So what do we think of Signature's announcement of five playwright residencies?
Annie Baker, Will Eno, Katori Hall, Kenneth Lonergan, and Regina Taylor [will] be charter members of a program to develop and stage their new works. The program, called Residency Five, guarantees three full productions of new plays by each writer over the next five years. Each will also receive a $50,000 cash award, stipends to attend theater, and health insurance benefits. Additional playwrights will be added to the mix in the coming years as writers rotate out of the program.First let's get the obvious carping out of the way. Kenneth Lonergan does not need playwright-welfare. Katori Hall (The Mountaintop) already has an Olivier award behind her and a Broadway premiere approaching. Annie Baker is today in a position to have her next napkin-scribble read by the nation's top ten theaters. Will Eno and Regina Taylor have been produced quite a lot around the country over the past few years.
That said, there's much to like in concept here, I think. I like the $50--a hearty sum but not exorbitant. (Like, say, handing Tony Kushner another quarter-mil.) I'm all for needy playwrights getting big piles of money, but reasonable amounts set a good precedent, giving other theaters and funders something to aim for. So, for instance, this Signature plan "spreads the wealth" of $250K among five writers, instead of giving it all to one Kushner. In some circles, believe it or not, $250K is not an impossible sum to raise!
(By the way, I'm assuming the $50K is a one-time payment, not annually for the five years. The latter would be super, of course, but even the former is not bad. Especially with the ongoing health benefits, something playwrights don't have a union for like Actors Equity.)
Offering everyone three productions does seem a bit much. I mean, do all these writers even have three good plays in their proverbial bottom drawers? Does Signature have the resources for fifteen full productions of these sight-unseen scripts?
So my hope is that--along with Suzan Lori-Parks' relationship with the Public and Arena Stage's big program--the idea of resident playwrights or more formal compensating relationships between companies and playwrights will start catching on. But rather than guaranteeing 50-grand to five writers everyone knows for three shows each...how about $10K to four unknown writers for two shows each?
Better yet: if ten theater companies across the country could house four playwrights each (and we made sure all ten didn't pick the same people!) that would put forty early-career dramatists to work! And more importantly--pump eighty new plays into circulation very quickly. Out of those eighty, I bet some would be really good.