Is Arena Stage Launching a New Business Model for Playwrighting?
Arena Stage, which will be introducing its rebuilt $125-million facility to the Washington public in October, may be putting an even more lasting change into effect by giving five playwrights a salary and benefits. Fueled by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the plan, which Arena will administer through its American Voices New Play Initiative, will give each of the selected playwrights wages (described by Arena as a “living” wage and estimated elsewhere to be in the mid-five-figure range), health insurance, other benefits and a $15,000 annual budget for development. This constitutes a radical departure from the current model for new play development, under which theaters either commission a play or pay a royalty for a playwright’s completed work.
Arena initially announced the program in August of last year and set it forth in more detail last June.
“My ultimate hope for the program is that artists are able to make a living salary in the theater, and that we protect and support and nurture our strongest artists,” Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith said in an interview with DC Theatre Scene. “I would absolutely love it if this signaled a paradigm shift in the way we treat artists in the theater.”
The difference between the Arena approach and the traditional commission/fee system is that while the latter pays for the play, the Arena system pays for the playwright. Arena Associate Artistic Director David Dower, who heads American Voices New Play Institute, says the Arena system is primarily designed to improve working conditions for playwrights. “What I’m really hoping for is that [the Arena system] will result in institutions which have developed a better environment to support a writer. It’s less inspired by the concept that plays aren’t good than that the economic situation for a playwright is horrible. That’s more what we’re working for.”
The five playwrights who Arena is engaging under the grant are Amy Freed, whose Beard of Avon played to good reviews and good crowds at Rorschach in 2005, Katori Hall, whose The Mountaintop won an Olivier award as best new play in 2010, Lisa Kron, author of the 2007 Arena hit Well, Charles Randolph-Wright, director of Arena’s Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, whose Blue and Cuttin’ Up had a successful run at Arena as well, and well-known local artist Karen Zacarias, whose Legacy of Light – also produced at Arena – made her a finalist for the Steinberg Award last year. The five, who are called “Resident Playwrights” although Smith expects none of them except Zacarias to live in the area for any extended period of time, use completely different styles and have different points of view. This, Smith and Dower say, is deliberate.
“We were looking for writers of range, writers of intelligence, writers that were exciting to me, writers whose works we had either produced before or wanted to produce in the future, and I was very interested in writers who were working in different forms,” Smith says. “All of these writers are writers who break forms in one way or another in their writing styles. I was really interested in insuring that each of the writers has very distinctive voices, and each one of these writers do.”
“It is my profound hope that as people look at what comes out of this program it is as rangy and uncategorizable as American theater itself,” Dower adds.
Although the Arena plan is primarily designed to improve the conditions under which playwrights work, Dower believes that playwrights will produce better work if they are relieved of some of the pressure of marketing their work or finding commissions. “If [the Arena system] results in better plays, it will be because the playwrights have had time to focus….Chuck Mee has had the advantage of being in a situation where he can write all the time, and he constantly talks about how much more this allows him to focus.” (Mee, whose Full Circle was produced last season by Woolly Mammoth and whose Hotel Cassiopeia ran in this year’s Fringe, has been subsidized, without conditions, by philanthropists Richard and Jeanne Donovan Fisher since 1998).
Smith concurs: “I believe that writers need homes to do their best work, and I believe in following the artists…. The ability to have salary, health care, and a young producer attached to them gives these writers security to do their work.”
But what if things don’t happen as expected and one or more of the playwrights don’t produce work during their tenure as resident playwrights? Notwithstanding Arena’s unconditional support of the artists, such a failure would have serious consequences, for Arena and the project. “If we got to the end of the three years and a playwright didn’t complete a play, that would be a setback – for us as well as him,” Dower says, and Smith concedes that if it happens “[w]e would rethink part of the program. My guess is that it won’t happen, but if it does, we’ll rethink it.”
But Arena has done all it can to make the project work even in the worst-case scenario. “Everybody we have chosen has already at least one play that we’re interested in producing. We have committed to produce a play during their tenure but it might be one that they’ve already written,” Dower observes, and Smith points out that the artists are already working on new material. Zacarias has already rewritten two of her plays – The Book Club Play and Mariela in the Desert, and Kron “is working on a comedy, a one-person play, and a musical.”
Arena’s arrangements with the playwrights are not restrictive. “All of these playwrights are busy on commissions for other theaters, and we decided that it was all right,” Dower says. “A single commission is insufficient to pay for a playwright’s living expenses, so they all take multiple commissions.” Even the three-year restriction on residency is not set in concrete. Smith explains that “if, for example, one of the writers is working on the project and they want (to work with) a particular artist who’s not available during the 3-year period, we would work with that writer after the 3-year period expires.”
However, if a playwright is working on an Arena project, he will get plenty of help. The $15,000 annual budget will cover collaborating artist fees as well as research and development. Arena will provide housing for the playwrights while they are in Washington, and they will each be able to participate in Arena’s artistic decision-making. “While they’re here, they’ll be invited into the artistic team meetings on how our season will developed; and they’ll be asked to provide input,” Smith says.
In addition to all that, each playwright will have the assistance of a producing fellow to attend to the details of their playwriting needs. The producing fellows come from the “Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship program – producing, directing, lighting design and other production-related responsibilities. It’s a mentoring program because the most productive work comes out of these deep mentoring relationships. There are three producing fellows at present. Each playwright works with one of them who will perform all the work of a young producer, who learns by doing – they’re the right-hand person, who will have a mentor.” Smith says. She adds that Dower will be the principal mentor for the young producers.
Of course, the principal measure of the success or failure of the Arena system will be whether it is able to sustain itself after the Mellon Grant expires. Will Arena and other theaters conclude that having a resident playwright makes economic sense, and can be supported by ordinary revenues?
Dower is optimistic, within limits. “That’s the profound hope. We’ll need a few years to show that it works. I don’t imagine the program will remain at this size. I’m not sure that Arena will always want or be able to support 5 resident playwrights. But the cohort of writers have been pulled together specifically to develop the rationale for Playwrights in Residence – they’ll help us develop and refine the role of the playwright in the institute. We didn’t want to ask one playwright to take that on. But after the time that we support five playwrights passes, it is my sincere hope that we will be able to have a playwright in Arena in perpetuity.”