This September I had the fortune to start as the Playwright-in-Residence at The Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis. Already I’ve been using the title to open some doors. (“Excuse me accomplished historian, can I interview you about the bridge collapse in Terra Haute—I am a Playwright-in-Residence.”) Yet, the role itself feels delightfully and frustratingly vague. As an excuse to turn to some of the brightest people I could find and ask for advice, I created this article.
Here is the wide open question I asked everyone: “What is a Playwright-in-Residence? What could it be?”
The replies I got—from playwrights, literary managers, and artistic directors—vary in their approach and perspective. Some ideas percolate in multiple responses, but each articulates a nuance I hadn’t considered. Writers can get stuck in a lonely role in this collaborative art (and business)—and I think playwright-in-residence holds some intriguing possibilities. From everyone who responded I feel both a sense of support and pointed challenges for the year ahead. I look forward to continuing the conversation.
A. Zell Williams
National New Play Network Playwright-in-Residence at Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre, 2012–13
It seems like the Wild West in regards to what a playwriting residency is. Some like to highlight the administrative support they give to writers (i.e., office space and equipment), while others tout the human resources they provide (living wages, health benefits). My limited personal experience with a residency taught me to consider it like any other job; weigh the personal and professional pros and cons and evaluate for yourself whether or not it’s worth it. I learned a great deal from my experience serving as the NNPN’s P-in-R at InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia. Pro: The company is committed to producing challenging new work, the theater community in Philly is ridiculously talented, and the city itself is culturally and historically rich. Con: It required paying for a major move on my own, came with low wages and no health benefits, and demanded a significant amount of work that didn’t require a playwrights’ knowledge. I love InterAct and am glad to have done it, but any future residency would need to come with a heavier pros column to make it worth it.
Literary Director, Actors Theatre of Louisville
When I think about what a playwright-in-residence program could be (and there have been some great models created in recent years that do many of these things), I find myself wondering what would be the most vital way of activating the two halves of that title—“playwright” and “in residence.” So the first part means that the theater not only provides funds and ample writing time, but also meaningfully engages with the writer’s work. In an ideal world, the playwright would be compensated like a key artistic staff member, but a big slice of the job would be to write—and the theater would make an upfront commitment to developing and/or producing the writer’s plays in a sustained way. Like a resident director, designer, or actor, the playwright would be someone whose creative work the audience comes to know on a regular basis, over time.
The “in residence” piece of the equation requires thinking about how the playwright becomes part of the fabric of the place, and providing authentic points of access to the conversations unfolding around the company. The best collaborations require time, trust, and a shared understanding of context, and if the playwright gains insight into institutional processes, he/she will have the agency to actively shape and deepen the experience. Involving a playwright in artistic staff discussions would give the theater the benefit of a writer’s perspective at the table, while providing a transparent view of the values that drive programming decisions and the big questions with which the theater is grappling. Hopefully, the playwright is around enough to really spend time in the communities the theater serves, and it seems important to find ways for the writer to work alongside colleagues, perhaps in literary, education, or outreach efforts. Whatever this contribution is, it should not simply be a way to fill a staffing gap with grant-funded labor; it’s a chance for the writer to become embedded in the community and the day-to-day organizational culture. Considering what it means to be truly “in residence”—depending on the particular hopes on both sides of the match—might help dismantle some of the walls between individual artist and institutional host.
National New Play Network Playwright-in-Residence at Curious Theatre, 2011–12
This is broad, but oh well: I feel like what people picture when they conjure up a playwright-in-residence is someone who becomes deeply involved in the business of a theater, who has an artistic stake in the institution, and who immerses themselves in the culture of a place. They are a citizen of this artistic body. They come here and are at home.
What people imagine less often is a playwright-in-residence who relates only tangentially to the business of a theater (either out of disinterest or lack of access), who desperately wants the institution to have an artistic stake in them, and who comes to understand the culture of a place just in time for everyone to move on with their lives. They are guests in somebody else’s house. They visit here until the money runs out, then they return home.
In the spirit of seeking out the former and avoiding the latter, theaters considering a playwriting residency should ask themselves these questions:
1) What is our artistic investment in this person?
2) Are we hoping to have an ongoing relationship with them?
3) Is the residency we’ve designed pretty much just a job? If we went ahead and called it a “job” instead of a “residency,” would we be paying them more?
4) Are we doing this just so that we can participate in a grant? Put another way, would we bring on a resident playwright even if there weren’t outside funding?
