The Playgoer: Arena Stage Puts Playwrights on Salary

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Arena Stage Puts Playwrights on Salary

Well some playwrights at least.

Reports the hometown Washington Post:

Over the next three years, five playwrights will be part of Arena's American Voices New Play Institute, which was formed in August and financed by a $1.1 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The writers will be paid to write on any project they please during their three-year tenure, with the promise of a stage production and an additional pot of development money under their control. 
It's impressive is that Arena apparently factored this into the opening of their new three-venue complex, inviting (select) playwrights to fully contribute to the life of the entire institution for three years.  Perhaps even more impressive is that not only is there at least one production promised, but the writers are encouraged to use the residency to work on whatever they please.  (That "pot of development money" is described in the article as: "$15,000 budgets to spend as they see fit for the workshop phases of their creations")

Rare to have both subsidy and autonomy.

The five chosen writers for this phase range from the already prominent (Lisa Kron, Amy Freed) to the already "hot" (Katori Hall) to the lesser known nationally (Karen Zacarias and Charles Randolph-Wright) so at least the slots aren't being monopolized by the already over-awarded.

So we'll see what comes of this.  The article indeed credits the Public's new relationship with Suzan-Lori Parks as a precedent, so hopefully both these institutions (and others!) will continue to offer such support to future playwrights.

But there's a core issue addressed here that goes beyond the fate of new plays in America.  And that is the broader social and economic relationship of our performance institutions to our artists.  "Certainly, it has been noticed," one of the Mellon Foundation supporters tells WaPo, "that the administrators of these organizations are paid a salary and most artists are paid on contract."  Is that a sustainable discrepancy in this marketplace, in this cultural landscape?

Oskar Eustis puts it succinctly:
"What the theater says to playwrights is, Why don't you do television and movies, and when you are slumming, come do theater."
The universities can do (and have done) their part in subsidizing our theatre artists and writers.  But they can only do so much.

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