Towards a New Collective in American Theater, Part One

The Welders are a new DC-based playwrights’ collective whose mission is to establish an evolving, alternative platform for play development and production. Over the course of three years, the collective (made up of playwrights Bob Bartlett, Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Gwydion Suilebhan, and Executive and Creative Director Jojo Ruf) is going to produce one play by each of the group’s five member playwrights, then give the entire organization—website, checkbook, and audience—to a new generation of artists. In a periodic series of articles, members of The Welders are going to be reporting on the collective’s experience in an attempt to share knowledge with (and learn from) the broader theatrical community.

 

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“What do you think people are going to say? How are they going to react?” We must have asked each other those questions a thousand times during the nine or ten months before The Welders launched. We kept a super-low profile before we went public, telling no more than a small handful of people what we were up to—mostly to protect our little group and give us time to set our house in order, but also (if we’re honest) because we weren’t sure how people might respond. Would any of our fellow playwrights in DC feel left out? Would anybody feel angry? Would theaters feel insulted? Or would the world simply dismiss us as insignificant? We expected anything from tempers flaring to seething envy to complete and total silence. And we were worried.

We shouldn’t have been.

In point of fact, the response to the simple fact of our existence has been both overwhelming and positive. Articles in the Washington Post and American Theatre. Fan letters like you wouldn’t believe. Sincere well-wishes from our peers. Advice, counsel, favors, and rounds of applause from a who’s who of leading thinkers and practitioners throughout the whole new play sector. A generous, super-accomplished board of directors. Invitations to collaborate on a host of new projects. Early financial support. And the kicker? We still haven’t really done anything of significance! Our first production doesn’t open until March of 2014!

So the first lesson we’ve taken away from becoming The Welders: the world isn’t really against us. In fact, the world seems to have wanted something very much like what we’re giving it. This isn’t an insignificant realization. People are rooting for us, more than we all realize! In huge numbers!

Of course, that led us to a serious question: why? What did we do to deserve all that love?

Was it because several of us are mid-career artists who came to The Welders with strong networks and affiliations already in place? That may have had some effect…but none of us, individually, is all that well-known. What seems more likely is that we’re just proving the truth of an old revolutionary adage: that we’re all much stronger together than we are apart. Seizing the means of cultural production is much easier with comrades.

Too many artists experience the American theater as a series of rejections, one after another, like sand dunes in a desert. The new play sector might as well be the Sahara, especially for playwrights. In that arid landscape, the six of us took each other’s hands, chose a direction, and started heading confidently forward. We took action, right or wrong.

And people like action.

 

We took action, right or wrong. And people like action.

 

***

Back to those nine or ten months we spent meeting in secret before we went live. Those, as it happens, were some pretty important months, but not in obvious ways. Yes, there was quite a bit of work to be done: picking a name for the collective (you should see our heap of discards!), settling on a final roster of members, writing a mission and vision statement, building a website, getting a logo designed, opening a checking account, beginning the 501c3 process (not to mention deciding whether to establish 501c3 status in the first place). We were pretty darn busy.

But the most important thing we were doing that whole time? Becoming a team. A real, functioning (as opposed to dysfunctional) group of adults who knew how to work and play together effectively. We never once put “team-building” on the agenda for any of our meetings—and we probably should have—but it happened nonetheless.

What did it look like? Like soul-searching conversations. Occasionally like criticism. At times, like passionate disagreement. (One day we’ll tell the world the names we rejected for our collective.) And also like long laughs. Flurries of congratulatory emails. Moments of revelation and deep listening. Some of us were friends before we started The Welders, but some of us barely knew each other. After nine or ten months of all that, however, we’ve all become more than friends: we’re allies. We know without hesitation that we’ve got each other’s backs, not only within the collective, but also as individuals.

If we’d announced to the world that we existed much sooner, would we have had the space to do that bonding work? It’s hard to know for sure, but we suspect not. The second we became public, our entire agenda seemed to change overnight. We no longer had time for introspection; we had stuff to DO. (A lot of it.) Our meetings are far less languid than they used to be. We have goals and deadlines now. We’re task-oriented. There’s not a lot of time for lingering late-night getting-to-know-you talk.

Luckily, we did a TON of that early on. And if you’re out there reading this, thinking about starting your own playwrights’ collective… We hope you do, too.

***

If you ARE, in fact, thinking about starting your own playwrights’ collective—maybe you’re even in your own nine- or ten-month silent period right now—you should probably also realize right away that you can’t do it alone. Not even close. No matter how many of you there are. (And boy, was THAT another series of difficult conversations!) No matter how many diverse talents you might all contribute. You need help.

We started with an advisory council: 13 artists and brilliant thinkers who’ve lined up to offer us a variety of insight and support. We added a dozen-member board of directors shortly thereafter. We’ve solicited donations from who-knows-how-many supporters, and we’ve asked at least 15 or 20 professionals—actors, directors, arts management consultants, you name it—to offer significant pro-bono services. We’ve hired help here and there, and we’ve gotten tons of social media support. It’s intense.

