How Sustained Support for Playwrights Impacts Artistry

National Playwright Residency Program Evaluation 2020

“What happens when playwrights are positioned not at the periphery of producing organizations, but at the center?,” HowlRound asked in its invitation to playwrights to apply for the third round of the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP). This is what we at Helicon Collaborative sought to understand through our two assessments of the program, first in 2017 and again in 2020. This evaluation was launched as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives uprisings swept the country. The enormous disruptions that these conditions precipitated—for society as a whole and the arts sector in particular—prompted us to also reflect on what we might learn from NPRP that can inform the evolution of the theatre field in the direction of greater justice, equity, and sustainability.

The NPRP program was established in 2013 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in collaboration with HowlRound, as a response to a systemic and widely recognized crisis in the theatre field. Many nonprofit theatres had backed themselves into a corner trying to make a broken economic model work by relying on perceived “safe bets”—musicals, classic texts, and well-known names—rather than new plays or work by unknown authors. And yet theatre audiences continued to dwindle while costs and ticket prices skyrocketed. Meanwhile, playwrights struggled to make a living by cobbling together gigs in theatre, film, and outside of the arts, increasingly operating on the margins of a sector to which they were theoretically essential.

a large group sitting in a circle watching a staged reading

National Playwright Residency Program Cohort Two March 2018 Convening in Boston, Massachusetts.

In an attempt to spur change in this system, the NPRP program supported a group of playwrights to be embedded in producing theatres for a three-year period of time. The program selected a diverse cohort (in age, ethnicity, career stage, and gender) that represented the range of playwrights working in America today and counteracted the disproportionate dominance of white male playwrights in United States theatre productions. The goals of the program were to give playwrights the space, time, and resources to create work and to nurture deeper, more collaborative relationships between playwrights and theatres. The hypothesis was that this would not only benefit the participating playwrights and theatres, but also the audiences and communities they serve. The hope was that the program might also generate insights for the broader theatre field about new models for production that were more artistically vital, relevant to communities, and economically sustainable for playwrights.

Since its inception, the program has supported a total of thirty-six three-year residencies. Nearly three-quarters of the playwrights who have participated are Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and over half (55 percent) are women. A number of the participating theatres specifically focus on communities of color, such as Ma-Yi, Theater Mu, Classical Theatre of Harlem, and Cara Mía.

Helicon’s first evaluation in 2017 assessed whether the program had improved the financial stability and well-being of participating playwrights and strengthened the relationships between theatres, playwrights, and communities. We found that, by and large, its impact on participants had been substantial, even transformative in many cases. In relation to the field, however, we found that the dominant operating model and dynamic between playwrights and theatres remained largely unaffected.

two actors onstage

Regina Marie Williams and James A. Williams in Pillsbury House Theatre's production of Scapegoat by Christina Ham. Photo by George Byron Griffiths.

This second evaluation was more targeted. In this review, HowlRound wanted to know how sustained support for playwrights and theatres was impacting the nature and quality of artistic work itself. We should note that the program did not set out to influence artistry, except insofar as it supported a diverse array of highly talented playwrights to make work. However, as it became clear how important the security, validation, and long-term relationships were for both playwrights and theatres, HowlRound became curious about how these conditions—unusual in the broader theatre field—might be impacting the artistic work itself.

Our evaluation focused on two questions:

  • How do extended residencies impact individual playwrights’ artistic work and the artistic programs of theatres?
  • Is the aggregate body of work created by NPRP playwrights and theatres influencing the so-called “canon” of work being produced today?

The goals of the program were to give playwrights the space, time, and resources to create work and to nurture deeper, more collaborative relationships between playwrights and theatres.

a group of actors onstage

Perseverance Theatre’s production of Devilfish by Vera Starbard. Photo by Michael Penn.

Findings

Four major findings emerged from Helicon’s review.

1. Financial stability and security for playwrights leads to less stress, greater well-being, and better, more adventurous artistic work.

As one playwright said, “We all do better work when we can think about expansive ideas and not just survival. This [program] is general operating support for artists.” Freed from the stress and uncertainty of perpetual gig work, playwrights found they could experiment, expand, and grow creatively. For some, this resulted in longer development times and more mature work, while others experimented with new forms and ideas that might otherwise have been considered “too risky.” Ironically, many found that the work they thought was too risky ended up being the most popular and financially successful plays for the host theatres, challenging conventional wisdom about what audiences want.

The vast majority of playwrights felt that the residency resulted in an improvement in the quality of their work. Many credited this to the fact that it invested in them as human beings, not just play machines. This allowed them to nurture what feeds their creative spirit, be fully present with the inevitable ups and downs of life, and respond to societal events in real time.

2. Having a playwright on staff influences theatres’ artistic choices and processes, and improves their relationship with artists and their broader communities.

The artistic impact of the playwrights on theatres went far beyond the production of their own plays. Resident playwrights often consulted on the selection and production of other plays by their host theatre during their tenure, and some became advisors or coaches for non-resident playwrights during their development process. This role was particularly valuable when the non-resident playwright was a person of color working in a predominantly white theatre, where racial and institutional power dynamics were both operative. For several of the resident playwrights, they were the only person of color in a senior staff role at their theatre, which made them an important ally for artists of color in a space where playwrights in general often lack power. Some resident playwrights also helped nurture connections with the local artistic community by offering workshops or classes.

