Playwright Residencies

Success on Whose Terms?

This is a post about defining success.

On Sunday night, as P. Carl’s post about defining success was landing on HowlRound, the Arts news of the New York Times broke the story of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s National Playwright Residency Initiative, which places playwrights on the staff of fourteen theatres in eleven cities around the country. The Boston Globe followed the next morning with an article that shared the full list of participants. This capped a busy couple of weeks for playwrights and residencies in the press.

I should have been celebrating. This is a drum I’ve been pounding for nearly a decade. Instead I was struck by the gulf revealed in the reporting between what I perceive as a movement gathering steam and the way this movement is perceived by my colleagues in the press. The disconnect between the news of this $3.7 million dollar investment in playwrights and the tone of articles in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and The New York Times reveals the full importance and challenge of defining success in our field in terms that are relevant and organic, in particular when those terms buck the traditional narrative.

The present-day drive toward an improved system of support for American playwrights in the nonprofit theatre was sparked, in large part, by the confluence of investments from the Mellon Foundation and the publication of Outrageous Fortune, written by Todd London and Ben Pesner and published in December, 2009 by the Theater Development Fund. Early interventions included the appointment of Suzan Lori Parks to the new position of Master Writer Chair at the Public Theater and the naming of five writers to three-year residencies in the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage (AVNPI), launched in January of 2010. New York’s Signature Theatre further advanced the efforts by creating five residencies of their own in 2011. The National Playwright Residency Initiative is a direct outgrowth of the cumulative impact of these initiatives and others like them around the country.

a book cover
The cover for Outrageous Fortune by 
Todd London and Ben Penser.
Photo by Todd London

From a mere handful in 2010, there are now more than thirty American playwrights in salaried positions in the not-for-profit regional theatre. There have already been dozens of productions around the field emanating from those residencies and even more new works in development for the coming seasons. In addition to increased earnings from the traditional playwright’s royalties, the writers have a secure income, health benefits, and artistic homes committed to producing their plays, not just reading them. So I was surprised that the general tone of the reporting in the recent spate of articles on American playwrights depicts a backsliding in our field’s support of writers and the residency concept as a failed experiment.

In part, what we are seeing is the intractable nature of established narratives of success.

In January, 2010, Karen Zacarias officially began her three-year stint as one of the five resident playwrights of Arena’s AVNPI. In June of that year the full slate was announced to front page headlines in the Washington Post. Here’s theatre critic Peter Marks’ lede in that story:

Names of major American playwrights are often familiar, even to those who never attend the theatre: Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and August Wilson come to mind. Less well known is their traditional status as itinerant workers: They hand over plays to theatre companies for a fee, show up for rehearsals and opening night, then move on.

Arena Stage, Washington's Tony Award-winning regional theatre, is trying to break that pattern with a simple idea that is almost revolutionary. If the initiative works, the way theatre treats these key players will change dramatically.

The AVNPI residencies committed to three years of salary and benefits for the five writers, at least one production during their tenure, and created a budget for them to use to enhance the development path for their new works. Significantly, the residencies also committed to this support without encumbering the work product of the residency and without enforcing exclusivity to Arena. Where many commissions and developmental processes tie up the rights to a work for extended periods of time for the host institution, the AVNPI residencies were essentially an experiment in supporting five writers to be playwrights for the not-for-profit American theatre, rather than for one institution. The just-announced NPRI carries forward many elements of this design, including the three years of salary and benefits, the developmental budgets, and the commitment to produce.

So, over the holiday break I read the latest post in the intermittent New Play Blog of the AVNPI with great interest. It’s a snapshot of the progress of the resident writers embedded at Arena. In reading it you get a sense of the sweeping impact the residencies have had, not just on the playwrights and their capacity to support themselves through writing, but on theatres around the country that have successfully mounted work by these writers since the residencies began.

This post was accompanied by a Washington Post article that announced the departure of Katori Hall from the program and called into question the success of the residency program based on the Arena Stage productions that have resulted from the initiative, now entering its third year. Writes Post theatre critic Peter Marks:

One feels some deflation of the hope that an uptick in writerly energy, fostered by the two-year-old residency initiative, would have ignited the institution’s programming—or at least yielded something immediate by one of the higher-profile dramatists among the five initially selected for coveted salaried spots.

