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?

Playwrights on the sidewalk
The 2016-2017 PlayPen Playwrights. Photo by PlayPenn. 

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?

Big D
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?

Zeus
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:

Road Trips
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.

Writers’ Retreats
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.

 

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The Dallas Series explores the challenges and rewards of creating theatre in Big D.

Dallas, Texas

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Thanks for sharing your dreams, Jonathan. I definitely agree that dreaming big and then realizing what it what take for those dreams to come true is a great way to look at how we as a network can shape the future of the American theatre scene. And as a young playwright who grew up in Texas, I appreciate the discussion of the wonderful, artistic state that unfortunately feels like it doesn't want to let me and other young playwrights and dramaturgs sit "at the table."

Jonathan, I'm particularly interested in your insightful recommendations of various programs to assist playwrights outside of simply more productions. It seems to me that few (none?) of the SPT's in Dallas have the institutional structure capable of undertaking many of these initiatives, although many of us are continually making strides in small ways to build greater intimacy with new playwrights or those already in our tribes.

Perhaps what Dallas is really missing is a non-producing organization devoted primarily to the cultivation and development of playwrights, looking to Chicago Dramatists, Lark, and New Dramatists as examples. This kind of institution, with space and funding (both of which I suspect are available in abundance in Dallas) could then take the lead on initiating some of these projects and, in particular, facilitate relationships with producing theaters to allow playwrights that glimpse of the sausage-making of production and ultimately, foster the relationships that will build to local productions.

Edit: I'd love to hear more about what Ms. Goldfinger thinks were some early best practices in starting the Foundry!

Great article. I like all of the ideas. Definitely worth exploring. I worked as an actor and director and wrote plays in Dallas for about five years after college. I've been in Chicago since 2009. Chicago has been a great experience and I've learned so much in my time here. Then the baby was born. My wife and I are new parents and we found it to be a very easy decision to move back to Dallas this fall. Family, friends still there, cost of living, lifestyle. All of it make Dallas attractive to us. And I find myself very excited to be back in the Dallas theater community. I'm just going to bullet point this bad boy. Pardon my optimism:

-Overall, the theater community is very inclusive. It's big enough for plenty of opportunity for good actors, directors, and designers to always be working but small enough that everyone knows everyone. Do good work and make friends and the opportunity is there.

-If you want/need to produce your own work you can. It's cheaper and easier than in Chicago. Believe me.

-The press will cover your show. Between the Dallas Observer, DMN, TheaterJones and blogger critics, they are paying attention. Do some good work and a lot of people (audience and artists) will find out about it. There's nothing more exciting to the press in Dallas than good new work.

-TACA is giving theaters and playwrights the incentive ($$$) to find each other and make new plays. Seriously, money. For local, new theater. I think more theaters will make new works a priority.

-The Dallas Theater Center has a Director of New Play Development. And he's a local guy. Between Lee Trull and Will Powers and the Dallas Playwright's Workshop, they're paying attention to us. And if they consistently succeed in transferring their new work (wherever it's from) to New York, putting Dallas in the limelight, that can only be good for local playwrights. It's great to get those larger communities looking to Dallas but it's even better if it makes Dallas (the city, the people, the audiences, the artists) proud of our contributions. Success will breed success. That's something about Chicago. The audiences are so proud of the city's reputation for theater. It keeps them coming so they don't miss that next big thing.

-Theater in Dallas is just as good as theater anywhere else. The same percentage of good work is being done in Dallas as in Chicago and New York. Those cities just do more theater and have higher ceilings because they've been in the game longer.

-When I was there before I could count the local playwright's I knew on one hand. Thanks to social media there's a burgeoning community apparent. I love Jonathan's ideas that would provide a structure and reason to bring us together. I think this will be key for us taking the next step. Someone taking leadership to create a framework to help bind the writing community and integrate them in a major way in the theater community at large.

So, there's why I'm truly looking forward to coming home. The new works landscape has changed so much in the last five years. If we all play our cards right, the next five could be even better.

Great article Jonathan and moreover it gives me a glimmer of hope as a playwright that our home town will become more receptive of the talent that lies in the small cramped theaters and makeshift reading stages. So many times I have wanted to lay my quill down, but for you, Spiller and Donnie Wilson and your encouragement, I have pressed on. It is fulfilling to have the support of cohorts but to have a whole city who openly supports ALL of the theatrical talent would be a tremendous benefit!