5) Do we think we will ever produce one of this writer’s plays?
If the honest answer to number 5 is “No,” or even “Probably not,” then that theater should take a hard look at numbers 1 through 4.
National New Play Network Playwright-in-Residence at Southern Rep, 2013–14
What could a playwright residency be? I think it could easily be an opportunity for the playwright and hosting theater to partner on a new project. Perhaps this comes in the form of a performance—something that stretches both the theater and the writer to move out of their comfort zone.
I think this should be a time to experiment. Think of a residency as an incubator. We are given this wonderful gift of time and resources, and should use it to try the craziest things, or the things we think may not work. Let’s write a play out of ice cream, or grilled vegetables, or entirely out of sushi. OK, I’m saying this because I’m hungry. But the point is, we should test what we know of form on the page, and process in the room. We should reach out to folks in the local theater community and make something with them. We should make friends.
This is not to say we should then expect our crazy incubator ice cream sushi play for our friends to go up on our host theater’s mainstage. A residency is not a commission. But we should learn as much as we can from these hosting theaters. How do they form their aesthetic? How to they reach out to their audiences? How do they keep the doors open? How can we apply these skills to our own careers as theater makers?
Producing Director, Phoenix Theatre
The playwright (like the theater) needs to be part of the fabric of the community.
The playwright needs to understand the goals and mission of the theater.
The theater needs to understand the goals and mission of the playwright.
Mutual goals and objectives need to be set.
In our case, we have projects we hope will be of interest to the playwright—subjects for potential scripts.
We are also interested in what the playwright wants to develop.
Resources need to be committed allowing the playwright the freedom to write.
Resources need to be committed for readings of scripts in development.
In our case, the playwright is responsible for additional projects such as, the development of the one-minute play festival.
Co-Artistic Director, Kitchen Dog Theater. President, National New Play Network
This to me would be the ideal playwright in residence scenario. First and foremost, you have a playwright who is a good fit with your company—interested/intrigued by the mission/work your company does—in order for the residency to really fire on all cylinders. The key word is this case is “in residence”—you are providing these people a “home,” and the more they like or are in tune with how the home is run and is artistically decorated—the happier/mutually beneficially the partnership. Both parties have to be invested/engaged for this residency to be a success. I think residencies offer the playwright a unique perspective on the inner-workings of the theater—the “Oz behind the curtain” so to speak. So we would involve them in season planning discussions and some production elements—be it production meetings or developmental and/dramaturgical processes—especially on the newer plays in our season. I think it can be illuminating for any position to see how the “sausage” is made—for lack of a better term—regardless of where a person is in his/her career. And sometimes, a fresh set of eyes can offer a new perspective on the company’s current processes, and in turn, more effective ways of working can possibly evolve because of it. Ultimately though, the playwright is there to write. And there needs to be time allowed for that and development workshops or readings in place to support that. A safe, risk big or go home kind of space provided for the writer to hear his or her words out loud and get artistic feedback from the artistic directors and the company. The desired net result of a residency is a playwright emerging from the Kitchen Dog incubator—to paraphrase the seventies TV show The Six Million Dollar Man—a better, stronger, faster (kidding!), writer—now equipped with sharpened creative muscles and hopefully a place to come back home to in the future.
Martyna Majok, Playwright
National New Play Network Playwright-in-Residence at New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 2012–13
Disclaimer: I opine here knowing that there are and can be different ways to go about a playwright-in-residence program. But here’s what I imagine might work well for both sides. Ideally, a playwright-in-residence program would be something mutually beneficial for both writer and theater (or university). Like any good relationship, you are sharing your worlds with each other and becoming greater than you were alone. The goal for the artist would be to develop work—maybe even specifically for her host institution—or move her career forward. She can do that because maybe now she’s got a stipend, which means Time Not Spent Catering/Bartending/DogWalking…or less time, depending on a lot of factors. And she’s got an artistic director, maybe a lit manager, resident directors, dramaturgs, and actors in her new home that will keep her accountable for producing work and can help develop it. And while she’s making plays, she’s getting exposure for being involved with a capital-P Program in the professional theater world.
And the benefit for the host institution would be an extra set of specific hands (or eyes and voice, rather) added to their team. Theaters gain the perspectives, skills, and connections of a playwright. Playwrights could teach classes, initiate outreaches, dramaturg, analyze scripts, connect the host institution to other writers, and drink with you. And just as writers gain cred for being connected to a theater, so can theaters for being linked with writers. It’s why things like the world premiere status matters so much—visibility, connections.
