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The Valley To Those Who Will Water It

About a year ago we moved back into our new home, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. I say “new” because we moved into being a center for the production, presentation, development and study of American theater. With great excitement we unpacked our bags and began a new journey which included launching the journal HowlRound.

We made many discoveries when we came to the new Arena: how easily we can move in the new center, that our fears about finding each other in a new space would prove to be less of an issue than we’d originally thought, and how happy artists and staff are in light-filled spaces. While Arena has always had a great deal of programming that falls under the development and study pillars (commissions, reading series, arts-in-education, student and audience engagement activities), as a center we expanded our goals.

I believe in the necessity and the potential of these programs and have come to believe they will be better served under the umbrella of an academic setting instead of a producing theater.

A portrait of Molly Smith.
Molly Smith. Photo by Tony Powell.

Part of the mission of the American Voices New Play Institute has been documenting and disseminating information about its programs and findings. From the New Play Map to HowlRound, each of these areas was seen as support for the whole theater community, but it wasn’t always taken that way. Some in the field were suspect about Arena’s motives, while others were uncomfortable about housing these programs within a producing theater instead of a service organization or college. From my perspective, because I believe in the future of American plays, studying them at this level made sense to me. But clearly it wasn’t making sense to some in the field at large.

Much like a writer who discovers that the first draft needs major revisions, we too began to see we needed to make changes. I’ve always seen Arena as a place to incubate great ideas and projects—and then have the potential to send them into the world.

Other evolutions began to happen at Arena Stage. David Dower, Associate Artistic Director, decided to leave Arena to join the Office of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston. David was the creator and the best salesman of these programs. Over the past few months we’ve been in discussions about the possibility of moving the programs to Emerson College, which is a place that specializes in arts and media. And of course, colleges are always about research. I believe in the necessity and the potential of these programs and have come to believe they will be better served under the umbrella of an academic setting instead of a producing theater. To quote Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, “everything should belong to whoever is best for it—children to the motherly so that they shall thrive, wagons to good drivers to be well driven, and the valley to those who will water it and make it fruitful.” As the best parents for the Institute, the American Voices New Play Institute will stay at Arena Stage as a producing theater and will include our five resident writers, commissioning programs, Theater 101, among other audience and professional development programs.

There are no advances without inquiry, investigation, and discussion. Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman says that “life is a casting off.” The natural progression of all discourse is to move out of the original skin that birthed it and move to greater truths. Even though housed at Emerson College, HowlRound and the New Play Map will continue to enjoy their unique place in our field of the theater—as a place to express ideas, find new answers and enjoy the always evolving debate between theater artists. When the programs make the transition, Arena Stage will continue to be an active participant.

This transition reminds me of the ever-expanding idea of change. In the theater, we understand the need to change in a powerful way as our work is always about evolution.

I can’t wait to see what happens next with the programs as they make their way in the world.

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This was a fascinating behind the scenes look at how creative people who are people of good faith (not whiners and ego-driven bureaucrats like some in the "real" world) get things done. Bravo! I believe in the possibility of great new work coming out of this beginning. And perhaps being a model. As an actress who is looking for a home to work in now that my children are on their own ways, people who want to have a life in the theater are required to keep asking questions and creating situations for themselves or they won't get to "practice" grow, learn and have their work inspire! The other lesson for me here is that without the grunt work, the chance for the creative work can't happen.

Thank you, all, for engaging the discussion about our transition to Emerson. I understand the eagerness to delve into the thought process here. I can only speak for myself, and much of what has just been put in motion will reveal itself as we go. I am at Arena through the end of March and the rest of the transition doesn't happen until the end of June, so many of these questions will inform us going forward but have no answers til we get there.

Kathleen: "stretching my wings" is a significant part of the impetus, certainly. When I came to Arena it was a flagship regional theater in the midst of a major building project that would transform it into "Arena Stage at the Mead Center For American Theater." This transition has consumed my time here. It has been a rich learning opportunity, to be a part of the planning and opening of this new building. I put my personal artistic practice largely on hold for the five years this took. And I dedicated my energies to developing programmatic plans that would fulfill the promise of the "case statement" prepared for raising the money for the building. This is what it is to be number two-- and it has been a big ride. And now, as the company settles into the post-opening routine of operating as a center, I am ready to "stretch my wings" as you say.