The disconnect between the Post’s assessment of the residencies at Arena and the direct relationship between those residencies and the NPRI provides, for me, a stark example of both the difficulty and the importance of defining success loudly, clearly, and repeatedly in face of the narrative of hierarchy that Polly addressed in her essay. The Post had already twice delivered its failing grade to Arena’s program, once in October, and again in December. The evidence used was the lack of premieres of new plays produced by Arena by these playwrights. The Boston Globe picked up the mantra, reporting the Post’s assessment of Hall’s departure at the two-year mark.

In this most recent article, Mr. Marks wonders, “was this program, part of the American Voices New Play Institute, mislabeled? Should Arena theatregoers have been better apprised about the meager early rewards?” And had the program been labeled as one designed to generate premieres of new plays for Washington audiences, the traditional presumption of “success,” he would be on to something. But, in fact, as he wrote in his 2010 story announcing the program, the label affixed to the program was one that was hoping to “break the pattern” of the traditional ways the field approached the role of the playwright.

In all the early press on the AVNPI residencies, in all the blog posts, the terms of success are clearly laid out: give the writers the stability to focus on their playwriting. Give them the developmental, financial, and structural support to keep their plays (and their careers) in motion. Create no obstacles to productions of their plays. And commit to at least one production during their residency. In reading Arena’s blog post, all but the last marker for success has been achieved. There is still time for that one, though it will be a race now that the program is entering its third year with two playwrights still awaiting productions. And yet, even if Arena does not produce those outcomes inside the three-year clock, there is much to celebrate here.

But I also understand the disappointment Mr. Marks expresses with the “output” in terms of productions for Washington DC audiences. By that measure, the Arena residencies have little to show for the investment. It is true that there has yet to be an Arena premiere of a new play emerging from the program. There are real questions to explore in terms of why, for instance, Arena was not among the several theatres that premiered new works by Hall during her residency period or why so many projects by these writers are developing in other institutional settings. There are also interesting things to be learned from her exit, a year early, from the program. And an honest and open conversation on those questions would be an important contribution to the learning about residencies in general.

When institutions or artists succumb to “spin,” or make efforts to bury the challenges and failures and report only the good news, our colleagues in the press and around the field have every reason to be cynical and to revert to the old narratives.

I also understand Mark’s skepticism of the theatre’s assertion that these production outcomes are the result of choices made by the playwrights. Of course the playwrights are not making their own decisions about which plays Arena produces and when. All of the writers have new works that they are eager to see mounted and, if they had such freedom to schedule productions at Arena we would surely have seen some of those by now. Those are the choices of the artistic director. To claim otherwise is to call into question everything else.

Setting new rules for defining success requires transparency, clarity, and integrity. When institutions or artists succumb to “spin,” or make efforts to bury the challenges and failures and report only the good news, our colleagues in the press and around the field have every reason to be cynical and to revert to the old narratives.

But there’s another casualty of this sort of spin creeping into our self-reporting. Our colleagues in practice and in the press stop paying attention to what’s actually happening in the field and revert to their old habits of simply rehashing the press releases.

Two other news items that hit before the holiday season were stark examples of the retreat from engagement on the part of the press, trumpeting as “news” things that read more like backsliding than progress in the effort to address the state of the American playwright. One was a blurb in the New York Times Arts Beat that heralded a collaboration between Manhattan Theatre Club and Ars Nova Theater that would create four commissions of $5,000 - $10,000:

Such commissions are increasingly common as nonprofit theatres try to forge stronger ties with their favorite writers, enabling them financially to remain playwrights (rather than move into television and film work) and helping spur new works that might run in the theatres someday.

It also announced that the theatres would be seeking foundation support for these fees and to continue the practice, that there was no commitment to producing the plays at either theatre, and that the projects would not be happening if not for these commissions.

