A Place at the Table Revisited
The Dallas Series explores the challenges and rewards of creating theatre in Big D. Join us this week as we journey deeper into the heart of Texas.
A Place at the Table
Four and a half years ago I wrote an article titled, “A Place at the Table” for Theater Jones, an online performing arts magazine that covers the DFW Metroplex. My article was about the difficulties faced by Dallas area playwrights. I railed against the MFA system, and the gatekeeper system, and just carried on and in 876 words got myself all worked up. I would link to it, but looking back, I am a bit embarrassed by it. But you can visit Theater Jones and do a search to find it. The article even inspired a follow-up piece by Theater Jones Co-Founder and Editor, Mark Lowry, titled “Plays on the Table.” I’ll link that instead. Mark contextualized my rant in such a lovely way.
My perspective changed in 2012 when I was invited to workshop my play, My Tidy List of Terrors at PlayPenn. Our first three days at PlayPenn was called pre-conference. Playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, designers, and an amazing group of interns gathered around the table to read and discuss the six plays selected that year. The final day of pre-conference we read Too Much, Too Much, Too Many by Meghan Kennedy and Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman. Their work blew me away. Meghan’s play was so carefully crafted, like a perfect jewel box of a play. And Martín’s play left me breathless. Both playwrights got their MFAs from the University of Texas where they studied as Michener Fellows. Listening to their work I remember thinking to myself. “How can I hate on anything that helps to create plays like that? MFA programs rock.” Hey, I’m allowed to change my mind. Also at PlayPenn, I came to understand that what was missing in Dallas was the opportunity for local playwrights to explore their work in such thoughtful and complex ways. I also came to understand that Dallas playwrights need significant attention and support in order to reach their full potential.
I live in Dallas and the pipeline doesn’t come through these parts. What was the point of ever writing another play?
Best Wishes As You Find a Home for Your Play
After PlayPenn, I came back to Dallas with renewed confidence and a sense that a change was gonna come. I had PlayPenn under my belt and you better believe I was gonna use it. But all that hope and goodwill wore off real quick as I began to rack up one rejection after the other. And in my anguished state, I identified a new nemesis. Playwrights with names. Huh? They were the reasons I was getting rejected. All these playwrights with names. All these playwrights from New York City with names. All these playwrights from New York City with names… and MFAs. There was a pipeline and I wasn’t in it. I live in Dallas and the pipeline doesn’t come through these parts. What was the point of ever writing another play?
I was convinced that my zip code was the source of all my problems. Locally, there is consistent work to be had within all disciplines, except playwriting. Ninety-nine percent of the theatres in the DFW cannot afford to hire out of town talent. So actors, directors, designers, and technicians are all local. But theatres are not limited to selecting plays or playwrights based on the proximity of the playwright to the theatre. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Producing new work by local writers can be deemed a huge risk.
My actor friends have a much better chance of being cast at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC) than I have at being produced there.
I do not mean to suggest that Dallas-area theatres do not support the playwrights in this community. In the last few seasons many of the small and mid-size theatres in Dallas have featured work by local playwrights. But for most of my DFW writing peers these productions were one-off opportunities that never really helped us to gain much professional momentum. Unlike local actors, who through talent and much hard work are able to develop serious professional credits and reputations, local playwrights struggle to gain traction. My actor friends have a much better chance of being cast at the Dallas Theater Center (DTC) than I have at being produced there. For many years I was frustrated by this reality. However, in the last few months my perspective has shifted in very big ways.
The Gold Star
A few years ago I had a talk with a playwright friend who wondered why the Dallas Theater Center could not present scaled-back small budget productions of new plays by local writers. Furthermore, DTC could create whatever atmosphere is necessary to mitigate risks—such as a smaller run with fewer shows during the week, very affordable tickets, and in a house with maybe no more than seventy seats. On paper it sounds exciting and reasonable. Yet, I wonder how well this model can sustain itself and serve as an ongoing opportunity for local playwrights. Also, it would still only afford a production opportunity to one playwright a season or every few seasons. Perhaps an annual festival featuring more than one local playwright is the answer. But that is a huge leap to go from producing zero local writers to multiple writers in the span of a season. So what is the answer?
A few weeks ago, DTC’s Playwright in Residence, Will Power, posed a question to a group of local playwrights. If Zeus came down and could make it possible for DTC to give us anything we want—what would that be? What programs and services are necessary for our growth? Will’s question encouraged me to dream big and I was surprised that productions didn’t make my list. This is not to say I would scoff at an opportunity to be produced at the Dallas Theater Center. Of course I would be grateful for the opportunity. But at the moment, I would prefer to focus my aspirations in a different and more realistic direction.
