“Three years, five plays, pass it on.” -Renee Calarco
This is a thumbnail portrait of The Welders, one of the newest, and most unique, organizations to pop up on the DC theatrical landscape. Describing itself as “a playwrights’ collective,” The Welders are made up of five of our accomplished and prominent local theatre writers: Calarco, Allyson Currin, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Bob Bartlett, and Gwydion Suilebhan. The plan is, beginning next season, to produce one play each by the five over three seasons, after which the hope and expectation is to pass things along to another set of writers.
If there is a complaint about the proliferation of new companies in the burgeoning theatre scene in town, it is that some of the mission statements can seem at once grandiose and indistinct. A friend of mine once lampooned a typical expression of mission: “We are going to do what no other company in town does: let me run things!” The Welders can be added to the list of companies that do have a distinct mission and who intend to fill an unoccupied niche.
If the concept sounds familiar, it will be because The Welders took inspiration from a similar enterprise developed by a group of New York-based writers. Called 13P, that group of thirteen, who included Sarah Ruhl and Young Jean Lee, was formed in 2003 and presented the last of its productions in 2012, after which the organization ended its existence. Dubbed “the implosion model” by member Anne Washburn, that sunset provision was not embraced by all of the 13P, some of whom thought a better model would envision the first group of 13 passing the torch to a successor group.
That “pay it forward” impulse has been baked into the mission of The Welders, who expect to turn over to a next class of DC writers an established non-profit organization with a Board, a donor base, and a production history. Given how many writers for theatre are active in our area, given the limited opportunities for full productions of their work, and given how easy it would be to rattle off another five or ten playwrights at or near the level of recognition and achievement of this first five, it is easy to imagine a line forming quickly to receive the torch when it will be passed.
Like the members of 13P, The Welders with whom I spoke for this article (Currin and Jennings, who were joined by Jojo Ruf, the group’s Executive and Creative Director) described themselves as “mid-career” writers. In discussing the “origin story,” they talked about being inspired by 13P and other organizations around the country whose work they described as empowering playwrights. They took inspiration from the success of, and the ferment surrounding, DC’s 8 year old Fringe Festival. (Jennings described Fringe as “lighting a match under our butts.”) As a group of “like-minded playwrights” began informally meeting to discuss “what can we do to promote our work,” a feeling that they were not ready to “start anything” was gradually replaced by a sense that the time was right to create something new. Currin described a sort of self-selection process at the end of which the five writers asked each other, “is this it?” (meaning, presumably, are we the first five?), to which the answer was an emphatic “Yes.”
As they envisioned how the enterprise would be organized, they also spent a lot of time articulating the group’s shared values. Jennings and Currin described a long, fascinating, and revelatory discussion the group conducted around the question of which playwrights had inspired them. Two important tenets emerged from that process: first, it was determined that it would be important for the group to include more women than men (much has been written about gender disparity as regards which playwrights receive productions, among other opportunities in theatre more generally); and second, that the organization would strive for a sense of “communal generosity,” an impulse that can be felt not only in the plan to pass the organization along to a new set of writers, but also in the way the group has been structured.
Where to find The Welders:
Page to Stage Festival
Sept 2, 2013
Atlas Performing Arts Center
Each playwright will serve as Artistic Director during the production cycle in which that writer’s play will be produced. Ruf will serve as the Executive Producer and Dramaturge during each cycle. Two of the other writers will also function as “Producing Partners” during each cycle, with the remaining two sitting on the Board. So the vision images a revolving staff structure that keeps all five involved to varying degrees and in different roles throughout the three years of this first iteration of The Welders.
Currin is looking forward to spending 4/5’s of the next three years concentrating on the work of her colleagues, which will make a change from the sometimes isolated business of writing. A recurring motif during our discussion was the regard these writers hold for each other and how important their perspectives will be to whichever play is their focus. The five, according to Currin, are currently “at the top of their game” and have “complementary skill sets.” Jennings points out that the five are seasoned writers who “have a following” among local theatre-goers.
A belief held by many theatre folk states that it is unwise for a playwright to direct his or her own work. It is felt that the counter-balance of a director who has not written the play is the model that will develop the strongest result. Is a structure in which the writer serves as Artistic Director one that goes against this conventional wisdom?