For an organization the size of Ars Nova, the commission amounts are laudable, and partnering with a larger company to be able to increase their capacity to support and advance the writers and their plays is smart, effective design.

But for a company the size of MTC, while the commitment to aligning their resources and brand with Ars Nova is notable, these commission amounts are not newsworthy. And, for the writers they’ve commissioned, neither are they sufficient to enable them to “remain playwrights” except in combination with a number of other such opportunities. Samuel Hunter, for instance, is commissioned via this program, a resident playwright at Victory Gardens in Chicago, and was added to the program at Arena for one year (presumably filling the vacancy left by Ms. Hall who departs before the end of the three year term). This is actually decidedly old news and takes the conversation backwards. The habit of putting the burden on playwrights to piece together a living wage, of seeking foundation support for things that are modest commitments of major institutions, and of employing what marketers term “semantic stretch” to make the modest seem newsworthy (“enabling them to remain playwrights”) is all old school. It is not even business as usual, it is business as was.

The other item again came from The Washington Post’s Peter Marks. Please note that both Mr. Marks and the Post in general have been stalwart in their support for new work in the DC community over a number of years. So it is particularly alarming when this paper, and Mr. Marks in particular, seem to lose the thread. In reporting on the new program at Arena focused on local playwrights, Mr. Marks sounded what, in some ways, was a call for less ambition and less marketing spin around efforts to foster new works and support those who write them. In describing the newly announced Playwrights Arena program, Mr. Marks posited that, as distinct from the Arena residencies which have thus far failed to produce premieres and therefore have not lived up to their front page billing, “the humbler goals of the Playwrights’ Arena might bear a higher percentage of early results.”

But here again, the definition of success that Mr. Marks is setting out is not the same definition the theatre is using and will undoubtedly lead to him handing out the same failing grade down the line. David Snider, Arena’s director of artistic programming, says the goal of the program is “Playwrights, having their own time with their process, and feeling they have an artistic home at Arena.” He projects the output of the program as “By the end of the year, they will have a first draft of a new work.” The writers have no stipends, no budgets, and no commitments to produce their plays. The likelihood that there will be a significant number of Arena premieres to tally as a result of this program is slim to none.

Again, this is an old model reported as news. There are dozens and dozens of these programs around the country. Probably the most productive one, when measured in terms of the number of premieres that have resulted at the host institution, is the Huntington Playwrights Fellowship, which has produced eight plays by local writers that were developed in that program since 2004. For the Huntington, this is a stated part of their definition of success for HPF and they have put staff, facilities, and financial resources into it to achieve those laudable outcomes. These results are important and impressive—and they are part of the success equation of the theatre’s leadership. The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group has similarly impressive outcomes along the lines of their own definitions of success for the program. But the traditional “local writers group” that aims primarily to create a sense of place for playwrights at a large regional theatre rarely produces that sort of output and has been with us for decades. More importantly, it doesn’t lead to a livelihood for playwrights that allows them to “financially remain playwrights.”

I have no doubt that there are legitimate terms of success that could be used to describe the importance of this opportunity for the six writers who Arena has engaged. And it would be interesting and informative to understand and track those. But as it stands, the markers that are standing in the void left by a transparent, clear, and truthful assessment of success doom the effort to failure, a failure which will become attached to those same writers.

Correction: While the Mellon Foundation has been a strong supporter of Signature Theatre's programs, their residency program is actually funded from other sources. We've updated this article to reflect this correction.

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I am a playwright who started Theater Three Collaborative, Inc.,(www.theaterthreecollaborati...) sixteen years ago, with my fantastic actor-partner-producing buddy, George Bartenieff and the late-great Lee Nagrin. George had co-ran Theater for the New City for 25 years, previously, and I co-ran another little theater for five years, and Lee had always done her own work. We all understood that artists have to be in control of their own work in order for that work to flourish. We have been lucky to work with the same team of fantastic designers for the past 16 years, and with many brave and gifted actors. This is what I would like to encourage, the true empowerment of playwrights, step out from under the institutional boot: Stanislavsky & Chekhov, Brecht, Shakespeare, Yeats and Lady Gregory, George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, Harold Clurman and team, Hallie Flanagan, Judith Malina, Joseph Chaikin left a legacy: many were playwrights and all supported the playwrights who grew up in their companies, and all understood that unless they created theaters their work would go undone.