My pragmatism is based in part on a numbers game. Within a given season there are many opportunities for local actors to be cast onstage at DTC. But there are only seven to nine slots available for production. And DTC is not a new play theatre. This is not DTC’s focus. Instead, DTC presents a well-rounded season of classics, musicals (typically at least one new musical), and work by exciting playwrights like Kim Rosenstock, Kristoffer Diaz, and Tracey Scott Wilson. So, within any given season there is one, maybe two slots open for new plays or Dallas-area premieres. Based on that structure, local playwrights are competing for just one slot. Added to that, local playwrights have the difficult task of competing for that one slot against some of the most talented and well established playwrights on the national scene. The odds are weighted heavily against local writers from the outset. Why limit ourselves to opportunities that are most likely unattainable at this time? Why not think outside the box and create new possibilities?
Taking LORT productions of plays by local playwrights off the table (for now) sounds like a dreadful endgame. However, it could provide space and opportunity for theatres to offer more long lasting support to more writers than a one-off production might provide. I imagine unlimited possibilities if funding can be redirected to other efforts. Instead of productions, put that money toward professional development and creative growth initiatives for local playwrights. And here’s the thing. The important thing. Really put money behind it. So if Zeus came down—my dream would look something like this:
Identify a small group of writers in your community, maybe three to five and plan road trips to new play development hotspots. Of course travel sounds like a huge scheduling/financial headache and nightmare. However, it only has to be one big field trip and each year it can be somewhere different—Humana Festival, Playwrights’ Center, Carlotta Festival at Yale, New Play Summit in Denver, PlayPenn, or a NYC trip and hit up The Lark, New Dramatists, and Ars Nova. It’s a great way for local writers to meet other playwrights and leaders in the field. The added value of this idea is that playwrights can take what they learn about playwriting, dramaturgy, and new play development back home. With this knowledge, playwrights can serve as leaders and take an active role in how their work is created and deepened.
Exposure to Professional Theatre Practice
Week-long mini residencies with a stipend provided. Each writer is given the opportunity to spend a week in residence at the theatre. During this time they could assist with script reading and coverage, attend rehearsals and production meetings, shadow artistic staff, visit different departments, and assist with various projects. Mini residencies in the literary and artistic offices are particularly important. Having the opportunities to read the plays submitted to a LORT theatre is a wonderful education in itself.
Take the writers out to a cabin in the woods or the lake for a three- to five-day writers’ retreat. Just having time to get away from the responsibilities of home and work is a huge luxury most local writers never experience. I believe your writing is transformed when you are given a quiet space and a few precious days that belong only to you and your play.
Post Production Development Labs
Create a workshop and reading series in which playwrights get to work on a play that they’ve already had produced. I know that sounds a bit backwards. Why would you develop something that has already been produced? My answer to that is the play still needs work and could definitely benefit from significant dramaturgical support. And unfortunately, many small Dallas area theatres are not able to provide local writers with this assistance. The dramaturgy I’ve experienced here typically happens by committee—a combination of the director and the actors. But we do not have artists in Dallas that specialize in new play dramaturgy. I think a lot of our new work suffers (in different ways) for that, mine included.
I see post production development labs as an opportunity for local playwrights to hone their skills and sharpen their plays. I envision generously funded one- to two-week workshops that allow playwrights to take their plays apart and put them back together again. Maybe even the playwright and the theatre can identify a previous play that might fit the theatre’s future plans. Or perhaps develop an action plan for how the theatre can help advocate for the play and playwright to colleagues in the field.
Setting the Table on a National Scale
Certainly it has been proven that Big D breeds talented playwrights. Octavio Solis, Doug Wright, and Regina Taylor all hail from this area. Doug and Regina grew up here. Octavio is from El Paso but cut his teeth in the Dallas theatre community. He even taught playwriting at my alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Tracey Letts also spent some time here out of college. Allison Moore and Beth Henley are graduates of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University. So we have a legacy. The question is how do we build on that legacy? Yet this is not simply a Dallas issue. Previous HowlRound City Series articles have explored this topic. In their City Series posts Seattle artists Braden Abraham and Vincent Delany, and Minneapolis artist Cory Hinkle expressed many of the same concerns that we have in Dallas. Prioritizing a field-wide exploration of access for local playwrights is a vital tool to help grow the field with new and diverse talent. Most exciting is that it will expand the cannon of new American plays in dynamic and surprising ways.