Over the weekend, @NewPlayTV streamed three interesting, presumably unrelated talks. The first was from Steppenwolf’s First Look Festival, titled How to engage 21st Century Audiences for New Plays, followed an hour later by one from the PlayFest at Orlando Shakespeare Theater on How to Make a Living as a Playwright? Monday night’s was from New Dramatists in NYC, titled Beyond the Culture Wars: Arts Funding in America. (The links lead to the archived videos of the talks; some of them are in multiple parts, just so’s you know.)

On the surface, there are connections–they’re all about theatre and they all feature playwrights as panelists. But one common thread leapt out at me and reminded me of conversations we’ve had on the #2amt stream on Twitter. It began with Robert O’Hara and Marisa Wegrzyn on the Steppenwolf panel talking about how they as playwrights had been welcomed into the marketing process at various theatres and, in Marisa’s case, more deeply involved as a partner and co-founder of Theatre Seven. I’ve done much the same for Riverrun Theatre as a founder and co-producer, largely for the same reasons–we enjoy it.

The next panel, from PlayFest, began with the question, “What’s a playwright got to do to make a living?” Panelist Charlie Bethel answered first. “Everything but playwriting.” He was only half-joking–he went on to list all the occupations he’s had in order to support his writing. Gloria Bond Clunie noted that “Not sleeping is really essential in holding two jobs…” And, “if you identify yourself as a writer, then you have to decide what else has to fall away so you can focus on that.”

Minutes later, Jason Loewith, executive director of the National New Play Network, asked a question we’ve been asking for a while now.

“Why don’t theatre companies with budgets of more than $2.5 million have a playwright on staff?”

Steve Yockey countered with, “Why not $1 million?”

Finally, Monday’s wish-list post by Gwydion Suilebhan and that night’s debate from New Dramatists echoed and continued these thoughts. Gwydion offered the wish that more playwrights should be on staff. At the debate, economist Eric Helland asked, “Why is the Playwright the only person in the production not on salary?” (I know several designers who’d argue with that. But let’s stick with the seven-figure-budget theatres for now.)

Several months ago, Kristoffer Diaz and I went back and forth on Twitter (both on and off #2amt) about the idea of a staff playwright and what that would entail. We agreed that it meant more than a residency or a commission, more than the ability to use office equipment and have steady health insurance. It meant more than simply putting words on paper for people to speak aloud on stage. It means, first and foremost, being there, being part of the heart of the company.

Fine. But what would a staff playwright do?

What if you had someone who could shape your social media experiences, someone trained in the art of dialogue, the craft of story? We all agree that social media works best as interaction and engagement, not as a one-way broadcast for ticket info. We’ve seen several variations on storytelling-via-Twitter–I did it in 2008 tied to an original show, Such Tweet Sorrow did it last year, Bill Corbett’s presenting a novel one tweet at a time as we speak, the list goes on.

How would this work? Let’s take a real life example. The Goodman did something like this last winter, letting Ebenezer Scrooge hijack their Twitter feed. Did it work? The idea was cute, but the execution left me cold. For one thing, the character was a little too quippy and playful, which didn’t gibe with the character in the play or the book. There was no guarantee anyone would interact or engage with him. Beyond that, because the production ran beyond Christmas Day, the character had to “go back to normal” for a few days past Christmas, which contradicted the story. Worst of all, by hijacking the primary Twitter feed, it blocked out people genuinely looking for information about the theatre. After a week of watching, I used to hide the Goodman account in my regular day-in, day-out Twitter stream until after the show closed. I visited their page to see keep tabs on how it was going, but avoided it otherwise.

If I’d been planning that, I would have created a second, specialized Twitter account, perhaps GoodmanScrooge–that’s funny right there. I would have pointed people to that account and given them the option of following it instead of forcing it on them. And I would have had the two accounts interact with each other, effectively doubling the amount of attention paid to the theatre and the show. This would also allow each account to pull others into the conversation, whether staff or patrons, by showing that it was okay to play. But that’s because I see these things through the prism of storytelling, crafting a narrative, even if only something as silly and ephemeral as a box office and a classic fictional character bantering for a couple of weeks.

So okay, you’ve got your playwright tap-dancing on Twitter. What else?

What if you could create games and events themed to your productions? Online, mobile games using nothing more complicated than SCVNGR and Foursquare and other mobile apps? A good game needs a good storyline, and it needs possibilities. It’s got to be more than “check in here, get 3 points.” We know story.