Zelda Fichandler once told me, of her decision to move on from this organization that had so shaped her career, that she knew it was the right place for her because she woke up every morning with big questions that could be pursued through Arena. The day she woke up to find her current questions would not be best explored through this context she knew it was time to move on. I spent twenty years making and leading the institutional context for asking and answering my questions about the role of theater in my life, my life in the theater, theater in the world, theater in my community, and my community in the theater. First, my context was The Z Collective, a ten-person ensemble that produced twelve plays together over five years. Then it was The Z Space Studio, a studio dedicated to developing new works and opportunities for Bay Area theater artists. For these past five years the context has been Arena Stage. And I find that my questions now relate so directly to building a commons-based approach to advancing the nationwide infrastructure for new work that they cannot be effectively investigated from where I sit. But yes, Kathleen, the pursuit of this inquiry calls for me to unfold my wings- to take responsibility for those aspects of artistic programming that provide the practical laboratory for investigating effective practice, to return to practice myself as a means of testing what I think I am learning, to build a context for collaborations across the sector-- institutional, artistic, and even outside of the theater world. Both Polly and I have been digging at this stuff for more than a decade. Arena has been, for me, a crucial leg of this journey.

On the level of the conversations that led to the mechanics of who and what transfers, and when, there's not much to be said that's a contribution to the conversation. Once we are well into the new context, perhaps we will see the generalizable principle (a term I grabbed from all the years of working with the Buckminster Fuller show-- h/t D. W. Jacobs...) that can advance the inquiry.

A note about the whole set-up currently envisioned for the inquiry at Emerson. The Office of the Arts, which is housed in the Office of the President of Emerson College, will be our structural context. The Center for the Theater Commons will sit alongside ArtsEmerson as a program of the Office of the Arts. ArtsEmerson and the academic programs of Emerson College will both interact with the Commons, both providing practical lab settings for studying programs, practices, and processes at play in the new works ecology- both in the professional and in the educational realm. It is too early-- by a lot-- to say what the results of this interaction between inquiry, practice, and education will be. But I know that, speaking only for myself here, inside this opportunity lives the possibility for me to continue to ask and answer the questions that keep me up nights and shape the daily doings of my life in theater.

Thank you David. It sounds exciting. I was chagrined at a certain prosecutorial tone that seemed to creep into my post and I apologize to you--and to Molly--for that. The danger of these blogs, you get a bee in your bonnet and you can just click and send. Anyway, your work and its process sound incredibly valuable. I'm eager to hear about your new adventures as things unfold.

It's a new world this decade, and we are all seeking sustainable means of extending and expanding our missions. Foundations provide start-up funding for wonderful major initiatives like the Institute at the Arena, but they are rarely in it for the long haul. The move to Emerson preserves the chance to keep some valuable programs of the Institute going - and in fact growing with new resources. Does the New Play Map need the volunteer resources of students to effectively achieve its potential - lots of data to input, manage and analyze? Will the university setting allow ready access to the skills and time of theatre, statistics and technology students and professors? Universities have large development departments and endowments and clearly Emerson considers the Arts to have long-term strategic advantage for their institution. If it allows the work to continue in a sustainable way for the long term, cheers to the Arena, Molly Smith and David Dower for finding a willing and ready partner in continuing and deepening their work. Everyone will miss David and Polly's energy coming from the Arena - but they are forging onward in another forward thinking environment. I can't wait to see what new horizons these talented collaborators and their institutions explore now.

yes, and i guess, as someone excited about the work of the institute, i am a bit confused about Arena as a Center for American Theater & Research without the Institute...I thought that specific core part of Arena's mission, as they moved into the new space, was being served directly by the work David D, and then Polly, brought to Arena through HowlRound, convenings and field conversations...So i am curious about the conversations that led to, perhaps,a decision that research and experimentation on NPI's scale belong at a University not a professional theater...? Arena doesn't owe anyone any more background than they want to share, but, I think more on those conversations would be really beneficial to the field, and actually is at the heart of the very inquiry NPI has been helping to facilitate about the field itself.

I know I am late to the conversation, but as a DC Theatre artist I wanted to add some thoughts and questions to the conversation. I feel a little lost after reading the announcements and postings. I am not saying that I think there is some big cover up or some big thing that no one is telling us. I just don't understand, and it may be because I am thick headed and slow witted. It seems to me that some people in the field had and have issues with the ANVPI at a producing organization and some people in the field have issues with it at an academic organization. So we see you came to the decision to move the research part of the organization to Emerson, but how did you come to that decision. What was the thought process? What wasn't working at the producing organization for the Institute and what wasn't working at the Institute for the producing organization? I would love for someone to talk about all the issues and how each were evaluated and handled from both the AVNPI and Arena. I feel like its been touched on but not delved into. I just don't understand it all and I wonder truly why research, inquiry, documentation and dissemination of information can't live in the regional theatre? What makes academia a strong choice and a producing theatre a weaker choice?

