In today’s Washington Post, Peter Marks imagines a new hope for theatre with a touch of audacity. (Go ahead and read it. We’ll wait.)

The short version is, he considers a world in which the White House could support more live theatre–dramatic work in particular–perhaps coordinated by Rocco Landesman and the NEA. After all, “[i]t’s embarrassing that many embassies in Washington are more aggressive about showcasing their nations’ plays and players than is the hometown administration.” His proposal is intriguing, but it really only scratches the surface…

He suggests enlisting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights to craft one-act plays that could be performed at the White House itself, maybe with all star casts volunteering their time to perform. Perhaps their work could revolve around a theme, perhaps not. He then suggests expanding the roster to include “prize worthy” playwrights as well. And he suggests that Landesman might be ideally suited to coordinate such a project.

It’s a good idea. As a playwright, I could get behind that idea. But then I got to thinking.

Is that really all we could do? Is that the best way to use such a platform?

At heart, his idea is to increase awareness and support of theatre. Why not develop a program that celebrates actual theatre companies? What if one or two theatres from each state were encouraged to develop one-act plays? The NEA could support the costs of development and production. These shows could premiere in Washington with much ballyhoo and then return home for their hometown premieres. Now you’ve got promotional bounce on all sides–locally for the theatres, nationally for the program. You’ve got actual investment in actual communities around the country, supporting theatre work everywhere. Best of all, you’re merely coordinating and programming the shows instead of developing short-term ad-hoc companies of players for each White House show. You might even design it to work in tandem with the New Play Development Project at Arena Stage. (I know I would.)

Moreover, you might find some new voices, new playwrights, who aren’t the same twelve names from the same seven MFA programs. (Don’t quote me on the numbers, just read Outrageous Fortune and bang your head against the wall. I know I do.)

In fact, you might perform these shows at Arena Stage’s new complex. Unlike the White House, they’ll have spaces designed for presenting theatre. (I know, crazy, right?) This naturally would throw more attention on the NPDP and the NEA’s partnership with Arena.

And then maybe you record some of these shows. It’s been forever since PBS had “In Performance at the White House,” which was mostly musical stars performing classic songs cabaret-style, but surely the name/brand could be resurrected for a collection of one-acts. Maybe it would be for PBS, maybe not.

Marks says, “With this national level of encouragement, you wonder if the temptation would be diminished just a bit for any of these writers to defect to the likes of HBO.” What if, instead, part of the plan–part of the appeal–would be that the work would ALSO be on HBO or Sundance or any one of a number of possible channels? This would also draw more financial support for the program–a series of plays filmed properly (a la the Extended Theatre Experience or Digital Theatre models) would still be far less expensive than a comparable filmed, scripted drama series.

(For those of you keeping track at home, think about the last hour-long drama that got cancelled after five episodes. The amount of money it cost to produce those five hours of thrown-away television would cover the budget for a full year of programming, events, fundraisers, everything at the average major regional theatre. You heard that right. Five hours versus 365 days. Now who’s wasting money?)

Yes, a filmed play is still a play on film, it’s not the live experience and it’s not a movie. We can talk about the pros and cons of that some other time. But for the purists out there who insist they can’t bear watching a filmed play, think about all the people out there who might give your theatre a try because they saw something like it on television. The goal here isn’t to recreate the live theatre experience in your living room, it’s about awareness and marketing. Highlight the fact that this filmed play may be exciting, but it’s nothing compared to the electricity of sitting in the room, live. (But that’s a post all by itself.)

Of course, plays would be broadcast only after their hometown runs had opened and closed. You want to be able to promote these shows to your local community, use participation in this national program as part of your marketing. If the show is broadcast later, then you may reach people who might then give you a try on your next show.

So. What am I proposing?

A program that would solicit and support the development of one-act plays from established, professional theatre companies around the country. These could involve famous playwrights and big-name actors, but they wouldn’t have to. These shows would then premiere in D.C. at the pleasure of the White House before returning to their own theatres. It could be built along the lines of–or as an adjunct to–the New Play Development Project partnership of the NEA and Arena Stage. And performances could be filmed for broadcast and potential online viewing, DVD sales, etc, as a means of spreading awareness and drawing financial support for the project at the same time.

The benefits? Practical support for actual theatre companies around the country. The potential discovery of more new voices, more new stories. The ability to reach new audiences and perhaps draw them to a live theatrical performance, whether one highlighted in the project or just one that happens to be in their hometown.

Such a project would speak to the same grassroots efforts that helped in the presidential campaign. And it would be more representative of the reality of live theatre than those same twelve playwrights.

How about it, Mr. President? Mr. Landesman?

That’s change the theatre world could believe in.

  • April 25, 2010
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