At Arena Stage, A Million-Dollar Toast To Playwrights

Nov 6, 2011

A reporter once asked the late playwright Robert Anderson, author of I Never Sang for My Father, if he could make a living writing for the theater. His reply: "You can make a killing, but not a living."

True enough: For the playwright who hasn't had a hit on Broadway, making a living can be tough. But Arena Stage, a major theater in Washington, D.C., wants to change all that.

Artistic director Molly Smith had long wanted to find ways to support contemporary playwrights. In 2009, Arena landed a $1.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the American Voices New Play Institute. And a good chunk of it is dedicated to playwrights, through a writer-in-residence program that's far more ambitious than the average play-development project.

"The idea ... was to be able to give playwrights a living wage, to be able to give playwrights health care, housing when they're here in Washington, D.C., and research and development money and a young producer to work with them," says Smith. The program is set up "so that writers really can drive their own process, because we believe that you follow the writer."

And after a year, that program is starting to bear fruit. Two pieces by resident playwrights are on Arena's schedule this season: The Book Club Play, by Karen Zacarías, just completed its run, and Amy Freed's You, Nero opens on Nov. 25.

"This play is happening as part of my residency here as a writer on salary with the Arena Stage," Freed marveled when she greeted an Arena crowd on the first day of rehearsal. "Which is, like, two words that have never gone together in my lifetime!"

The next day, in the beautiful townhouse Arena has rented for its playwrights, Freed expands on the comment. For a mid-career playwright who's been working in regional theater for the past 20 years, collecting a $40,000 annual salary — with benefits — and hooking up with an institution like Arena Stage is life-changing, she says.

"You hit this kind of plateau, where you go, "OK, I guess I've achieved what I'm gonna be able to achieve. I've gone as far as I can in the American theater, I suppose, but I haven't gone to where I thought I could go, if given the opportunity."

The Arena program has allowed Freed to really think big. In addition to You, Nero, she's working on two other projects — a play about modern architecture and design, and a play about the 19th-century utopian community in Oneida, N.Y. Both require considerable research, and Freed says she's already taken advantage of the project's annual $15,000 research budget to travel, poke through archives and meet with potential collaborators. And to see plays in New York.

"These sound like simple things," Freed remarks, "but when they're coming out of your bank account, as a playwright, they're crippling."

Arena has committed to produce one work by each of five writers, over the course of a three-year residency. Any other plays they write, even while they're attached to Arena as salaried employees, can be produced at any other theater around the country.

Polly Carl, director of the American Voices New Play Institute thinks it's a pretty radical idea. Normally, she says: "You commission a writer, you own that writer's play to a certain degree. And we're trying really a very different model."

Zacarías, a D.C.-based playwright, is taking full advantage of the opportunity — working on several projects, including one for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, while still feeling like she's part of Arena Stage.

"The strength of this program is that they want you to be as involved with the family as possible, but [are] also really insistent and respectful that your main objective is to write," she says. "And writing is a solitary process. So the fact that you're gone for a week or two, no one sees you, then they know you're actually doing your work."

Zacarías used her first year to rewrite her comedy The Book Club Play. It had its run in an intimate 200-seat theater called the Kogod Cradle, built as part of a major Arena overhaul recently and devoted specifically to new work.

"Usually new plays are put in a basement, [or] in a black box, somewhere in the theater," Zacarías explains. "The fact that one of the most beautiful spaces in the city is dedicated to new work is so exciting. And, I have to say, rocking the Cradle is a blast!"

Next season, Arena Stage will produce two new plays by some of the other resident playwrights, who include Lisa Kron, Charles Randolph-Wright and Katori Hall. Institute director Polly Carl says she'll be closely watching how the program evolves, and asking a lot of questions.

"What does it mean for a writer? How does it make a difference in their careers, and how can we do it better? And can it work, in the way that we've structured it? I don't really have an answer to that."

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