I think my biggest question is what is the effect of the splitting of the academic wing and producing wing of the Institute going to have on Arena in the future, how are they going to not only work and communicate with each other, but the bigger question to me is does this mean that access, discussion, and questions will not longer happen between Arena and local artists? What is the plan to continue that relationship or is there one at all?

Since no one would ever fire either Polly Carl or David Dower (certainly not the great Molly Smith!), I'm very curious, as a freelancer who benefits from the warm hearths of both institutional theaters and educational environments, why they chose to relocate the institute. It's a question I weigh often - and one that comes before salary - the question of where best to make a home for my broader ideas (and ideals)? Where do we want to foster the work that is most personal to us, and why? Forget about climbing the little ladder of the industry for a minute - where might the new ideas that could CREATE the industry come from? In the 60's and 70's it was our urban centers. east village apartments at 150.00 a month rent, philip glass driving a cab etc....when NY and San Francisco were livable and theater was sustainably reaching audiences in small places. Have we changed the sustainable model, and does that now ask us to reinvent our incubators? I think about it all the time. Late at night my director porn is cruising real estate websites for detroit warehouses...where do want to incubate?

I think it would be incredibly useful to use this situation to explore and grapple with issues of institutional theatre, artistic freedom, being on the staff of a leading theatre, what you imagine ArtEmerson will be and do, what it is being second in command, what it means to be a playwright at Arena on that stipend with your support system partially dismantled. I hope that politics don't result in the whitewash that we are all too familiar with. I'd love to hear from those playwrights and know how the questions and concerns they have are being addressed.

When Molly Smith’s post arrived, I read it with great interest and some befuddlement. I don't quite understand what really happened and why. Of course, it isn't my business!!--unless the process and details of the process of making or being delivered of these choices are illuminating in the way that howlround has so impressively illuminated, from various perspectives, issues and challenges of making theatre.
So many things are political and diplomacy can be crucial. It’s the politics and mechanics of various models of theatre-making that this site is about. So it’s a little weird that these posts seem to be talking around what problems and challenges created the wish and/or need for this change.
I wonder how the playwrights who are in the middle of their incredible residencies at Arena are feeling, what questions they've asked, what reassurances they've received. Who will be overseeing their work? I wonder how much this move has to do with David Dower wanting to stretch his wings, Molly Smith...? Why would she want this to happen? Do we just follow the money? The critiques they refer to don't seem to warrant such a move...won't they get criticized no matter what? Isn't that the nature of things? What does she see happening in the wake of this? What do the playwrights hope for? Will someone else come in to mentor them?
I’m extremely interested in this move and issues of theatre and academia. I hope there can be a lively discussion that comes out of this event.

Happy New Year, all--

I wanted to do a quick response here to the concern that the move to Emerson is a retreat from artistic practice as the basis for the #newplay inquiry. First of all, the playwright residencies are staying situated at Arena Stage, where they will continue to unfold in the context of a subscriber-based regional theater model. We'll be tracking and reporting the progress there, even after the transition is complete this summer. So, the overall effort of the #newplay initiatives will continue to include a healthy component of production activity.

Secondly, there's no actual retreat from practice even in the transition to Emerson. We'll be able to more effectively balance the research activities with professional practice there as things scale up, I'm certain. It's a vital, nimble, artistically ambitious environment there, particularly with the emergence of ArtsEmerson at the College. Below is a link to a profile of ArtsEmerson's ED, Rob Orchard, which ran today. Rob's also at the helm of the Office of the Arts, where the Center will sit, and I'll be in a senior leadership position there that involves the artistic initiatives of ArtsEmerson and the Office of the Arts. Polly will be running the Center out of the Office of the Arts as well, so programming will still form the basis for our testing, development, and dissemination of effective practice.

Kent's right, that there will be less actual producing taking place at Emerson than there has been around the AVNPI. But the Center will continue to invite and involve a range of institutional contexts-- from the continued participation of Arena Stage and the lab of ArtsEmerson, we hope and expect to enlist the participation of organizations and artists from all over the #newplay sector.

