– Award winning DC playwright Karen Zacarias received the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play (The Sins of Sor Juana). Her works have been produced at The Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, The Goodman Theater, The Denver Center, Alliance Theater, Round House Theater, Imagination Stage, Berkshire Theater Festival, South Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, The Arden, Cleveland Playhouse, San Jose Rep among others.-
There’s an interesting shift right now in DC. Artists here — actors, directors, playwrights — are more aware than ever that we’re not just a center for politics. The nation as a whole is starting to look at us as a real center for the arts. I think we’ve always known that about ourselves here in DC, but especially lately there’s been a sort of tremor rumbling out from the District. I think what we’re trying to do now is figure out how to harness that power and excitement.
I’m not as well-read on everything as I try to be. So, there’s plenty I haven’t seen this year. But I can tell you for sure that 2011 was really special and exciting, with a lot of local playwrights getting some time in the sun. I got to see a bunch of really wonderful new plays. It was great to go to Theater J and catch some of the Locally Grown series. And of course, it’s exciting that Arena Stage has been doing shows by resident playwrights. That’s inspiring and humbling. Getting to work with Molly Smith and the wonderful actors in the fall production of my play The Book Club Play was a highlight of last year. New plays are always risky, but at the same time they can be incredibly rewarding.
The Arena residency for playwrights is a three-year gig. So I’m in my last third of it now. Time goes by quickly. Seasons fly by. That’s the ephemeral nature of theatre, I guess. The play is everything, for a concentrated time, and then it suddenly becomes a part of the past.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what makes a play “American.” It’s such a vast notion. But, I think what makes this country great is the fact that since the beginning we have always embraced change. And yet, change is really scary, and it can promote deep fears. There’s a lot of examination of that idea — that balance — in theatre right now.
We are a country of such constant, sometimes radical reinvention. As we see a new generation of writers coming in, this theme is coming to the surface more and more, it seems. What does it mean to be American? Well, what our parents thought about the American dream versus what we think now, versus what our children will think… Some of the values will stay the same, but it’s all going to look and feel very different. Theatre needs to be able to reflect that, and serve that constant ability on our parts to change.
The personal is political, too. The idea of social communities doubling as political communications is very interesting to me. I just wrote a new play about immigration, so I’ve been moored in these thoughts and issues. One thing I find interesting is that I tend to see a larger amount of political theatre outside of DC than I do in DC. Plays about life inside the beltway, I mean. I wonder if we’ve made the decision, explicitly or not, that we live and breathe it so much every day that our theatre projects need to take us outside of that when possible.
It’s interesting to see how many new theatres are embracing new work. Signature has been doing new musicals, but they’re doing new plays now too. Studio Theatre is moving into the world of world-premieres. Round House is premiering a new play by a local writer this month. It’s great. I remember when I finished grad school in playwriting and I didn’t head to New York, everyone thought I was crazy. But now, the fact that my students from Georgetown have been able to stay and take root here, and have thriving careers in theatre, is wonderful. I’m happy to see DC can be so diverse.
The Capital Fringe Festival has played a part in this too. Fringe just started a few years ago, and so many projects that began there have taken on a life beyond the festival. I hope DC can develop even more places to meet like that, in such a centralized way.
It’s funny. The more directly people are involved in making theatre, the less theatre they have time to see. My big mantra for 2012 is that I’m going to see two to four shows a month. I should be seeing a lot more. But, hey, life with kids… I’ve also been trying to get up to New York and around to other cities too. I just went to the Humana Festival for the first time this year, and talked with many DC playwrights who were also there. The community of DC writers is getting stronger. We’re all really talking with each other, too. I think big things are afoot.
I’ve stayed in DC all this time because it’s not a cut-throat community. People genuinely want to help each other out in the arts. You know, they’re talking about passing this law that would allow for taller buildings downtown. But part of what gives DC its flavor is the fact that you can always see the Washington Monument. There’s something about that that appeals to me. There’s a feeling of openness to spending time here. There’s air, and everything’s accessible. The light shines through in odd places.
And so many different communities here have such different identities! When I got here, there were twenty or thirty working theatres. Now there are so many more, all different shapes and sizes. We’re sending our actors all over the country and the world. We’re really becoming a place not just to survive in the arts, but to live and breathe in the arts.
Who wins or who doesn’t win Helen Hayes awards in the long run… that isn’t what the awards night is about. The reason I love going to the awards is simple. I get to see people who I don’t always get to see all out for one night. They’re all so busy, and they all work multiple jobs, but there we all are. Everyone looks good and smells good, and we can eat and dance and talk about why theatre is so great in this town. The fact that certain people get celebrated with awards serves as a sort of engine. But, for me, it’s mainly a great way to see friends and to get inspired. You get a chance to really discuss topics and shows and ideas that you don’t get to discuss all together at very many other points in the year.
And I love that the awards now have this larger Theatre Washington component. I think that’s the right name for the next decade. “Theatre Washington.” I can’t wait until more of the people from Atlanta, California, New England, or wherever, who are coming in to see the Smithsonian and the National Mall also think to come out at night for the arts. Just like when we go out at night in New York or Chicago, seeing a show is kind of inherent. That’ll be us pretty soon.