Artistry, Advocacy, and Agency
Will Power, Dallas Theater Center and the Playwright On Staff Model
Will Power joined the Dallas Theater Center as the Mellon Playwright-in-Residence in the latter part of January 2013. The Mellon Foundation placed Will and thirteen other playwrights as salaried staff members in residence for three years at fourteen theatres across the country. He recently hit the halfway mark in his three-year residency, and I sat down with Will to discuss the rewards and challenges of the playwright on staff model.
Jonathan: What attracted you to the residency?
Will: I was really excited about it because I’ve had a number of commissions and I’ve had a couple of residencies, but nothing this extensive. The most extensive residency I’ve had probably was at the McCarter Theatre and that was great. Basically, I had to spend four months over an eighteen-month period at the McCarter. I was researching, teaching, working with high school students and students at Princeton, and talking with scholars. The culmination of that time was my play Fetch Clay, Make Man. Here in Dallas, the commitment of time and energy is more extensive—I’m writing as well on the arts staff at the theatre. I’m influencing policy. Living in the city. It’s an amazing opportunity.
If the art and culture is better for the community, it’s better for my family. If I do something at a school it’s better for my kids because it makes the educational system better.
Jonathan: What is the difference between being a playwright in residence who might come in for a couple of projects throughout a period of time, and actually being on staff as a playwright? Can you unpack that a bit?
Will: Yeah, and I want to do that in two ways: One is being on staff, and one is living in the community. Let me start with the community.
It’s wonderful to live in the community where you work. Where you’re working at a high level, like a LORT theatre and you live there as well. First of all, it’s the commitment that you’re moving there with your family. Which is really powerful for other people to see. Then it’s a situation of, I might be at Chuck E. Cheese with my children and I run into someone from Dallas Theater Center. You keep having these cross connections. You can have a have a deeper, more substantial impact on the community. You can have conversations. You can teach. You can influence the work and art and culture in a deeper level because you’re living here. Your whole family is invested in the community. If the art and culture is better for the community, it’s better for my family. If I do something at a school it’s better for my kids because it makes the educational system better.
So it’s just deeper work. I’m more committed. More devoted to the place in which my work will be presented. I would really encourage residencies if they can afford the funding in the future, I would say that has to be mandatory.
Jonathan: That the playwright relocate to the community?
Will: I think so. For this kind of residency. If you live in the area, you can be on staff. Now I’m not there every day because of my commitments to writing and my SMU commitments. But I can be there regularly. And there are periods where I can be there every day. But sometimes I can only be there for an hour or an hour and a half. But I couldn’t do that if I wasn’t in the community.
As for being on staff as a playwright, what’s really amazing is I feel this new feeling of empowerment, and I’m trying to pass this understanding on to writers I’m mentoring in Dallas. How it’s not the people against the institution. How the institution is just people.
Jonathan: Do you have specific examples of aha moments? Or light bulb moments?
Will: Seeing how things get decided. Say there’s a project someone wants to do, and you’re like why did that project not happen? Or why did that initiative take five years to complete. It’s not someone being like no, no, I don’t want to produce cool work. Or people selling out for the money. It’s rarely that. It’s the institution has a lot of different people. Even though there’s just one or two leaders, a lot of people have input. People weigh different sides of an issue. And it takes time. I also see in terms of how racism is manifested. And it’s not like people with white hoods. It’s not like that. These are good people. It’s more like how sexism happens, I’m sure. It’s not like someone says, “I want to be sexist against women.” It’s not that kind of thing anymore. It’s more like subtle, subconscious actions that get manifested and without checking it, it gets worse. So I’m learning. And I’m learning how to reform from within.
And I will bring a unique perspective that has a lot of authenticity and carries a lot of weight, not so much with budgets, but in terms of what this play is or what translation we should use.
Jonathan: I want to ask you about that. As a playwright in residence on staff, do you find that you’re able to have some agency in terms of impacting and creating change?