And Kent-- we'd love to have regular reports from your work with new musicals and institutional collaborations at Playwrights if and when you care to share that learning. The more "field reports" the better!

Finally, I am really enthused by the energy this announcement seems to have tapped into around avenues of effective integration of the academy and professional practice. Those who've been following along on this whole journey know that I'm ever in search of ways to capture the full potential of the resources of our time for the artists and audiences of today and to secure them for tomorrow. So, though it's a new frontier for me, I am excited to learn how colleges and universities figure fully into the #newplay infrastructure. Lots of great work and great minds at play in this part of the infrastructure. I look forward to discovering our Common capacity together.


I know Polly Carl through her work at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis where I was a Core member playwright for three years. Her work and her mind are first rate. Scratch that. She is beyond ratings. And Rob Orchard I've known since days at the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. I don't know Mr. Dower, but if he's involved with these two, he must be most discriminating. I look forward to their great work.

I think people are missing the link between ArtsEmerson and what Robert Orchard has created with Emerson College. The past two years, Boston theater goers have been exposed to some of the most exciting, cutting edge, new works we've seen in years. It has revived the younger generation of artists here. David and Polly will marry what they are doing with the work that Robert's already been doing. It's not going to be shoved into a University office. It's going to be work that gets actualized in a really exciting way. I loved Arena when I lived in DC and I know they will continue to be pioneers - but selfishly, things are about to get really interesting in Boston.

Why is our field so distrustful of Research and Development? Everything, including academic theatre, is focused on do do do, and the result, I'm sorry to say, is a lot of do-do. Being mired in the status quo of production forces the minds of people in the profession to be unable to conceive of new ideas, new approaches, new business models. The fact is that academic theatre programs aren't academic -- they'd be better off, in my opinion, if they were. Instead, they are focused on "training" (instead of education) young people for "the profession" (a misnomer if ever there was one in a field in which 60% of Equity actors didn't work at all in the previous year). We need a reset, and I hope that, by making this move, the original minds possessed by Dower and Carl will have the freedom to actually think new thoughts and make an impact on the arts world.

While I am encouraged that David and Polly remain the driving forces behind this initiative, I am fearful that the move to an academic institution will make the work they do... well... academic. By being divorced from the neccistudes of actually producing new work any effort put forth will be subject to dismissal by the very institutional structure so much of the #newplay community has been so critical of. Even within the walls of an institution, this ongoing conversation has struck me as too often dominated by those whose understanding and experience of producing is limited. This seems like the surest way of continuing that trend and letting the status quo off the hook. When the institute was part and parcel of a producing organization, they were able to quickly implement ideas and try them out in the real world. To be critical of the residencies is to ignore the fact that they were born directly out of the conversations that were started by the institute. They weren't just talking the talk, they were walking the walk.

Change can be good. And I'll keep my fingers crossed that it works out well. Certainly, I trust David and Polly to continue to do good and interesting work. I just hope they can continue to speak to those who need to listen as opposed to just those who want to.

As an Emerson alum myself, I think this is wonderful. The plays I've released at Ol' EC1880 were part of what kept me in the theater. If Arena embraces not just space but the student population, they'll reap the rewards in spades.

Change is good. Perhaps the field needs this as a shot in the arm to create positive change. I think it is important that the AVNPI stays separate from a major producing theater. Or at least that certain components of it remain separate. One such reason, in my mind,is that under the umbrella of Emerson, the Institute is able to engage a more diverse group of artists and concerns, independent of the needs and interest of a major institutional theater. Also I think this provides greater transperancy regarding the purpose of the different components of the New Play Institute. For instance there has been some debate over how writers were chosen for the residencies. I believe this is an area that needed to be based on the most practical and realistic needs of Arena Stage. Same with the Producing Fellowships. There are very precise skills and abilities needed to make these programs work. It is not a place to LEARN in that way. I completely understand that. And this change means David and Polly can serve and rep the Institute, without any of the literary management/play submissions baggage that comes with it. Hopefully this will allow the program to grow in healthy and necessary ways.

I have the same question as Monica, although I am encouraged that David's energy towards it will stay consistent. I was very jazzed to talk to people through your sites who are inside of the new play development world. If this can be a great online mixer for professionals and students as well, great.

Will being based at an academic institution really enable frank discourse and criticism more than being at Arena did? Academia seems like its own trap, with different threats to openness, but threats nonetheless. (Class-based accessibility being the first that comes to mind.)

I'm sure you all discussed this in negotiating the move, so I'm interested in what you thought about that.