The Welders with whom I spoke think not. They point out that each project will have a respected and opinionated director from outside the group of Welders, on whom the writer will depend for important perspective. More importantly, the five will depend on each other, because there is “nothing like a fellow playwright” when it comes to helpful response during the development of a new work. Jennings spoke of how invaluable it will be to receive input from others who share a vocabulary, who share neuroses, who “get what you’re doing.” Currin feels she receives the “best notes” from other writers, who bring up the most provocative questions to consider, who understand the uniqueness of creating a play, who aren’t afraid to “call you on your crap,” particularly, I presume, since they know each other’s work so well going in. They stressed that social media has enabled writers in the region to interact in important ways that demonstrate that this community is supportive of, and is “really into,” each other.
That leads to another point that struck me from our discussion. The 13P mission statement expressed frustration with the excruciatingly long process typical of new play development, involving numerous readings and workshops, often stopping short of full production. The Welders, by contrast, stress that its founding is not driven by frustration with, or a critique of, existing play development structures. Sure, it is a model that replaces Dramaturges or Artistic Directors with working playwrights as the “gatekeepers,” but this is in the context of broadening “options and alternatives,” or, as Currin put it, making the point that their goal is to add another model to multiple existing ways of birthing new plays, it’s not “either, or,” it’s “yes, and.”
Another bit of conventional wisdom is that, difficult as it is to achieve a new play’s first production, it is even more difficult to find a theatre that will give it a second production, once the cachet of presenting a premiere has been foreclosed. Another thing that struck me about my talk with The Welders was their focus on process rather than on creating a marketable property that could have a life after its Welders production. Jennings, who, as the most experienced of the group, felt to me a bit like its elder states-person (excuse any pejorative sense associated with a mention of her age, which she freely offered up) said, “I’m past the point of looking for a stepping stone. I have a problem play and I want to solve it.”
Underlining the point that the organization will put more “power in the hands of the playwright” than might be typical in more conventional situations, one of them said to me, “Your time is yours.” This made me wonder if The Welders will offer these five a platform for a work that might be less appealing to existing theatres. Although they steered me away from emphasizing that aspect, they did allow that there will be a freeing aspect to an organization administered by writers, and certainly the feeling was palpable that playwrights could bring a useful perspective to the leadership of producing organizations. (And we listed the few high profile local companies that are, or have been, led by writers as against the directors and actors who lead most theatres.)
The Welders’ sense of excitement may be tinged with a healthy dose of trepidation. The obvious amount of thought and planning may be leavened by a feeling that they are “figuring things out as we go.” March 2014, after all, is not that far away, and that’s the expected time-frame of the first production. (Currin’s play is scheduled to lead off.) Of course, acquiring space is always a major hurdle for theatre companies, whether new or established, and The Welders are partnering with Atlas Performing Arts Center, the location of the March production and of a benefit evening that will occur on Mon., Nov. 4, 2013. The Welders will also have a presence at this year’s Page-to-Stage Festival; look for that on Mon., Sept. 2 at The Kennedy Center.
Apparently, numerous emails were exchanged on the subject of what to call the group before Ruf brought in the poem that inspired the name The Welders. I’ll close with the excerpt (off their website, www.thewelders.org) from that poem from which their name was derived, followed by some recent credits of the five writers, also supplied by Ruf.
From “The Welders”
I am interested in the blend
of common elements to make
a common thing.
No magic here.
Only the heat of my desire to fuse
what I already know
exists. Is possible.
I am the welder.
I am taking the power
into my own hands.
– by Cherrie Moraga
The Welders Playwrights
Recent credits include the world premieres of Caesar and Dada at WSC Avant Bard and Hercules in Russia at Doorway Arts Ensemble, in addition to commissions from The Kennedy Center and Cincinnati Playhouse.
CALEEN SINNETTE JENNINGS
Recent credits include Cream Soda & Creme de Menthe for Washington Women in Theatre,Wecycling at American University, I Ain’t Olivia Pope for WPFW Radio, and a commission from St. Mary’s College of Maryland to write St. Mary’s Listen Hear.
Credits include Reals (Theater Alliance), The Faithkiller and Let X (Taffety Punk Theatre Company), and Abstract Nude (Virtual Arts TV).
Recent credits include Bleed at Pinky Swear Productions and First Stop: Niagara Falls at the Source Theatre Festival. The Religion Thing, produced by Theater J, was nominated for the 2013 Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play. Her most recent commission is The 12 Days of Christmas, which will premiere at Adventure Theatre in late 2013.
Bob’s play Bareback Ink played at the Capital and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals and gets a reboot in May 2014 at Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre Company.