Marks and the Post in general have been stalwart in their support for new work in the D.C. community over a number of years. So it is particularly alarming when this paper, and Mr. Marks in particular, seem to lose the thread. In reporting on the new program at Arena focused on local playwrights, Mr. Marks sounded what, in some ways, was a call for less ambition and less marketing spin around efforts to foster new works and support those who write them. In describing the newly announced Playwrights Arena program, Mr. Marks posited that, as distinct from the Arena residencies which have thus far failed to produce premieres and therefore have not lived up to their front page billing, “the humbler goals of the Playwrights’ Arena might bear a higher percentage of early results.”
But here again, the definition of success that Mr. Marks is setting out is not the same definition the theater is using and will undoubtedly lead to him handing out the same failing grade down the line. David Snider, Arena’s director of artistic programming, says the goal of the program is “Playwrights, having their own time with their process, and feeling they have an artistic home at Arena.” He projects the output of the program as “By the end of the year, they will have a first draft of a new work.” The writers have no stipends, no budgets, and no commitments to produce their plays. The likelihood that there will be a significant number of Arena premieres to tally as a result of this program is slim to none.
Again, this is an old model reported as news. There are dozens and dozens of these programs around the country. Probably the most productive one, when measured in terms of the number of premieres that have resulted at the host institution, is the Huntington Playwrights Fellowship, which has produced eight plays by local writers that were developed in that program since 2004. For the Huntington, this is a stated part of their definition of success for HPF and they have put staff, facilities, and financial resources into it to achieve those laudable outcomes. These results are important and impressive—and they are part of the success equation of the theater’s leadership. The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group has similarly impressive outcomes along the lines of their own definitions of success for the program. But the traditional “local writers group” that aims primarily to create a sense of place for playwrights at a large regional theater rarely produces that sort of output and has been with us for decades. More importantly, it doesn’t lead to a livelihood for playwrights that allows them to “financially remain playwrights.”
I have no doubt that there are legitimate terms of success that could be used to describe the importance of this opportunity for the six writers who Arena has engaged. And it would be interesting and informative to understand and track those. But as it stands, the markers that are standing in the void left by a transparent, clear, and truthful assessment of success doom the effort to failure, a failure which will become attached to those same writers.
Correction: While the Mellon Foundation has been a strong supporter of Signature Theatre's programs, their residency program is actually funded from other sources. We've updated this article to reflect this correction.