3. American theatre is finally becoming more reflective of the diversity of the country, due to the long and concerted effort of many in the field, but there is much more to do.

Interviewees agreed that there has been a definite shift in the nonprofit theatre field towards greater diversity of stories, forms, voices, and faces on American stages in recent years. The writers and theatres supported by the NPRP program have been important contributors to this diversity, although it is impossible to untangle the program’s impact from the other forces pushing in this direction.

However, many interviewees also noted that while theatres are more welcoming to “diverse” playwrights and “unconventional” plays than they were ten years ago, this openness is still often superficial. In larger theatres especially, diversity is supported only as long as it does not feel threatening or confusing to the theatre’s subscriber base. “Theatre itself is a colonial construct,” one artistic director noted, “and white, older, wealthy subscribers determine the aesthetics of theatre.” The artistic preferences of traditional theatre audiences are often quite different from those of younger, queer, and/or BIPOC playwrights and audiences. Some playwrights commented that they feel caught between writing what they want to write for themselves and their own community, and creating work that will be successful in larger, predominantly white theatre spaces.

A majority of interviewees agreed that the dominant business model of theatre, as well as economic forces more broadly, continues to determine who can afford to create and what is produced. It remains extremely difficult for playwrights to make a living in theatre alone, and TV has therefore become a financial lifeline for many. One playwright even suggested that “there is no future for the field of playwriting except through TV.”

4. The stability provided by the NPRP program equips theatres and artists to better meet this moment.

COVID-19 is aggravating and amplifying preexisting vulnerabilities and weaknesses across all facets of our society and theatre is no exception. It is very possible that many theatres may not outlast the mandated closures, and interviewees expressed fear the field may lose creative talent permanently. Because theatres rooted in BIPOC communities have been historically undercapitalized, they are especially vulnerable, as are artists without family safety nets or savings. As a result, the pandemic is amplifying racial and economic inequities.

The racial justice uprisings have provoked an unprecedented “reckoning” for theatre. One theatre director said: “There is a revolution going on—theatres are being called out by artists and communities for long-standing inequities and insincere statements of solidarity.”

Having a fully funded playwright on staff has enabled participating theatres to respond artistically to the moment, even when buildings are shuttered and other staff are furloughed. NPRP playwrights have hosted community conversations, taught classes, helped theatres reflect on institutional racism, and written timely plays for Zoom productions. Resident playwrights feel fortunate to have a salary at this time, and many expressed feeling a sense of responsibility to do something other artists can’t do because they need to worry about their own survival. Some have found ways to pay other artists, and several playwrights have been discussing how the NPRP cohort might use their collective influence to advocate for racial and economic justice in theatre and beyond.

Having a fully funded playwright on staff has enabled participating theatres to respond artistically to the moment, even when buildings are shuttered and other staff are furloughed.

three actors onstage

Shannon DeVido, Marinda Anderson ,and Gregg Mozgala in Ma-Yi Theatre Company's production of Teenage Dick by Mike Lew. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Insights for the Future of the Field

The pandemic has been a massive shock to society on all levels, but unfortunately it is more likely to be a harbinger of rather than an exception to what life may be like in our near future. Economic and political upheaval, social change, and the climate crisis will likely be our companions for some time. If anything, our current context has made clear that theatre does not exist in a world apart from society but is integrally linked with it. How playwrights, theatres, and the field at large choose to engage with this moment will be telling and may determine the relevance and viability of theatre for years to come.

We offer a few final insights from the NPRP program that might inform the broader field’s trajectory in this time of transformation:

  • Playwrights have much to offer communities and organizations beyond the production of art for on-stage consumption. The commodification of theatre has led to a devaluing of artists, except insofar as they produce financially successful work. Supporting playwrights as creative thinkers and engaged citizens, as well as producers of plays, can have unexpected benefits.
  • Assumptions about what is “too risky” for audiences needs to be reconsidered. In fact, audiences—especially new audiences—may be drawn in by bolder work that explores different themes, formats, or cultures than mainstream theatre’s standard fare.
  • There is no longer a way to claim ignorance or be neutral about issues of equity and justice—either you are proactively working to change the system or you are supporting the status quo (tacitly or actively). Transforming the white construct of theatre is not as simple as producing a play by a person of color or hiring a BIPOC leader at the helm. An anti-racist, decolonized theatre requires looking at institutions and practices as a whole—at the architecture, show formats, audiences, and norms of behavior; at governance and business models; at production schedules, pay scales, and benefit programs—and being willing to start anew with values of equity at the core, even if that means a radically different future.
  • Sustainable livelihoods for playwrights must include pushing for more equitable compensation within theatre as well as engaging with economic realities outside of the theatre sector, including the social safety net and employment opportunities in other fields. Artist advocates, including playwrights themselves, can do much more to engage with broader campaigns that would benefit artists if successful, such as the movements for portable benefits for gig workers, universal childcare, and debt relief.

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