The Playgoer: The Rise of the Resident Playwright?

Custom Search

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Rise of the Resident Playwright?

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 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.


Ken said...

Love this general idea, but, as you said, it would be nice if all this largesse didn't have to go to writers who were already doing very well. But alas, in order to get the initial word out about such a program, you need "names" attached to it. Opportunities like this, which seem heaven-sent to a perenially struggling writer like myself, also usually seem all but out of reach.

cgeye said...

As said above, these playwrights are the test case -- if they can't produce quality work under these conditions, then why would funders risk bestowing such bennies on early-career writers?

Anonymous said...

As someone who works professionally in theatre - not as an actor, director, or playwright - as a designer, things like this drive me absolutely mad!

Where are the initiatives that support early-career ("emerging" ::shudders::) designers? These programs just don't exist. Programs that match-make early career directors with early career designers make so much sense.

Hell, what's ever dedicated to theatrical design? Not magazines, articles, blogs...

Anonymous said...

This program is specifically set up for mid-career playwrights -- so why complain that they're giving it to, um, mid-career playwrights? If you think most of those five writers are making a decent living with health benefits from WRITING, you are wrong. Even the big dough to Kushner that you love to carp about will enable him to write for the theater for a bunch of years, which is a GOOD thing. Sure, more money, more programs, more, more, more for those who don't have much at all yet, but jeez. ANY project that gives money and productions to playwrights is an excellent thing. Go raise a quarter mil and distribute as you wish.

Ken said...

Dear Anonymous,
The press release says "young and mid-career" playwrights, actually. That's why Annie Baker and Katori Hall are included--I would hope for their sakes that they are not in the "middle" of their careers just yet! And my initial post did not mean to refer to their income when I said they were "doing very well," but rather their visibility in the industry.
And again, I am pragmatic enough to realize that the only way a theater like Signature is going to know of these playwrights in order to give them the award is if they are already out there, getting things produced all over the place. And so I also realize that I will have to work much harder and be far luckier before I can even qualify as a struggling unknown writer.

Matt said...

This seems like a really positive move on the part of Signature. For one, it does, as PG points out, spread the money around, which is often not the case in arts funding. And the promise of production offers a strong incentive to keeping these writers focused on the stage, not television. It probably isn't perfect, but it's a much better attempt at this sort of support than I've seen elsewhere. And PG, it doesn't seem fair to say that since Katori Hall has one hit, she's guaranteed a decade or two of great success. As you know, that isn't always the case.