The concept of The Welders playwrights’ collective is seemingly simple, “Three years. Five plays. Pass it on.” But the effort and dedication that went into its formation is anything but. At their annual summer party The Weld, the six founding members of the company did something tremendous: they gave away their company. A new generation of eight Welders, lovingly termed Welders 2.0, will now take the reins – budget, Board, and all – for the next three and half years, presenting seven new world premieres by each of its seven producing playwrights.
Sarah Scafidi caught up with Gwydion Suilebhan, the final presenting member of 1.0 and Stephen Spotswood, the first to go of 2.0, to discuss the big handoff:
Gwydion, tell me about the origin of The Welders. How did it get started?
GS: Back in 2012, there were lots of conversations among playwrights in DC about 13P [a playwrights’ collective in New York City committed to producing new plays by thirteen mid-career playwrights] and models like that. I was a Dramatist Guild rep for DC at that time, and people would ask me, “hey, why don’t you start a 13P for DC?” And I would say, “yeah, I don’t know. I don’t quite know why I would. I could produce my own work if I wanted to do that.” I just didn’t get a good sense of mission. I think other playwrights felt the same way. It was never clear why we would do it.
And then there was this infamous email exchange between Allyson Currin, Renee Calarco, and I. One of us emailed the other two. Literally, after six hours of emailing each other, we had formed the basic idea of The Welders. And we decided who we were going to reach out to join us: Bob Barlett, Caleen Sinette Jennings, and a couple of other playwrights who initially joined, and then their lives took them in other directions. Then we realized we needed someone to wrangle us. We interviewed a couple of people [for the Executive and Creative Director position], but once we met Jojo Ruf, it was crystal clear she was the one. And the rest is history.
Why is it important for playwrights to help each other produce rather than just a collective of “theatre artists” like so many companies out there?
GS: The Welders is actually my second playwrights’ collective. I founded one in early 2004/2005 with a bunch of other playwrights, only one of whom is actually still writing plays, Catherine Trieschmann. We were called The Waterside Seven. We met for a couple of years and produced a weekend production of our work and did a few other things. So, I knew I could do that. That wasn’t interesting to me. That wasn’t really interesting to any of us. We were all getting produced widely enough. It wasn’t like we needed another production.
What we wanted to do, the explicit, clear idea for us, was this: let’s do this so that we can give it away. The whole impetus for the Welders was to build something for the DC theatre community. It was not ultimately about us, but we knew producing our own work would infuse [the company] with some cache or gravitas that others could benefit from. If we had just gone to the giving it away part, I think we would have missed that.
Speaking of giving it away, Stephen, why did you want to be a Welder? What do you hope to gain from your three and half years in Welders 2.0?
SS: When Welders 1.0 started talking about the process of passing [the company] on, Gwydion flat out asked me if I was going to apply. I said I’d thought about it, but I was probably going to pass. I had plenty of experience self-producing. I was getting some productions elsewhere. I really couldn’t think of why I needed another avenue to produce my work.
And then I had coffee with Gwydion, where he basically gave me the hard sell of the Welders. That was when he described that the majority of my time would not actually be spent producing my own work, but in helping other artists – artists who I have banded together with and whose work I respect and whom I respect – to produce their work. Six-sevenths of the next three and a half years with the Welders is going to be working on other people’s work. Which is fantastic. Having Gwydion explain it in that way started a domino thought process that lasted about a month or so, and I started thinking about who I would want to partner with. That’s how that started.
What do you think Welders 2.0 will bring to the Welders model? Can you even answer that yet?
SS: I can answer some of it. What is fabulous is that 1.0 laid the foundation: there is a website, a Board, and a three-year history of a production process. There is a reputation and a trust built among the community. They have laid all this groundwork, which is wonderful. So, we have to take care of it and expand it, but we don’t have to do it from scratch, which allows us to think about other things. For instance, I know several members of our team are very passionate about finding ways that art intersects with the community. So, we have a whole series of community development plans in place. We are three years old now, so we can apply for grants. There is a development arm that we are going to be working on.
Artistically, only three of the seven producing playwrights that are a part of 2.0 are straight-up, script-driven playwrights – of which I am one. But Annalisa Dias, does a lot of solo, devised work. Rachel Hynes does a lot of performance art and devised work. Hannah Hessel Ratner is primarily a dramaturg. Deb Sivigny is a designer. So, inevitably, not only will the product be different because of different personalities and different artistic visions, but the process by which we create is going to be different.