My own path came the route of "produce your own", Karen. Thank you for sharing these names. I think these examples are crucial for all artists, not just playwrights. It's another challenge of the success narrative-- that it keeps artists, young and old, from taking charge of their own progress.

Thanks for the nice mention of the Huntington Playwriting Fellows, David. The irony is that the first thing I tell prospective fellows is "We're not going to produce your play." I do this because writers' groups attached to producing organizations automatically leads to hopes and expectations for production--especially when there is a pretty good track record. I do this so that we all are agreed on the goals and focus of the fellowship which have more to do with relationship building and brain space than creating a product. That said, I am personally uninterested in working for a theater that doesn't back up it's development activities with productions. You commit to producing a new play by a local writer and then you look until you find a play or writer that you believe in. And then you do it. Success! (Or at least one very public and significant measure thereof).

The fact that I feel the need to starkly frame expectations in HPF even for professional playwrights points to the difficulty in expanding the definition of success in the outside world. Critics, audiences and, in many cases, funders really only have one way of measuring success and that is by experiencing a production. I have yet to figure out how to communicate those more ephemeral or oblique moments of success (struggling writer has a breakthrough on a new draft! the old cohort of HPFs still meets regularly! ladies and gentlemen, she found a plot!) to people outside the process.

Thank you for reading closely and engaging this discussion. And yes,-- it is so hard for any individual or initiative to break the newplay narrative of "success = premiere->raves->Broadway->Tony->Pulitzer", to use Polly's hierarchy notion, precisely because it takes everyone (artists, institutions, funders, press) to work together consistently to tell the new story. I hear you on the audience point-- that the production is their only access, often, to the story at all. Which is why what Jeni's talking about, and what projects that open up process are doing, is so crucial-- trying to enlist audiences in the effort to create a more nuanced narrative of success than that tyrannical hierarchy. Press and funders do have deeper access, but the propensity of the institutional image managers to spin and paper over true learning/failing obscures the picture and we therefore don't consistently have the help or attention of press and funders in the effort. It's too exhausting to pierce the smoke screen in the press releases and final reports. And the artists are trapped behind this managed message as well, especially when they are guests of, or staff of, the message manager. The end result is one that reinforces the old narrative: X artist failed because there was no premiere->rave->Broadway->Tony->Pulitzer and therefore the notion of giving artists this type of support is a disappointment. That meme has now also been picked up by the Dallas press (!) in announcing the news that Dallas Theater Center has a resident playwright in this next round, by the way. Sad to read that one...

Hi David,Greetings from Dallas! When you speak of Dallas, are you meaning the piece by Elaine Liner in the Dallas Observer titled, "Why Couldn't the Dallas Theater Center's New House Playwright Be Someone From Dallas?" I'm guessing that is what you're referencing. If so, I would like to jump in. Let me know.

David - Here’s my take on the article that appeared in the Dallas Observer titled, "Why Couldn't the Dallas Theater Center's New House Playwright Be Someone From Dallas?"

I am very excited about the Mellon residency and Will Power being at the DTC, but Dallas still has many needs in terms of how our local playwrights are engaged and supported.

What we lack in Dallas is an opportunity for local playwrights to develop their talent in a more on-going and intensive fashion. We do however have wonderful smaller companies that willproduce our work, which is GREAT. However, playwrights need a healthy combination of both production and ongoing development/support. And it is always important to have somewhere to take your current drafts and pages for some trusted feedback, table reads, to talk craft, and to developrelationships. And it needs to happen with support from the bigger players such as DTC and others. Groups such asthe Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, the Goodman's Playwright's Unit, and Huntington's Playwriting Fellowship go a long way to do much good. Additionally, places like the Lark, Ars Nova, Chicago Dramatists, the Playwrights Center and many others, provide wonderful homes for playwrights. We don’t have that here.

