From the Washington Post:
Names of major American playwrights are often familiar, even to those who never attend the theater: Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and August Wilson come to mind. Less well known is their traditional status as itinerant workers: They hand over plays to theater companies for a fee, show up for rehearsals and opening night, then move on.
Arena Stage, Washington's Tony Award-winning regional theater, is trying to break that pattern with a simple idea that is almost revolutionary. If the initiative works, the way theater treats these key players will change dramatically.
Essentially, Arena is hiring playwrights as employees, with salaries and health benefits — and even access to office supplies.
This is a big deal. Certain kinds of theater companies have integrated writers into their general mix in the past—Elizabethans, Soviets, and experimental/ensemble companies—but regional theaters generally give salaries and benefits to the arts bureaucrats and hire artists as temps.
Just a few days ago, I sat in a rehearsal hall at Intiman with playwright Lynn Nottage, where she and Kate Whoriskey were working on rehearsals for Ruined, Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a brothel in DR Congo. During our conversation, she listed all the places she's worked over the years: pharmaceutical companies, Merrill Lynch, a chocolate shop, Amnesty International, the mayor's office, night shifts in all kinds of places.
Now, even though she's won a MacArthur Genius grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Pulitzer Prize—and she's one of the top-ten most produced playwrights of the past decade (beating out Wilde, Brecht, and Shaw)—she's still keeping her day job.
When I asked if she was working as a full-time writer, she laughed. "Are you kidding? No, no—I work like an immigrant. I'm never giving up the day job. This is a scary business." (Her current day job: teaching.)
If Lynn "MacArthur/Pulitzer/Guggenheim/top-ten-list" Nottage can't survive as a full-time playwright, who can?
The five writers just hired at Arena Stage: Lisa Kron, Amy Freed, Karen Zacarias, Charles Randolph-Wright, and Katori Hall (a Memphis native who won London's prestigious Olivier Award this year for The Mountaintop). It's a bold gamble for the theater, but somebody had to take it. And Nottage, for one, is confident the gamble will pay. "Here's the reality," she said. "Playwrights need nurturing at all levels of their careers."
Even when regional theaters don't have money to give to playwrights, she said, they should at least put their building and expertise at the service of young companies. "If regional theaters made that commitment," she said, "I guarantee that in five years you'll have a crop of new plays ready to go out into the world."
And if Arena Stage's gamble works, it'll change—and raise—expectations about relationships between theaters and playwrights everywhere.
h/t Just Wrought.