But care should be taken that a writing residency not become an internship, where the writer is instead working more for the host institution than on her own writing. This can be especially tough to do on some fellowship stipends, which might mean that the writer needs to seek out other work to afford life, in addition to finding time to write. Not that this is impossible or even undesirable for some. But maybe it’s not ideal. The same care should be taken that a writer not just grab her fellowship dollars (and the name of the theater) and bolt, completely distant from her host and its community. Again, this works for some programs but maybe it’s not ideal. It’s a balancing act.
Ideally, the two of you share a unity of vision—your hopes for the advancement of The Theater include the development of this playwright and this theater, or this school’s students. And you treat each other with the respect of support, helping each other to become better versions of yourselves.
Julie Felise Dubiner
Associate Director of American Revolutions, Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Board Member, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas
Most of the playwright residencies that I know of all have the same noble goal—to provide writers with financial and artistic support at an artistic home for a period of time in exchange for that playwright contributing to the community or the theater or both in some way. At some residencies, playwrights get to produce their own work, create work with the local community, provide the voice of a creating artist on the staff, etc.
In theory, I have no problem with any of that. I think it’s great to support playwrights—I also think it would be great to support designers.
In practice, and very much in general, I don’t find that these residencies work particularly well.
If the writer doesn’t live in the town where their residency is, I rarely have seen a writer move to the town to actually be a resident. I’ve seen them guest for a few days or maybe even weeks at a time. I’ve also rarely seen a writer actually get involved in the day-to-day operations of the theater or get involved with the existing—and actually resident—staff. This often creates tension.
A guest is getting more access to senior decision making than most of the people who work at the theater every day, who often already feel dismissed, disregarded, or invisible. The writers usually come in as an additional project, and many times the impact on staff is not thought out before the grants are applied for, nor do the grants cover the additional work created for the staff by the residency.
Most regional theaters have little opportunity for advancement within the organization—the box office worker who is a great writer likely will not be produced at that theater until years after they’ve left, nor will they be taken seriously while still a box-officer—neither will other creating/generating artists who day-job all the time at the theater be taken seriously as artists. This situation is compounded when residents-who-aren’t-really-residents come in—what is the point of climbing the ladder if there is no ladder?
What is the point of working hard to be seen, make an artistic home, or even just learn an organization if it’s not going to amount to anything, and an outsider is always going to be more interesting than someone already under the leadership’s noses?
There is also and always tension about money. Most staff is getting paid barely enough to survive, and then an artist is declared resident—and in the case of the big grants—will be making more than most for never being there and have access to leadership that most don’t and then also get a commission and production royalties on top of it.
Well, you see. It’s a great idea, but I haven’t really seen residencies change practice for regional theaters, increase community engagement, and again I am happy that writers are getting money, but I don’t think most of them make the commitment that the dreamy grant applications make it sound like they will—although some do—there are exceptions.
Co-Producing Artistic Director, Rude Mechs
I would say this about being the playwright in residence for Rude Mechs. I don’t know that I am anymore. I was once, or once we used that language, but I think it is turning out that I am a member of a collective who happens to be a playwright. Hannah Kenah wrote Now Now Oh Now and The Method Gun and Stop Hitting Yourself were authored by Rude Mechs.
I lose my way every time I forget that for the Rude Mechs I write as an act of service for my company and my collective. I am not “In RESIDENCE,” I am at HOME. And just like being a husband or a dad, I get more from the honor of serving my friends than I give to them. I am the luckiest playwright in America because I have a permanent artistic home and family. Fuck all y’all others. I feel sorry for you.
I think I have only this further to say: I think a playwright in residence could mean that a playwright has found a home. When I had a home in my teens it meant my mom and dad gave me support and encouragement and disciplined me. They made me ready to head out on my own. And now that I have a home in my forties, it means that I am responsible to support and encourage others, and provide some discipline as I help other artists get ready to go make new homes. This is maybe another way of saying we don’t need a bunch of forty-year-old playwrights in residence. We need a bunch of artistic homemakers and breadwinners so that the youngest possible playwrights in residence in the world can really challenge us to support new kinds of art-making and challenge us to encourage work at the very edge of our taste and challenge us to be creative in our understanding of guidelines and work ethic and diligence as we adapt our practices and disciplines to make a home for the wildest newest generation of playwrights.