DTC’s Artistic Director, Kevin Moriarty has already done a great job of embracing the local acting community. Prior to his arrival, local actors were not featured and showcased as often as they deserved to be. Kevin created an amazing 10 member actingcompany comprised of phenomenal Dallas-based talent. And DTC continues to cast local actors alongside the company members and actors from out of town. So there has been a huge amount of anticipation to see how this local emphasis opens up to playwrights. And I think Ms. Liner’s article expressed a certain frustration tied to a wish unfulfilled .

That said, my hope is that Will's appointment will allow DTC to create opportunites to reach out to local playwrights - to identify and support talent. I’m not troubled by the choice of Will Power, and I believe that he was a great choice. But as the article states, we have other writers deserving of opportunity. But there is a dearth of professional opportunity here.

Going forward, my wish is that funders will focus some attention on issues of access and equity for local and emerging artists.

... one final thing, Ms. Liner is a local theater critic. Our community is blessed with an amazingly supportive and engaged group of critics and arts journalists. That is definitely a Big D Bright Spot!

So great to have your voice in this conversation, Jonathan, and to learn a bit about the Dallas community. Perhaps you guys want to organize a Dallas Week here on Howlround so we can all get a deeper sense of the place? Our Weekly City Series are suggested by the local artists and curated by someone from the community so if you think there's interest among your colleagues, just let us know!

I am very sympathetic to the desire to see a deeper engagement and investment in the local artists from the flagship theaters in the regional system. And I am eager to see what the more locavore residencies in the NPRI can teach us about the impact of "thinking globally, investing locally"-- there are a number of them that have that focus. Atlanta, Kansas City, San Francisco (2), and Boston among them. The local impact ideas embedded in the Alliance residency, in particular, are inspiring on the level of their ambition and their own definitions of success for Pearl Cleage and the theater.

I referenced Ms. Liner's article not for it's evident disappointment in the lack of a local writer in the role, but for her description of the AVNPI residencies as an indication that the whole concept of playwright residencies was already a disappointment based on the news that one writer had left the program a year early. I've not seen any discussion of how that decision came about, but there is plenty of evidence that the writer in the spotlight here had a productive time in the role, will have a production there this season, and has had many productions and opportunities come her way since the announcement of the program in the summer of 2010.

I find it ironic that the moniker "one of the highest profile playwrights in the program" is assigned to Ms. Hall in these reports, since at the time of her selection for the AVNPI program she was described as the earliest career writer in the mix. Her residency at Arena is not the catalyst for that particular move from "emerging" to "high profile"-- a Broadway production with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett don't hurt (nor does an Olivier award or the success of her Signature residency productions to date)-- but it's a part of the story of the life and path of a playwright and is part of the narrative of a three-year residency as well. I hope some day we get to learn from the entire experience here before we go thumbs up/thumbs down on the writer, the host, or the residency notion itself. THAT story of thumbs up/thumbs down, as you see here, spreads much easier than the actual discoveries.

I feel you. It's a total drag to have something we are all so excited about meet with such a fiercely skeptical or cynical reception. But, I don't think any of these critics of the residencies and the organizations that administer them are implying the the artists have failed, I think they are saying that the choices the organizations are making have not lived up to their promises to the wider community, whether those promises are explicit or implicit.

Thanks for this terrific piece, David!

I have to agree with Jeni Mahoney-Sahl on the importance of keeping the audience in the conversation.

I also think it's important to remember that while the national and/or public conversation is often dominated by activities at the larger regional theatres, and the attendant media coverage that such institutions receive, a great deal of new play activity (dare I say the overwhelming majority of it), including lower-level residencies, is happening at the legions of mid-size and smaller theatres across the country. Among NNPN theatres, for instance, there is a fairly high rate at which resident playwrights' plays are produced by their host theatres. NNPN residencies have been going on for six years now.

