We Need to Invest in Writers

Learnings from Administering the National Playwright Residency Program

In this moment (can we even call it a moment, when it’s been more than half a year with no real end in sight?) of collective crisis, many theatre companies are scaling down to bare-bones administrative staff, seemingly hunkering down in hopes of waiting it out and emerging in the same form in the future. Others, though, are using this pandemic pause to investigate the old ways of operating and dismantle the aspects of “business as usual” that no longer serve us in favor of new, more just, and ultimately more sustainable ways of creating theatre.

One huge bright spot, for example, is Soho Rep’s Project Number One, which puts artists on salary through June 2021. The artists in this program have been moved from a project-based, transactional relationship with the theatre to a more holistic, sustainable one. I believe this is an incredibly important, perhaps transformative, shift for our field to make. Another exciting move in this direction comes from San Francisco, where the city recently announced a universal basic income pilot program for artists.

Project Number One and San Francisco’s program are new, direct responses to this pandemic, so we don’t yet know what the exact impacts will be. There’s another program, though, that’s been around for seven years now that provides salaries to artists: the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP). Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by HowlRound, this groundbreaking program puts playwrights in residence as staff members at theatres around the country for three-year terms, during which they not only receive a salary and benefits and a guaranteed production, but also a discretionary fund to use as they choose for professional development. For more background on the program, check out Helicon Collaborative’s 2017 report on round one.

six people posing for a photo

Perseverance Theatre board president Joe Bedard, Vera Starbard, HowlRound director Jamie Gahlon, HowlRound producer Ramona Rose King, Perseverance managing director Frank Delaney, and Perseverance artistic director Leslie Ishii before a performance of Devilfish.

I had the immense pleasure of working for HowlRound from 2015–20, and one of the focuses of my work was NPRP. I am a producer and dramaturg, and this program hits so many things I care deeply about: paying artists for their work, not just for their output; companies investing in local writers; the creation of new work; and long-lasting artistic collaboration. The most common thought I heard about this program from organizational leaders and administrators not affiliated with it was understandable: Well that all sounds amazing, but it only affects a certain amount of lucky people and institutions. What does it matter to those of us without this grant? But the spirit of the program doesn’t necessarily require more funding—it’s more about how and where resources are allocated. Much of what I learned over the past few years was underpinned by values that can be implemented by theatres of any size.

Though NPRP was created long before the pandemic, I believe many of its lessons have a unique resonance today. Below, I’ve outlined some of what I learned through my five years of working on this program and what we can do now to create the best field when we come out of the pandemic.

The spirit of the program doesn’t necessarily require more funding—it’s more about how and where resources are allocated.

If you give money to a playwright, they will give it to other artists.

With NPRP, each playwright receives a $30,000 microfund to spend over the course of their three-year residency on anything that will advance their work or career. Unsurprisingly, many playwrights purchase theatre tickets to see other work, offset the cost of traveling for meetings or productions, or buy technology that will allow them to work more efficiently. But consistently, about a third of the spending is on collaborators: other artists. This money empowers the playwrights to make more choices about the development and production of their work, rather than constantly being at the whims of institutions. Playwrights hire dramaturgs to help them develop scripts, engage actors so they can hear their work out loud, and supplement the fees of other collaborators when they don’t fit into a production budget. One playwright hired a composer to write original music for a production. Another paid actors to record a demo of their new musical. The money going to these playwrights isn’t being hoarded by them—it’s being redistributed throughout their artistic community. In some cases, very literally: when the pandemic hit, one playwright started commissioning other writers, paying them out of their microfund.

Yes, the microfund is an aspect of the program that may be difficult to replicate without the backing of a major funder. But the core concept remains: artists are job creators. Supporting one often means supporting more than one. Every theatre has a level of choice about how to spend the money they do have, and choosing to invest in local playwrights can create ripple effects that strengthen the local artistic community. Our budgets are our values. Where are the artists?

Work created by writers with a deep commitment to a particular place can have a huge impact.

It’s not just the community of local artists that is impacted by these residencies, but the audiences, too. One of the requirements of NPRP is that the writers live in the same city or area as the theatre. This has looked different across multiple residencies, but often the most successful are the ones where the playwright has deep roots in the community and is writing specifically for and about them.

Vera Starbard’s work in residence at Perseverance Theatre in Alaska is always the first to come to my mind when I think about the power of a resident playwright. Vera is a Tlingit and Dena’ina playwright—the first Alaska Native playwright the theatre produced since its founding in 1979, and the first staff member from her community, despite the fact that the state is 20 percent Native. In a conversation with Pearl Cleage, Vera described her attitude toward the production of her play Devilfish, which she says she made for Tlingit people, as, “It’s already a love letter to the Tlingit people. I’m ignoring everyone else, this is the story for them. This is the story about how proud I am of our people.” The play, which featured a large, entirely Native cast and the work of many Alaska Native artists, ended up being a huge success, drawing substantial Indigenous audiences (many of whom were coming to the theatre for the first time) and non-Indigenous audiences alike. As Vera has put the community’s stories on stage, she has also been working with artistic director Leslie Ishii to re-indigenize Perseverance’s working culture and production models. Because of her, Perseverance is hiring, paying, and producing other Alaska Native artists. By partnering with Vera, the theatre is better fulfilling their mission—to create professional theatre by and for Alaskans.

