Interview with Jason Loewith
Margot: This might be a provocative question, but tell me why the American theater is still so New York-centric?
Jason: Yes, that does provoke me, because I think it’s a pointless question. I’m more interested in this question: is your community supporting artists and artistry? If it is, then the question of American theater being New York-centric becomes moot. New York is where the money is, New York is where a large majority of artists live and work consistently. That’s the truth. But that shouldn’t matter if your community is trying really hard to support artists. That’s what happened in the eight years I lived in Chicago—and now theater makers around the country and around the world look to Chicago for inspiration. And of course I see that when I travel to the twenty-four cities around the country where NNPN (National New Play Network) theaters are.
So what’s the point of being competitive with New York? Just do what you do and do it well. Do it so ferociously and with such passion and such ingenuity that your community becomes—if it’s not already—a locus for artists who want to live there. I continue to be a firm believer that if you do great work, the audience will come, the dollars will come, the artists will come wherever you are. Do work that matters to your community.
Margot: What do you think of the perception that a play hasn’t really “arrived” until it’s had a New York production?
Jason: Sharr White’s play [The Other Place] was just done at MCC in New York. It was the first time there was a big New York Times article about him, but his writing career has been happening in different places around the country, and plenty of other communities know him and value his voice. He didn’t come to the attention of New York audiences until now, for whatever reason, but it’s the success of his productions around the country that got him the attention of that theater in New York.
I feel like if I write something that is really great, my first impulse is not going to be to send it to every New York theater company that I know. I’m talking to theaters in other parts of the country about commissions where I have relationships because of artists there and because they’re artistic homes to me. I’m personally not New York focused or New York directional because I see so much activity in so many other parts of the country. And goodness knows, in New York there are a lot of pitfalls for artists.
Margot: A corollary question, but related I think: What is the role of smaller theaters in the cultural ecology of America?
Jason: The small and mid-sized theaters are absolutely essential, more essential every day because, as we all know, producing in the largest-size theaters gets more and more risk-averse every year. It’s not just thanks to the economy; it’s because of desperation to hold on to a dying subscription model. Every year they get more risk averse is a year that small and mid-sized theaters take more risk and generate more of the work that is moving the field forward.
Theater artists don’t come out of nowhere. Lynn Notage didn’t start writing for Manhattan Theater Club. Suzan-Lori Parks didn’t start writing plays for Broadway. Tony Kushner… you name it. Those people are all products of relatively small and mid-sized theaters devoted to risk.
Margot: What do you think of the idea that the least risk-taking theater companies end up getting the most funding?
Jason: If we in the field dwell on issues of scarcity when we talk to each other, we eat ourselves up rather than focus on what we all agree on. What I know about risk and risky work is that it moves the artform forward, but risky work isn’t aesthetically any better or worse than work that is not. I think we should fund theaters and arts based on excellence and how great they are at pursuing their artistic mission.
If you run a large theater whose mission is not to push the boundaries of the artform, but you do what you do extremely well, I think it’s legitimate that you get funded. Obviously there are large theaters that suck up a lot of dollars that aren’t producing excellent work. That’s a problem but sadly, it’s the funders prerogative. Our job is to educate funders that every community needs to balance its funding amongst its small, mid-size, and large companies to keep the arts ecology there healthy and vibrant—and pull artists to work and live there. And I think it’s our job to demand that our funding partners reward excellence, not mediocrity.
Margot: What do you think works about new play development in America and what do you think doesn’t work?
Jason: I think there’s a lot of replication in the new play development sector and that leads to a frustration on the part of artists. I hear playwrights complain about it often: endless development opportunities but no productions. So many theaters, development programs, development organizations and festivals, they all feel that they’re providing the same value for a particular play. Everybody is caressing the product and ultimately the product, the play, needs to be produced. If the playwright doesn’t feel the need to go through so many steps, why is our industry spending so many dollars and so much effort to continue to develop it? I call it replication, other people call it development hell. It’s expending scarce resources that we as a field should put elsewhere. Let’s spend our money on other plays that don’t already have development opportunities or other services to new plays.
Margot: What other services?
Jason: Playwright residencies—people getting paid to come into your theater and write plays. Rather than give a play ten workshops that it doesn’t need if you’re not ultimately going to produce the play, give it five workshops and give the extra money to a playwright to be in residence so he or she doesn’t have to have a day job. And what that does for the theater itself—the theater that puts a writer at its center, with a job—is immeasurable in terms of dispelling the misconceptions and avoiding the miscommunications that plague interactions between writers and producers.
Making playwrights important to their community is the first step to ensuring that their profession is treated with the respect that it deserves and that they make the money they deserve.
One good thing that seems to be happening, and I certainly think NNPN is playing a role, is that there is a greater focus on collaboration in terms of play development. Whether it is just about artistic directors calling other artistic directors saying, “Hey, you should see this, you should be part of this,” or organizations where you actually develop plays together. I see more and more of that happening and that’s extremely positive because it gets the playwright and the play out. It increases the network of opportunities for that writer.
Margot: If you could wave a magic wand and say, “This is the future of new play development,” what would that look like?
Jason: That’s hard. I don’t know. What do you think? What would you do?
Margot: One of the biggest frustrations I have is seeing playwrights get commissions but not productions. I think it’s great that playwrights are getting money to write, but I don’t think it’s enough. I want to see more follow through so those commissions turn into something, maybe fewer commissions that companies are more serious about, or larger companies that have the resources to commission employing a more collaborative model where they partner with smaller companies and get a production going from day one.
Jason: I think that would be great. If I could wave a magic wand, I would devote some pixie dust to that, because I’m in 100% agreement with you.
I would also use my magic wand to figure out a way to make playwrights more central to the cultural lives of their communities, because I think that would ultimately lead to greater success rates with commissions. I know a lot of writers, writers of real promise, who wish that they could write more but have to have that day job. Making playwrights important to their community is the first step to ensuring that their profession is treated with the respect that it deserves and that they make the money they deserve.
I’d also do some wand waving to stop producers who want to own a new play simply to satisfy their own egos. They end up producing plays they know are not as worthy because they want to be viewed as taking risks, rather than seriously take them. It goes beyond premiere-itis. Who are you serving? You’re only serving your own ego when you make that kind of decision.
On the other hand, if part of your theater’s mission is to take risks and move the field forward, then yeah, absolutely produce plays by writers you believe in even if you suspect maybe there is a problem with the play. Do a new play because you want to encourage that writer and give them that opportunity and give that play the opportunity.
What I want to do, and what NNPN does and does well, is make it easier for plays of quality and impact to achieve greater success and greater opportunities for excellence. So the question is really, if I could wave a magic wand, what would I be able to do to make excellent plays and excellent playwrights have more opportunities for success? Is it about allowing writers to only have to focus on one play a year? Is that helpful? Is it about giving them access to larger numbers of potential collaborators? Smaller numbers of potential collaborators? Obviously it’s different for each play and playwright, but I would want to wave a magic wand to set up the conditions for each great play to find success