One of my takeaways from Outrageous Fortune is that there remains a perceptual gap among playwrights and theatre writers in the media with regard to who is doing important work in the new play enterprise. Many playwrights still reference the same handful of LORT theatres -- Actors Theatre of Louisville, South Coast Rep, Arena etc. -- as the focus of their dreams and/or their ire. When, in fact, the likelihood that such theatres are going to produce their plays is increasingly small. We need to steer the conversation toward more inclusion of what is going on at mid-size and smaller theatres who are more able and willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to producing new plays, expecially plays by the vast majority of writers who are not household names. If the conversation remains around the 10-12 largest theatres, the public -- including all those individual donors and institutional funders -- will continue to think that those are the only places to invest. For example, as an alternative to the way things have played out (so far) with the Kogod Cradle, I would propose a very different use for $36M: instead of underwriting one performance space for one large theatre that may or may not end up being able to commit to its original purpose, use the same fund to create $1M endowments for 36 mid-size theatres, the interest of which would support new play productions and other activities. The impact, then, would be to support dozens of playrights at 36 theatres in 36 communities.

Yes, yes, yes, yes!! The NNPN residencies are a great story of success within clearly defined markers- that include both production outcomes and premieres.

But thank you for helping me articulate what it is I am after here. There is a sense of being trapped in old narratives that really hampers progress and even learning about the continuing evolution of the practice of residencies for playwrights.

I am also glad to see that TCG is working to get out the story from it's report some years ago on their residencies. So much of what is happening right now builds on learning those efforts made possible, and having that story in this mix will be really important for our full understanding, as well as for setting the bones of the new narrative around support for playwrights.

I have a small fear that Outrageous Fortune is going to become an old narrative of its own if we don't keep telling story of how it has fostered changes in its wake.

Being an artist means being able to spend your life working as an artist. Time working as a playwright includes time in production, time writing, maybe time teaching, maybe time producing, maybe time learning. Maybe it even includes time painting or gardening or working at your day job. Not saying that playwrights should have to do anything other than write, just saying that if we really are trying to explore new ways of defining success [as an artist] then we have to imagine that every artist's life is filled with more than just the literal act of art-making/showing. Even a brilliant production is only a fraction of a successful artist's life. Maybe we evaluate that part most heavily because it's the part we all see, but that doesn't make it the most valid, important, or essential.

"Maybe we evaluate that part most heavily because it is the part we all see, but that doesn't make it the most valid, important, or essential."

Love this, Rebecca. I was struck by the conversation that broke out on Twitter over this that there is, apparently, widespread discomfort among theater workers with the notion that these resident writers don't do any "heavy lifting" and are not filling a role in the operstions that the theaters even need.

If even the people who work in these theaters don't value the writing part of playmaking as work, or as a thing the theater needs, how can we expect to turn that corner with the press or the public.

I think this is what has stayed with me most about Jeni's comment/focus on the audience. Lay People who get to see the actual process of a playwright in development and production are much more likely to understand the heaviness of that lifting and to advocate for the role. Those theaters like Jeni's and Seth's and the ones opening up the process to the public are doing powerfully important work in the effort to improve the environment for playwrights in this country.

As a playwright who has had multiple productions and who hasbeen denied multiple productions, the idea of being in residence at a theatreseems like heaven. Or hell. I’ve often wished that I could be a member of atheatre that was programming new and classical work, that I could mingle withother theatre artists, that I could sit in on rehearsals of a Shakespeare orBeckett or Parks play and then go off to my garret and consult my muse.

Two of my plays were spawned because of the promise thatthey would be produced. These were little shoe-string productions of shortplays, but that promise made me bold, unleashed a creativity and confidence towrite exactly what I wanted to write. And I went back into both plays andexpanded them into full-length work that went on to have productions.

I’ve also had experiences where a play was rejected by atheatre and a year later, after more work, I looked back gratefully that ithadn’t been produced—because there was more to be found or considered, and I needed the distance and time to discover that.

A playwright shouldn’t be second-guessing herself, her workor production possibilities during a residency. A residency should include acommitment by the theatre to producing a work. It should do some kind ofworkshop production of the playwright’s work each year. But the commitment—and the framing for the audience/community—should be about discovery, process, not end result. There should be flexibility and space.

