On one hand, you have Gwydion Suilebhan, the playwright and blogger who organized and moderated this past Sunday’s town hall-style discussion on “The State of the D.C. Playwright” at Theater J, arguing that the Washington area is home to 220 playwrights who must compete each year for a mere seven production slots in the seasons of the few companies that produce new work. On the other you have local playwrights like Kitty Felde praising the vitality of the efforts already underway. “I feel like I’m witnessing the birth of something really exciting,” says Felde.
The debate took place on the set of The Religion Thing, between the locally penned and produced work’s final two performances. At the event, part of Theater J’s Locally Grown Playwrights, a panel weighed in on the role local writers within D.C.’s theatrical community. The invited artists included David Dower of the American Voices New Play Institute; Jason Loewith and Jojo Ruf of the National New Play Network; Becky Peters of Wandering Souls; Hunter Styles of Artists Bloc; Lee Leibeskind of Inkwell; and Rebecca Gingrich-Jones, co-founder of the DC-Area Playwrights group.
The event certainly covered the concerns of local playwrights. But the conversation quickly shifted to determining what actions, in practical terms, D.C. artists should take to help the city be seen as a force for new-play development. Should the emphasis be on agitating for more productions of D.C. writers’ work? Or the development of new works from all over the country? Or is it most important for the D.C. theater scene simply to have a cohesive voice?
To judge the conversation, the state of the D.C. playwright sounds to be much the same as the state of creative artists everywhere: They must impress with their talent, support themselves in the process of working, and persevere.
Opportunities to get produced are hard to come by. Suilebhan estimated that those 220 active D.C. playwrights are completing an average of 110 plays per year. Most of the 80 to 90 theater companies in the area don’t produce new work, and as a consequence there are only a few places locally where these plays can be showcased. A number of people at the discussion, incuding Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, argued that Suilebhan’s characterization of the situation was too grim, but no one would suggest that the competition isn’t fierce.
Felde countered that the area provides better opportunity than many other cities. Having moved from Los Angeles, where she worked at Ensemble Studio Theater, Felde said, “I produced for Fringe and I got more press in this town than I ever got for anything I did in L.A.”
When the panel was asked by one audience member how many of them supported themselves as full-time playwrights, the answer was basically zero. Many support themselves with gigs related to their art. “I do a lot of teaching or working with presenting organizations,” said playwright Laura Zam. Suilebhan added that he has a “half- time job…We all have other things that keep us going. Or spouses.”
The extent to which new-play development should center on local playwrights, as opposed to strong new plays in general, stirred some debate. Said one Theater J board member seated behind me: “I’m a supporter of the festival…but just the fact that you all live here doesn’t move me.” The matter of a cohesive “D.C. voice” was raised and dismissed. “I think it would be dangerous to have a ‘D.C. voice,'” said storyteller Jon Spelman. “That’s just another box you have to fit into.”
Of course, characterizing the hardship of an artistic life is far easier than coming up with practical solutions for producing work and serving the audience. Festivals such as Locally Grown, Fringe, and Source help playwrights by mitigating the audience’s fear that seeing an untested show won’t pay off. As playwright Jacqueline Lawton put it, festivals “change the narrative about seeing new work.”
So, how to capture that elusive audience? Suggestions included more writers groups, more readings, and more companies dedicated to producing new work. Locally Grown playwright Stephen Spotswood responded to the evening on his blog, arguing, well, that folks need to help each other out more. “Everyone talks about this in terms of finding that silver bullet that will make the difference—-the playwrights group or the new company,” said Liebeskind, the producing director at Inkwell Theatre. “It’s not the silver bullet, ever. It’s a combination of everything.”
In a sense, the town-hall meeting ended on that note. Both Spotswood and Liebeskind had to cut out early and get to rehearsal at Bright Alchemy. A short time later it was time to bring the conversation to a close, and clear the stage for the next performance.