And it very quickly makes you conscious of the fact that you cannot—absolutely cannot—be doing what you’re doing just for your own ends. If all you’re trying to do is get your work produced, come hell or high water…you’ll very soon become aware that you’ve taken on so much responsibility to others that it’s impossible to remain self-centered. Too many people will be counting on you and expecting you to provide both opportunity and leadership. If you’ve got even the least bit of self-awareness, you won’t want to let anybody down.

We even built some other-centeredness into our mission: a handoff to a new generation of Welders when our three-year term is over. Which is fitting, since we aren’t the first generation of playwrights to do this. The Welders were assembled with great respect for those who came before us: groups like 13P, Workhaus Collective, and the Neo-Futurists. They forged the way, took the first few steps in creating an alternative by giving new power to playwrights. And now it’s our turn to take the next few steps, to add a few more sparks to the fire, before handing it off to the next group of Welders.

And the sheer volume of people who are keeping The Welders’ vision together? It’s taken us totally by surprise. At some level, we never fully realized it’d be more than just the six of us doing everything, but the real number of people supporting the Welders is more like 120. We were off by two orders of magnitude. It’s completely humbling.

Luckily, that makes the next two-and-a-half years—which is all we have left now of our three-year term—seem less difficult. We have a lot of work to do, especially if we want to build something valuable enough to turn over, but we don’t have to do it alone.

 

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I love this so much, and thank you for sharing your insights. I want to get something like this going in San Diego!

This is such an inspired reminder that we can do more when we ARE more. It's easy to overlook the galvanizing ripple effect of a collective in our ongoing slog to get our own work done and seen. Something bigger than ourselves makes us bigger, wider. Nothing but good. Hard work, yes; daunting, absolutely. Why do you think more of us haven't gotten it together? But your enthusiasm prompts me to reconsider the (mostly lonely) alternatives. Note to self: merge, join, collectivate. Thanks Jo Jo & Gwydion!

Congrats to you all. I love to hear about fresh starts at empowering new plays. When we started Script Works in Austin in 1997, one of the first things I did was look for models across the country for playwright driven companies that didn't stop at development but moved through to production. The Playwright's Center was the best one, I got their charter and bylaws to model the 501 (c) 3 and talked to several people there about programs, services, and structure. The idea was we would cycle through full productions of the core member's work (that they would choose), and then solicit and select new core members; but we'd always have open associate members who could participate in our weekly salons and other programs. For various reasons, the full productions of single works didn't work out after the first two years (although I'm really proud of the ones we did pull off), partly financial, partly a disparity of vision and styles and purpose about the works and the overall mission. As the first ED, I intended from the start to include dramatic writing and writers in all media (radio, film, etc.), as indie film and media were rising rapidly here in Austin, but others wanted to keep it live theatre only, so I moved on. I think also we might have benefited from concensus-style organizational decision making (100% agreement or no action taken), something that I didn't even know existed until much later. We took votes on decisions with majority rule. Eventually, the work evolved into festivals of shorter works, Out of Ink and FronteraFest, which are wonderful in and of themselves, but for some, not as satisfying as a full-length production. What I'm proudest of as a co-founder is that the organization has continued on, far longer without me than with me! However, some of the original core members have remained engaged at the staff and board level, and I think that has been important to maintain continuity. Please check out their ongoing good work, you might find something useful to inspire your efforts: http://scriptworks.org/

Thanks, Emily! We are definitely following in a tradition, and it's terrific to have models to learn from. We do operate by consensus decision-making with regard to the management of the organization as a whole, though each playwright (when serving as AD) has sole decision-making authority with regard to her or his production, with Jojo's leadership serving to ensure consistency from AD to AD. That balance seems to be serving us VERY well so far.

What a great idea to record your lessons learned and insights in these articles! Not just for others out there contemplating or in the midst of doing something similar, but as a record of your experiences. Reading this article I wondered if the group has decided on a process for handing over the collective to a new set of writers. More specifically, you point out in your article that at least ten months of ramping up was spent not only putting together structures and practices of the organization, but also team building.

Do you plan to overlap the tenures of your group and the new one to allow time for the new group to bond as a team and learn from you the ins and outs of what you do, or will there be a hiatus to allow for this? Or will your board (and possibly some or all of you) be the keepers of institutional knowledge and remain on to guide the newcomers? I love the idea that each new group will build on the achievements of their predecessors, but I imagine the six of you are acquiring considerable knowledge in this experience that would be invaluable to the newcomers to avoid 'reinventing the wheel.' I know you are doing a series of articles; forgive me if I am jumping ahead.

Congratulations! I am looking forward to the March production.

Richard

Thanks, Richard! Yes, we do plan to overlap groups: we'll have the next generation of Welders in place six months to a year before our tenure ends. BUT we will also all stay on as board members, emeritus members, and/or members of the advisory council so that we help the next generation succeed!