Our work isn’t completed until it is realized in production, with an audience. To conduct a residency where that doesn’t happen seems to me to be counterproductive for the playwright. But to expect a fully realized,successful work is unrealistic. That may or may not happen. It could be thatthe residency allows the playwright to write risky work that on some levelfails—but on another level is a great experiment that nourishes the playwrightand informs her later work.

This is such a thoughtful, nuanced, and generous contribution to this discussion, Kathleen. Thank you for taking the time to open it up.

You've articulated the value to both yourself and the audience when you tell the story of having a place that made you bold and yet also gave you the flexibility to find the full vision of the bold thing in the time and context most conducive to it. The AVNPI residencies, for instance, are full of such stories as I read about them now. Karen Zacarias has started new things, revisited old things, reworked existing things for new productions elsewhere and in production at Arena. Katori Hall spent almost the full first year doing the same working out of the Playwrights House before Broadway and Signature commitments heated up for her. Charles Randolph Wright has pushed out drafts of three plays, one of which is deeply personal and had been too hard to write for nearly ten years. Amy, in her first year, started a new piece, continued development on a piece heading into production, and reworked a third for production at Arena. She also directed a reading in the Albee Festival and did a number of developmental readings of her work there.

I think, from the feedback that has been coming up around this essay, one of the things that was poorly framed, maybe even not framed at all, was the community piece of it. I love the passion, as Jeni points out, that the DC theater community and press have brought to the conversation. We see two divergent things in it: one is a sense of deflation at the lack of opportunity to engage directly with the residencies and another is a sense of optimism that the residencies will, de facto, translate into greater opportunity for new works in DC. Both connote a deep, deep investment on the part of the host community and the residencies (hosts and writers together) must design that engagement into the equation. I did not do that in setting out the AVNPI and I can see that as a huge gap as this conversation unfolds. I was thinking so specifically about the structure for the writers and trying to build on the learning from prior programs around that.

Thank you David. I’m glad to hear of the productive time for theplaywrights. This is terrific new to be shared.

There’s always a challenge, I think, for the playwright andtheatre-as-institution, to find the best way to allow the playwright hersolitude and freedom for experimentation and also to engage the audience/community and attend to the institutional needs and goals.Theatres may already be doing these things, but opportunities to conduct workshops, have conversations, do performances of fragments of works, do interviews with the playwrights at the midpoint of their residencies and on their way out may be fruitful. The trick for the playwright is to not feel like a passive victim, a sitting duck but rather to feel engaged, autonomous, the engine of her work—until a theatre engages and there is the new, fraught, complex and exhilarating collaboration motoring towards a production.

I love this piece just as I loved Polly's piece. I say, hooray for all the playwrights forming groups like 13P or finding artistic homes with theatres or collecting with other playwrights to write and support each other. This is more good news about playwrights than I've heard in a very long time. I absolutely agree that it is time to redefine what means "success" and that a lot of what people are cranky about are old models and stuck ways of doing things. A lot of what is shaping seems to be about building writers who will create bodies of work not just looking for THE new play of the year and I truly believe that will have a lasting impact and shape the medium for a long time to come. That sounds like "success" to me.

Howard Sherman raised the example of 13P on Twitter, too, Heather. It is a perfect illustration of what I mean about breaking the back of an old success narrative. From the outset they were clear how they defined success: they would succeed by producing one play by each of the 13 members. They did that. Then they retired. Nobody bemoaned the lack of Broadway transfers or questioned the box office totals or applied any other of the meaningless (to them) markers of the traditional success narrative because they'd powerfully defined their own.

Fascinating take on all this, David, but I have to say the thing I find exciting - if I pick up the critical comments and turn them in my hands a bit - is that the desire for these programs to lead to productions points to a demand for new work. That audiences and communities would measure the "success" of such programs this way isn't terribly surprising - they don't share in that success unless they have some contact with the playwrights and their work. That some might be disappointed means that they felt an investment in these artists - that's a success right there! The real question is whether or not theaters can transform this moment of seeming criticism into an opportunity to deepen their relationship to their communities and their artists, rather than deflecting the criticism entirely by telling audiences that they don't understand how the theater works or what the real purpose is. They seem to be demanding the thing we want them to demand!

