The Playgoer: Playwright Funding We Can Believe In?

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Playwright Funding We Can Believe In?

Right on the heels of the big Steinberg playwriting prize (subject of much debate here), turns out the Mellon Foundation has been spending the last three years studying the playwright's predicament and come up with a new program.

Their findings apparently were news to the funding community:

It turns out that developing plays is not the problem. Producing them is. New playwrights often get stuck in “workshop hell,” as Ms. Ragsdale put it. Supporting playwrights directly and creating long-term residencies at theaters were among the recommendations that emerged.
Well who could blame them. Since "play development" was probably all they were hearing about from theatres in the 90s.

Basically the Mellon grants will still go to theatre companies, but the shift is more toward investing in particular writers and in particular (full) productions. Also--funding future productions of premiered plays at other theatres.

The recipients so far are still mostly in New York, some Chicago, plus biggies like The Guthrie and Sundance. But here's a nice bit of good geographic affirmative action:
Roadside Theater, in Whitesburg, Ky., in the heart of the coal-mining region of the central Appalachian Mountains....which creates dramas based on the region’s people and history, received $1 million to develop new audiences for live theater, Dudley Cocke, its artistic director, said, and to bring stories about the working class to the stage. The group has gone to other cities to help local writers. A new musical, “Betsy,” on which it collaborated with Pregones Theater in the Bronx, is to open on Nov. 19.
Who knew?

Roadside's website is here.

I also give Oskar Eustis credit for proposing a joint grant for a playwright to serve as a visiting professor at NYU--where the teaching position would basically subsidize the writer to write plays (or, a play) for a year. Yes, many playwrights already earn their bread teaching, but by combining both a writing and a teaching gig, it sure would make the job search easier for those lucky enough to get it.

Yet another sign that the nonprofit theatre's future is destined to be with the universities system.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's a new program, but it's replacing an old one. Instead of funding tons of theaters, Mellon is suddenly funding only a handful. I'm not sure it's really the best thing for playwrights, to be honest.

RLewis said...

I agree with anon above, I have concerns about this one. I'm not sure how you address "development hell" by giving $$$ to groups that only develop plays; and what extra $$ will they really have to co-produce(?) full productions with other companies (not to mention they have no experience with full productions or co-producing)? And with the full production companies that are getting money (Signiture, really?), are they really going to be bringing many mid-career (not even emerging ones) playwrights up a notch? How is this not the same old money going to the same old playwrights with just a different packaging?

writer said...

The article you link to says the Mellon foundation is giving a lot of money to some well-known development organizations.

Then a bunch of NY theatres that almost never produce new plays by unknowns.

And then, a smattering of theatres in the sticks.

Money is money, but who really knows what this will do for anyone. Certainly helps some production groups, but after that....

I have to say, the Eustis idea of master playwrights who double as teachers is, well... wouldn't it be better to let them write? Teaching is a whole different ball of wax. And not all playwrights are good at it.

Anyway, if you're gonna support playwrights, give the money to playwrights. Directly.

And ask organizations like New Dramatists, Clubbed Thumb, SPF, 13P and the playwriting faculties at NYU, Columbia, Yale, UCSD and Brown to help you figure out who those deserving playwrights might be. (I'd suggest the Public, too, but there, apparently, Sondheim and Kushner would probably be given big chunks of dough... because they never get produced.)

Of course, if you've been studying the problem for years as the Mellon representative says, well, then you know who needs the money.

And if you want productions, then buy a theatre and produce. The Mellon has enough $$$ to do it.

Hopefully we do see more productions. But it would be surprising if we did.