Our budgets are our values. Where are the artists?

There are huge disparities in how different geographic communities have been affected by this pandemic. Theatre leaders: What better way to welcome your audience back to the theatre—when it’s fully safe to do so—than with a story created by a local playwright, writing explicitly for those audiences? Whether the piece actually addresses the community’s experience or not (I know, I know, no one wants a pandemic play), a member of your community may be better able to intuit what your audiences will want or need.

Compensating artists for the totality of their work, not just for the output, allows them to actually live in a sustainable way.

I don’t have to tell you how unusual it is for artists to be paid for their process and not just the results. With the exception of commissions—the rare ones that are generous enough to actually live off of, which tend to only go to the most high-profile writers—playwrights typically do most of their labor for free. Payment from a production(s) or publication doesn’t come until years later, if it comes at all. This is a very, very hard way to build a life.

Meropi Peponides, speaking to Helen Shaw at Vulture about Soho Rep Project Number One, noted that in the theatre’s old model,

people’s thought leadership was not compensated or valued at all. What was compensated was ‘I give you this fee, you give me a design’ or ‘I give you this fee, you direct this show.’ And the hundreds of hours of research, of thinking, of conceptualization — all the intangibles that feed into that — were completely uncompensated.

NPRP playwrights, like the artists in Project Number One, are salaried. Their pay and their benefits are not tied to what they produce—a number of pages, a draft on a timeline. It’s closer to a universal basic income model. This gives them to space to research deeply, to write slowly, or to not write at all until true inspiration strikes. It gives them space to stop writing and take care of their families, or move, or go grocery shopping. Playwrights in this program raise children, care for aging parents, weather health crises, and face all manner of joys and challenges that pull them from their work, but for the years they’re in residency, they don’t have to worry about being bankrupted by whatever comes their way.

It’s not just artists who thrive in long-arc relationships, but administrators, too.

Though the core relationship in the NPRP residencies is meant to be between the playwright and the artistic director, I saw many instances of strong bonds between resident playwrights and other staff members, too. At one predominantly white institution, the playwright in residence was a person of color, and they started an affinity space for other staff of color. At another, the playwright in residence became a mentor to other staff members who were emerging playwrights in addition to administrators. And though I believe relationships are just as valuable as—if not more than—outcomes, better work was created: for example, when a resident playwright’s work was being produced, the marketing staff didn’t just know that play, they knew the playwright’s body of work and personality, allowing them to sell it more accurately to a community that knew and loved this individual.

If we want to reinvigorate our art form and come back from this lull with vibrant, groundbreaking work, we need to invest in the artists who are making it.

On a personal note, as one of the program administrators myself, I know some of the most fulfilling work of my career so far has been with this program. Because I was engaged with these playwrights and theatres for years, we all got to know each other as humans, and knowing them and being known by them made me better at my job. It gave purpose and satisfaction to even the more routine administrative aspects of my work, like processing expense reports to reimburse for travel costs. I was invested in making their lives easier.

A lack of perfection does not equal failure.

I know I’ve painted a rosy picture of NPRP here, and that’s because of the deep love I have for it and everyone involved. Of course, given that this program upends how we are accustomed to working, it has come with a fair share of learning along the way. Many residencies have been renewed for an additional three years, but not all. But just because it wasn’t a long-term fit for everyone who tried does not mean the model doesn’t have worth. Perfectionism is a characteristic of white supremacy culture in the workplace and is rampant in our field. Seeking perfection often just means playing it safe and refusing to take chances that deviate from the norm.

Even in the most challenging of residencies, work was made that might not otherwise have been made, and writers experienced a level of security they hadn’t previously. NPRP is a big, bold experiment, and I think our field needs more like that, especially now. A moment of crisis does not need to be the time to say that the dominant model we’ve been working in has worked well enough for enough people, so we might as well continue. Well enough has left a huge amount of people out, and even those who have achieved a level of success in that old model have sacrificed hugely for that and deserve more. New models like NPRP need to be given a chance.

If we want to reinvigorate our art form and come back from this lull with vibrant, groundbreaking work, we need to invest in the artists who are making it. This doesn’t necessarily mean every theatre company taking on a salaried, resident playwright (though I’d love that!). But I do hope that all artistic leaders seriously consider a shift from project-based freelance work for writers to a more regular, sustainable, relationship-based model. It’s good for our artists, our institutions, and our communities, and I think it just may be our best way forward.

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I just found this so interesting that a theatre company can use trickle-down economics to justify their funding. However in the world of theatre, instead of 1%, we should give the money to the playwright. So if we give a playwright 30k to create better work, they will waste 20 k on technology and 10 k on the salaries of other authors. Then that 10 k will be distributed among the other artists and then eventually it will reach the bottom-most members of the artist society with scraps. I don't know if I agree with the logic but I can totally respect the Reagenonomics idea.

Hi RJ, thanks for reading this essay! What you describe here isn't actually accurate to what I am advocating for, though. NPRP is one program designed for a select number of playwrights, and I believe that its value beyond those immediately impacted is as a model for how the wider field could reorient itself to more holistically support playwrights—and all artists.

Thank you for this great piece, Ramona. It's important to think about the models that sustain artists, and how to replicate them. Everyone wins.