Interesting thought, Jeni. I especially love thinking about this from the standpoint of the audience, which we did not do back in the design-days of the AVNPI residencies. This might be something that one of the new residencies can take up and shed light on. I wonder if there is an actual difference between "productions" and "premieres" in this case. All of the residencies commit to production, though not all commit to "premieres". Is a production of a new work by a resident writer of less value to the writer, to the audience, to the institution if it is not the premiere of that work? Aren't we then perpetuating yet another bad habit of the past- "premieritis"? Can the audience only engage the writer in a premiere?

What's odd about the reports of failure in this case is the basis of the claim being that a writer has left her residency early (we are told nowhere why, by the way) and no play of hers was ever produced there. But there is a production scheduled in this season. It is co-produced with another regional- a type of programming Arena has been doing regularly for years. And it is a play that has already appeared on Broadway. Does this set of circumstances add up to falling short of the commitment or promise? I am not sure it does along the strict definition of success around production. Perhaps the real complaint is that the bar was set too low if such a modest risk can clear it? Is that the learning here- to set a higher bar in this commitment?

Okay, but what if we just got a totally different bar? Or moved it in a different direction? Sometimes I feel like the audience Lorax, but it really is difficult to understand any investment in future of the American theater that doesn't somehow include the audience - after all, despite our varying definitions of success, the one thing all of them likely have in common is audience (whether is be in terms of tickets sales, sense of community, a desire to share one's artistry, creating jobs or having more fun).

The question is HOW to include audiences in a way that feeds a definition of success we're interested in (and that actually relates to our ambitions)? I think you're totally right about the fact that it doesn't necessarily have to mean doing world premieres. But maybe it also doesn't have to mean doing full productions - I know, I know, friends, I can hear the booing and hissing, but hear me out! - two points:

1. If the idea is to take the pressure off the playwrights to produce something then maybe it's more about the playwright and the company figuring out the best way for that playwright to share her work with the community that is hosting her - this goes back to the "gift" idea we've talked about before. In my experience, when we bring a special guest artist to Seven Devils she may develop work with us, bring a well known play for a seated reading, or something in between - it doesn't really matter what the format is or how old or new the play is - it's about the sharing "gift" of having this talent in our midst (not about showing the audience our "get").

2. Taking the long view: perhaps at some point it will be affordable and appropriate for larger theaters to commit entire seasons to playwrights in residence - wouldn't it be lovely if someday audiences demanded that! But one step at a time - which is what I mean by moving the bar in a different direction - it may be premature (and unrealistic, as it's proven to be) for the residencies bar to be directly correlated to full production commitments.

In terms of financial investment and production planning, one could say this way of thinking is setting the bar lower... but in terms of figuring out how to build enthusiasm and foster a sense of success that audiences can share in (which means making sure it doesn't devolve into yet another puppy mill of readings)... that setting the bar quite high.

There's a fairly long history of development workshops, residencies, and fellowships for US playwrights that seldom led to production by the theatres offering those opportunities, all recently brought to the fore by the publication of Outrageous Fortune which also captured the dismay of playwrights with this situation. So is there any wonder that the press and its theatre critics are now adopting the attitude toward this continuing process that was so clearly expressed in HowlRound's publication?

We can define success in the theatre in any number of ways, but for playwrights, "success" without production is, I think, a hollow concept.

Agreed, about the importance of production as a marker of success. All of these residencies-- from Arena to Signature to the 14 just announced carry a commitment of the host theater to produce.

Just to make sure that it is clear, Richard-- Outrageous Fortune was not a HowlRound publication. That was published by the Theater Development Fund before HowlRound was launched.

We are still in the early days of this effort to advance the infrastructure for support of the American playwright. The old songs you are talking about are still sung more often and more loudly than the new ones. I am interested in making sure we have songs for the successes as well as for the old failings.

I will definitely invite that. Part of what makes this all hard for individual artists is that, given it is not an environment based on transparency and clarity, it can be hard to know how to even approach a discussion like this. But I am sure there is stuff to learn from all of the writers if we could make the space for that.