Will: Absolutely. There might be a conversation about a play they want to do for the season, or a project or idea. And I feel like I can sometimes second someone. I can sometimes lead. But also what is really powerful is to second someone. And I will bring a unique perspective that has a lot of authenticity and carries a lot of weight, not so much with budgets, but in terms of what this play is or what translation we should use. Because I’m a playwright and I’m the only playwright on staff. I’m the only working playwright. Also I’ve tried to have an impact with a lot of the diversity work we’ve done. I’ve taken that on. I’m on the Diversity Committee and I run one of the subcommittees.
The second way that I think I’m changing things is being in the office working on Stagger Lee. There might be two people talking about the publicity. And because I’m in the office they will call me over. Now maybe they would have called me on the phone or emailed me anyway, but because I’m in the office, it’s more organic. Or talking to the education people about community engagement in regards to the play. So because I’m here, I’m one of the team. It’s not “let’s deal with this, then let’s talk to the playwright. Let’s call him up.” I don’t know how it’s going to change the culture here, but I think it has the potential to shift things because it’s never been done before.
Jonathan: What is your typical day like at DTC?
Will: The original plan was that I could be all morning at DTC. Write in the morning, and be available in the office in the early afternoon. But it doesn’t work out that way. So it depends. Sometimes I’m there all day. I might have meetings in the morning, then I might jet for a couple of hours to do something at SMU, then come back in the afternoon. Another time it might be I’m writing at home and then I go to SMU. And I’m at SMU all afternoon and DTC in the evening. Or I’m out of town. I try to work on it on a project by project basis.
Right now I’m going into a heavy period of writing. Late spring and summer I was doing a lot of writing. But earlier in the first few months like February and March I wasn’t doing as much. I was busy administratively. But now because of these projects coming up it’s demanding that I write a lot. Like everyday, which I should anyway. Like Monday through Friday. And I’m able to do it. I work two to three nights a week. One of those nights is Dallas Playwrights’ Workshop. Another night is writing. And the third night is either writing or seeing work for DTC or for TACA (The Arts Community Alliance) because I am on the board there. I try to keep my weekends free for family.
I had a good conversation with Kevin [Moriarty, the artistic director]. It was like an evaluation. Everyone does an evaluation. I didn’t do it last year because I came in mid-January. So this was my first evaluation. He felt like I’m doing solid work with Dallas Playwrights’ Workshop. He felt like the artistry was really strong. He felt like I missed some of the things that he wished I could be at like arts staff meetings or season planning. Things that are not as crucial to the residency but I’m invited. Not everyone is invited, but I can’t be at all of them because of my schedule. So I need to try and figure that out. But he really felt like a good way to look at it is the impact I’m having on the whole city.
Jonathan: I want to go back to something you said earlier. You were mentioning about when you moved your family here. And you said that was a powerful thing for other people to see. Can you explain that a bit?
Will: I think there are two levels. One is, for Dallas it’s powerful because I’m the first playwright, I think, with a national reputation that has moved to Dallas.
Jonathan: You are.
Will: I’m just trying to be as visible as I can. So I think that’s important, and not that I’m all that, but I think that says that there is enough down here to attract an artist of national reputation to Dallas.
Jonathan: I think the great thing for me and for so many of the playwrights in this community is having someone you can go to for advice and to pick their brain about the profession. I remember when you helped me with creating the contract for one of my projects and you showed me one of your commission contracts with a professional theatre to use as a template. I had never seen a professional contract before. That was such an empowering moment for me.
Will: I appreciate you saying that and that’s part of what I’m trying to do. Be that resource. And someone did it for me. In theatre and in music before that. I was in music and this lawyer who managed several R&B artists showed me some examples of tour contracts. And I was like “Oh, I see.” It was eye-opening. So I think that says something.
Jonathan: You said two levels. What’s the second level?
Will: It’s been really great for my family. To have stability. Both physical stability and financial stability. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but moving to Dallas I’ve never felt that I’ve been this stable as a man and as a family. Before this, I was making a living as an artist. I paid my bills completely with art since 1996, which is a blessing, but the road has had many rocky moments. There was one time we only had twenty dollars for Christmas. Me and my wife, together, for presents. I had ten dollars to buy something for her. She had ten dollars to buy something for me. That was it. That was all we could afford. We stayed home. Ordered our Chinese food. It was cold. You know what I mean? We were hustling. And to be now receiving this kind of opportunity, it’s a blessing.