What if you wanted to host 360 Storytelling events throughout your season? Your playwright could act as host and occasional storyteller. Strawdog Theatre in Chicago has been trying weekly 360 events of late, hosted by–you guessed it–a playwright. (Full disclosure, I would go just about anywhere to listen to Hank Boland tell stories. And if you don’t know him or his stories, you should fix that.)

In both cases, your playwright becomes another face for the theatre, another contact point for your community. And your playwright could–and should–be out in the community as well, doing outreach and educational programs as well. They would also become a liaison between visiting playwrights and the local community. At the same time, you’re not just cultivating an audience for your theatre, you’re cultivating an audience for your playwright. You’re giving the audience a stake in the work, a deeper sense of connection. It’s not just a visiting artist visiting a neighborhood, this is someone who’s part of the warp and weft of the community.

What if you wanted to design season brochures and media with a message beyond, “Hey, these are the plays we’re doing! Buy a subscription!”? There are too many theatres I could call out for awful, easy-to-ignore season brochures. The worst I’ve seen try to create a mood or theme that has no connection to the plays in the season. Maybe worse is the generic, static brochure that barely changes from year to year, changing only the photos and the blurbs. By contrast, Steppenwolf has been finding themes among their plays each season and working from there. Woolly Mammoth has been doing a great job of connecting the shows to a theme that lends itself to a clever design. Just look at Woolly’s season brochure this year–it’s eye-catching, it’s engaging, and best of all, it makes sense. Best of all, such creativity–and thematic integration–fits with Woolly’s mission. Win-win.

A great many playwrights work by day in marketing and communications already. On the PlayFest panel, Tim Bauer pointed out how that training had helped him, and how being freelance allowed him to travel as needed for productions of his plays. Marisa Wegrzyn talked about creating Theatre Seven marketing materials as well as videos for other companies that produce her plays. I work in advertising by day and naturally applied that experience to my own small theatre company. Then there’s the lovely team at Marshall Creative in Chicago, an advertising firm riddled with Neo-Futurists, New Leaf Theatre people Improvised Shakespeare and probably carny folk, for all I know. Their mission?

We believe in building brands and connecting people through storytelling and technology.

Unquote. Still, much of our work is outside theatre, and I don’t just mean the client list itself–it’s also about hustling for clients, finding people and businesses looking for that kind of creativity. What if we were all working in-house for theatre companies?

Oh yeah, we could write plays, too.

Let’s work off the template presented by the New Play Institute at Arena Stage. Maybe you commit to producing 1 play by the staff playwright every two years, for instance. At the same time, you help to workshop whatever else the playwright might be working on. Not full workshops per se, but maybe some table reads with acting apprentices or company members, a lighter version of the traditional development process to get plays on their feet. If the script winds up being produced in-house, great. If it’s produced elsewhere, that elsewhere knows the script’s already been put through its paces to an extent. Maybe you take a smaller percentage in subsidiary rights to plays developed in-house, because you’re not committing to a full-scale development process, and you’re not commissioning a one-time event from a short-term visitor–you’re supporting a staff member and getting their creativity in other departments in return. That’s just one way to do this, we’ve got more…

Can every playwright do this? No. But there are plenty who could. Look around, we’re out here.

Can every theatre do this? It depends on your budget, your mission, your willingness to change the formula. I do think every theatre whose mission goes beyond remounting classics should have a playwright-in-residence, even if it’s an unpaid position outside of actual productions. Even then, I think classics-based theatres could benefit from having staff playwrights for all of the above reasons, right down to helping the playwright develop scripts. You may not produce them, but there’s no reason why you can’t read them aloud a few times. And if you’re a company whose budget is seven figures or more, then you really have no excuse not to try this. The larger the institution, the more important the need for faces, consistent personalities and contact points within your community.

Woolly Mammoth is already doing this, expanding their definition of company members beyond actors to include playwrights and designers. As if that weren’t enough, they provide a home base for the National New Play Network. They’re well established in both their local community and in the national scheme of new play development, and yet they’re willing to shake things up.

Why do we want be on staff? Morgan Allen from New Dramatists asked yesterday, “Is it the idea of a living wage/benefits with no expectations you seek or connection to an institution?” Kristoffer Diaz replied, “I’m looking for a connection. I want to play a role in the artistic life of a company.” I’m looking for both, somewhat. I’d like enough of a wage that I wouldn’t have to worry about outside work–which is not necessarily the same as a living wage, mind you–but what interests me most is the thought of helping to shape the narrative of a company, to tell the stories of a community, or even multiple communities within a given region. I’d like the security and freedom to focus all my creativity on the world of theatre.

In short, I’d like to drop the “Everything but” in exchange for the “playwriting.”

  • November 9, 2011
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