The Playgoer: Whatever Happened to The "Playwright in Residence"

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Whatever Happened to The "Playwright in Residence"

I feel late to the party with the current "Reading Group" discussion of August: Osage County. (Maybe because I still haven't seen it!)

But some interesting comments from Frank Rich and Marsha Norman, as well as more literary (i.e. "Reading Group") peeps Eliza Minot and Blake Wilson.

Like Isaac, I found especially valuable Norman's comments on the importance of the Steppenwolf relationship with Tracy Letts--something sadly unheard of these days in New York and indeed much of the country.

I like what this play represents: a life-long association of a writer with a group of actors and a theater. This is why Shakespeare wrote so much, he had a whole gang of actors waiting to do his work. Go down the list — the writers who wrote a lot of wonderful plays were always associated with a community of actors they could write for: Shepard, Chekhov, Brian Friel, Alan Ackbourne, David Mamet, Lanford Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Richard Foreman, Wendy Wasserstein. Playwrights who live apart from theaters and actors have a lot of trouble getting their work done. Playwrights need to be around actors, need to be a part of a theater’s life.


If we wanted to do one single thing to improve the theatrical climate in America, we’d assign one playwright to every theater that has a resident acting company. People wonder why so much great work came out of Actors Theatre of Louisville in the early days. I was there, so I know it was simply that you had everything you needed: actors who wanted to work, empty stages ready for plays and an artistic director who gave everybody a chance to do whatever they wanted as soon as they could think of it. Playwriting in America has suffered a devastating blow from the development process that keeps writers separate from the rest of the company, working on the same play for years. What playwrights want is what Steppenwolf has given Mr. Letts: a way to get a new play done, see what works, and then go on to the next one. “August: Osage County” is way more than a wonderful play. It is how we get back to having American plays on Broadway. We get them written for actors who want to do them, then producers get on board and start selling tickets.

Indeed--why not a "Resident Playwright" program? Well, first I guess you have to bring back the idea of a resident acting company! The biggest, most well funded ones I can think of are Oregon Shakespeare Fest, ACT in San Francisco, and ART in Boston.

I imagine these and other such companies have occasionally had such visiting writers. But from my experience these tend to be very short-term "residencies" where the playwright gets, at best, a reading or two of works already read to death and maybe a commission for some new children's show or community oriented documentary theatre piece that they'll never get published or performed anywhere else.

The Chekhov/MAT, Lanford Wilson/Circle Rep, and (may we add) Odets/Group Theatre model Norman is referencing has effectively died, institutionally. Certain playwrights still like collaborating with certain actors and directors. But no framework supports that anymore.

And it's worth investing in, the next time someone devises a new grant program for "emerging writers."

I believe TCG has such a program--but can anyone elucidate what it entails?

(BTW--you may notice I snipped out of the Norman quote her remarks about how playwrights benefit from having been actors, like Letts. I'll leave that to the scribes out there to argue with.)


Anonymous said...

Yes. TCG/NEA has a "Playwright in Residence" grant program which has been very successful, although I believe they are phasing it out soon and replacing it with another model of playwriting grant. I know that Playwright/Performer Will Power is currently in residence at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.
he program is a two year program that provides funding for the playwright to be in residence at the host theater, where they write a new play and also participate in the artistic life of the theater. You can read about it on TCG's website: here.
Don't forget that Trinity Rep (in Providence, RI, also has a resident acting company.

Anonymous said...

Here's the link to the announcement of the NEA/Arena program. The NEA/TCG residency is being phased out.