We have to start thinking about how we, as an organization, can help. [For example], Annalisa is going last. But we have to think, if she decides to do a more devised process, how can we help set that up now? We are going to have [multiple] processes going on in parallel just because of the way things are being created.
So, Gwydion, as Stephen just mentioned, the artists that come to the Welders do a lot of different things: Deb is a designer, you are the Director of Marketing at Woolly Mammoth, etc. How has that affected and shaped the Welders?
GS: Well, we’re a collective. That means we run the organization as a collective, and we run our productions a little bit more traditionally. I would say that when you are a collective, you sort of think like a collective, “this is the list of things we need to get done for the collective to survive.” And from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs, you know? We chipped in as we could. And where there was no one in the group to do certain things, we got help. We didn’t have a great photographer on staff, so we hired a lot of great photographers. We didn’t have a production manager on staff, so we hired a production manager. Having an array of diversely talented people was what made it work.
The Welders just finished a campaign called “Dear Future Welder” where Welders 1.0 gave advice to 2.0. Gwydion, do you have any advice for Stephen speaking as the last Welder of 1.0 to present to the first Welder of 2.0?
GS: Every Welder who went before me gave me two pieces of advice, which I then ignored. I’m going to give them now to Stephen:
1) It’s really hard. But remember that you have help when it gets really hard.
2) Don’t be afraid to be a leader.
It’s so tempting. We are so used to not being a leader: expecting our directors and artistic directors to be the leaders. Expecting someone else to lead, so that we can be creative. That’s not what this is. This is our chance to be a leader. This is our chance to say, “I want it this way because I want it this way and because my art demands for it be this way.” For Transmission, I put a bunch of dramaturgs around me – a bunch of different people. That’s weird. No one does that. But I made everyone a dramaturg and said, “I want you all weighing in on my work.” That’s what I wanted, and I didn’t have to ask for permission. But it was still hard to remind myself that it was on me to do that.
And for every Welder before me, there was a moment in our conversation where they would ask, “what should I do about X?” and we would say, “what are you going to do about X? We’re going to follow whatever you tell us to do. We work for you.” So, this is your moment, Steve. It’s all on you. You get to make the decisions.
So Stephen, your piece Girl in the Red Corner, what is your elevator pitch? What are you most excited about it?
SS: It’s about a woman who dismantles and totally rearranges her life when she starts training for mixed martial arts. The entire play takes place inside an MMA octagon, as imagined by Deb Sivigny, my set designer. One of the many things I’m excited about is it explores women and fighting – not just physical fighting, but in every area of a woman’s life: family, work, social life, etc. It examines where they actually battle everyday and then brings all of that onstage in [fights ranging from] very realistic fighting to very theatricalized combat. We actually have a traditional fight choreographer and a mixed martial arts consultant who owns an MMA gym and trains professionally. And [the two] are partnering to create the world of the show. It’s pretty exciting.
GS: It’s super cool. You can quote me on that.
At The Weld, I asked a few members, past and future, to tell me what they were most excited about for Welders 2.0:
Bob Bartlett (1.0): I’m excited to see [the company] go on through [2.0]. And then on through 3.0 and 4.0 and so on. It will eventually be people we don’t even know. DC is a playwriting town.
Deb Sivigny (2.0): I’m most excited for the work, seeing how everyone’s pieces develop. We have a lot of non-traditional pieces: devised work, site-specific pieces, maybe even a walking tour. Welders 1.0 really set the stage for us [with Renee’s Museum and Gwydion’s Transmission]. They showed us there is an audience for this type of work. I’m also really excited for the rest of the process, supporting the others.
Ronee Penoi (2.0): I’m most excited for the opportunity to eventually pass it on. This isn’t mine to keep or even hold on to for a long time. I want to leave it better than we found it.
Annalisa Dias (2.0): I’m excited to get to work with this amazing cohort of collaborators with the support of our wonderful group of advisors and board members. Everyone involved is so generous and invested in the work.
As of August 1st, The Welders are Brett Steven Abelman, Annalisa Dias, Rachel Hynes, Ronee Penoi, Alexandra Petri, Hannah Hessel Ratner, Deb Sivigny, and Stephen Spotswood. The founding members are Bob Bartlett, Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Jojo Ruf, and Gwydion Suilebhan. They will remain as advisors to Welders 2.0.
Welders 2.0 will open their first show, Stephen Spotswood’s Girl in the Red Corner at Atlas Performing Arts Center in November.