Great article! We have similar lack issues in Philly and so a few playwrights got together and created The Foundry - a development organization for local emerging writers (http://philadelphiafoundry....). We've also chosen not to produce but to focus our limited resources on development and exposure to professional practices. However, we also have a networking component. Basically, the Foundry leadership actively connects emerging local writers with organizations that we already have a relationship with and that we think would be artistically simpatico. After two years of this, we now have organizations around the region who are interested in local writers but don't have the resources to handle open calls or submissions who are calling us. We give them two to three suggestions and, so far, they've either developed or produced the writers that we recommend. Basically, we've become a literary management office for organizations that can't afford one. Jonathan, thank you for writing this and for your ideas. I'm sending this article to all of our Foundry peeps and encouraging them to dream big as we begin our planning for next season.

As a DFW dramaturg I'm all for the ideas in this article. I feel that Dallas has a lot of potential, and a large group of talented playwrights who have little to no opportunity for stage productions. I've been working in DC at the Kennedy Center with NNPN on new play dramaturgy and even just a week-long workshop ending in a staged reading would be beneficial to playwrights in the area, and low cost for local theater companies. Its a matter of finding the money and the space unfortunately.

On a related note, the DFW Dramaturg is somewhat a rarity, a creature of legend. I know there are some of us, but I have met maybe one other in my two years back from college, and none before I went and got a degree. If there was a way we could gather together and work together we could be a force to reckon with. Dramaturgs championing local playwrights whose work they think is important, and playwrights championing having dramaturgs attached to projects.

I've actually modeled a lot of my understanding of how new work and writers can and should be developed and supported by the amazing support of the South Dallas Cultural Center (SDCC). SDCC is also a member of the National Performance Network. SDCC's manager, Vicki Meek created a commissioning program called the Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Project, which has made possible for me to develop as an artist. Actually My Tidy List of Terrors came out of that. And she's also making possible an amazing six month long NEA funded development process for my newest play. This kind of support doesn't happen very often in Dallas. One thing I've always found so interesting about Vicki is that she's a visual artist and I've come to think that visual artists understand the importance of funding and supporting generative artist in a way that the larger theater community does not. Vicki, do you have any thoughts on this?

We just finished two reading workshops for local Dramatists Guild members and you're absolutely spot on regarding the need for professional development and creative growth initiatives. So many wonderful ideas in this article! I sympathize with the Dallas Theater Center because often times they are expected to be all things to all people but the reality is small and mid-size theatre companies are in dire need of resources that local playwrights bring to the table. A lot of really innovative ideas we've implemented at TeCp were the brainchild of local playwright friends. I'd love to see high profile national funding institutions make multi-year grants available for groundbreaking initiatives in a way that shines a national spotlight on local playwrights collaborating with theatre companies that have operating budgets less than $500,000. A two-week workshop wouldn't provide an adequate understanding of all that goes into the selection and mounting of a season of plays. I especially love the idea of having the playwright being exposed to professional theater practice and shadowing the artistic staff. With this knowledge, I believe playwrights could develop a more realistic road map to help propel their career. I'm always flabbergasted when I get requests from theatre folks who want to stage their "idea" in the middle of my season.

I love the idea of funding those smaller and mid-size institutions that live much closer the action and have already developed strong relationships with local writers such as TeCo and the South Dallas Cultural Center and the Margo Jones Theatre. I would also love to see partnerships develop between those organizations and the larger ones. However, the great challenge is how do you accomplish that without creating a situation where the larger orgs cannibalize the efforts and achievements of the smaller orgs?

Great article, Jonathan! I love the road trip idea so much! I also really relate with the post-production development idea. I believe a play lives in the moment from one production to the next (of course) and that it has that unique quality that other arts don't always afford... it is in a state of constant potential change. It can be tweaked and rediscovered and so on. I am a reminded of an anecdote about director Peter Brook backstage at the tail-end of a really long run of his piece The Mahabharata. He was with a friend. The friend watched, incredulously, as Brook gave notes to his actors before the very last show. Asked about it afterwards Brook replied, "Why should the audience be robbed of a potential improvement?"

I love the Peter Brook story. Why should the audience be robbed? Also - the post-production development idea is important to me because so many development orgs have a restriction against plays that have already been produced. For many writers this puts us in a difficult and frustrating spot. It's like a catch-22. It is wonderful to get our work produced, usually at a small theater with a very tight (if any) budget. You get it reviewed by some local papers. Hopefully you get good reviews. YAY! But now that same small production - in a tiny blackbox somewhere that got REVIEWED (reviews seem to be the sticking point here with a lot of orgs) is ineligible for most development programs. To be fair, there are programs that are more lenient. But I think overall development post production needs to be reevaluated. And the road trip idea - I went to the Humana Festival of New American Plays this year for the very first time. It was such an amazing and wonderfully transformative experience for me. We gotta start getting out more.However, my thing is that at some point this idea that local playwrights must create these opportunities entirely by themselves must be put to rest.