And theatre for all…

04.25.10 | 6 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, funding and support, ideas, playwrights, presenting, theatrical ecosystem

In today’s Washington Post, Peter Marks imagines a new hope for theatre with a touch of audacity. (Go ahead and read it. We’ll wait.)

The short version is, he considers a world in which the White House could support more live theatre–dramatic work in particular–perhaps coordinated by Rocco Landesman and the NEA. After all, “[i]t’s embarrassing that many embassies in Washington are more aggressive about showcasing their nations’ plays and players than is the hometown administration.” His proposal is intriguing, but it really only scratches the surface…

He suggests enlisting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights to craft one-act plays that could be performed at the White House itself, maybe with all star casts volunteering their time to perform. Perhaps their work could revolve around a theme, perhaps not. He then suggests expanding the roster to include “prize worthy” playwrights as well. And he suggests that Landesman might be ideally suited to coordinate such a project.

It’s a good idea. As a playwright, I could get behind that idea. But then I got to thinking.

Is that really all we could do? Is that the best way to use such a platform?

At heart, his idea is to increase awareness and support of theatre. Why not develop a program that celebrates actual theatre companies? What if one or two theatres from each state were encouraged to develop one-act plays? The NEA could support the costs of development and production. These shows could premiere in Washington with much ballyhoo and then return home for their hometown premieres. Now you’ve got promotional bounce on all sides–locally for the theatres, nationally for the program. You’ve got actual investment in actual communities around the country, supporting theatre work everywhere. Best of all, you’re merely coordinating and programming the shows instead of developing short-term ad-hoc companies of players for each White House show. You might even design it to work in tandem with the New Play Development Project at Arena Stage. (I know I would.)

Moreover, you might find some new voices, new playwrights, who aren’t the same twelve names from the same seven MFA programs. (Don’t quote me on the numbers, just read Outrageous Fortune and bang your head against the wall. I know I do.)

In fact, you might perform these shows at Arena Stage’s new complex. Unlike the White House, they’ll have spaces designed for presenting theatre. (I know, crazy, right?) This naturally would throw more attention on the NPDP and the NEA’s partnership with Arena.

And then maybe you record some of these shows. It’s been forever since PBS had “In Performance at the White House,” which was mostly musical stars performing classic songs cabaret-style, but surely the name/brand could be resurrected for a collection of one-acts. Maybe it would be for PBS, maybe not.

Marks says, “With this national level of encouragement, you wonder if the temptation would be diminished just a bit for any of these writers to defect to the likes of HBO.” What if, instead, part of the plan–part of the appeal–would be that the work would ALSO be on HBO or Sundance or any one of a number of possible channels? This would also draw more financial support for the program–a series of plays filmed properly (a la the Extended Theatre Experience or Digital Theatre models) would still be far less expensive than a comparable filmed, scripted drama series.

(For those of you keeping track at home, think about the last hour-long drama that got cancelled after five episodes. The amount of money it cost to produce those five hours of thrown-away television would cover the budget for a full year of programming, events, fundraisers, everything at the average major regional theatre. You heard that right. Five hours versus 365 days. Now who’s wasting money?)

Yes, a filmed play is still a play on film, it’s not the live experience and it’s not a movie. We can talk about the pros and cons of that some other time. But for the purists out there who insist they can’t bear watching a filmed play, think about all the people out there who might give your theatre a try because they saw something like it on television. The goal here isn’t to recreate the live theatre experience in your living room, it’s about awareness and marketing. Highlight the fact that this filmed play may be exciting, but it’s nothing compared to the electricity of sitting in the room, live. (But that’s a post all by itself.)

Of course, plays would be broadcast only after their hometown runs had opened and closed. You want to be able to promote these shows to your local community, use participation in this national program as part of your marketing. If the show is broadcast later, then you may reach people who might then give you a try on your next show.

So. What am I proposing?

A program that would solicit and support the development of one-act plays from established, professional theatre companies around the country. These could involve famous playwrights and big-name actors, but they wouldn’t have to. These shows would then premiere in D.C. at the pleasure of the White House before returning to their own theatres. It could be built along the lines of–or as an adjunct to–the New Play Development Project partnership of the NEA and Arena Stage. And performances could be filmed for broadcast and potential online viewing, DVD sales, etc, as a means of spreading awareness and drawing financial support for the project at the same time.

The benefits? Practical support for actual theatre companies around the country. The potential discovery of more new voices, more new stories. The ability to reach new audiences and perhaps draw them to a live theatrical performance, whether one highlighted in the project or just one that happens to be in their hometown.

Such a project would speak to the same grassroots efforts that helped in the presidential campaign. And it would be more representative of the reality of live theatre than those same twelve playwrights.

How about it, Mr. President? Mr. Landesman?

That’s change the theatre world could believe in.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
David J. Loehr

David J. Loehr

Writer / Producer, The Incomparable Radio Theater :: Artist-in-Residence / Producer, Riverrun Theatre Company, Madison, Indiana :: Artistic Director / Editor, 2amt :: Panelist, The Incomparable podcast :: Husband, father, cat owner, cat bed.
David J. Loehr

Latest posts by David J. Loehr (see all)

Send to Kindle
  • cgeye

    This is a far more coherent and doable vision than Marks' proposal — why ask the White House to create its own theatre, when it could promote productions in the facilities better suited to have it? The only glitch would be Secret Service screening of facilities, but they've done it with worse venues.

  • I like the idea – so who's volunteering to create the business plan and pitch to the White House? Any takers?

  • OK, OK, I hear you, DL. In fact, this is the very sort of thing we're restaging Arena to be able to do– we're trying to actually understand and fully activate our role as a regional theater in the nation's capitol dedicated to American work. The whole purpose of wanting to manage the NPDP for the NEA was based in a sense of living out that responsibility– which, because we're in DC, has that unique-to-the-region duality of being both local and national at the same time. So, this sort of program makes sense for us and is folded into our thinking already– some version or other of it will likely start to take shape once we're back in our building in the Fall. We've got our hands full at the moment, but it's all about developing the role and relevance of the organization (both with our local audiences and within the field) so keep hope alive while we get ourselves situated…

  • It's all good. Having read Marks' article, I thought out loud to a more logical–and what I thought more practical and plausible–conclusion. With what you all have started and developed at Arena with the NPDP program and the new building (and more), it just made sense to me. I'm glad to know it makes sense to you, too…

  • A side effect I fear here is that such a program would exacerbate a significant problem we face here in DC: that locally-grown theater struggles to make its way.

    DC has always been — and probably always will be, to some extent — a city without much of a local culture, a city of transients, a city that transforms with every new administration. We import our cuisine from around the world; our museums collect the work of international artists; our public transit system echoes with dozens of languages — and all of this diversity seems hemmed in by the square white stone of our monuments, which have the effect of making everything seem remote and denuded and impotent. We don't even own our own history — not in the way that, say, Baltimore has Francis Scott Key and Edgar Allen Poe and the U.S.S. Constellation. The whole country owns our history — we belong to everyone else, and we don't get to keep anything for ourselves.

    I think this lack of history and culture is an immense obstacle for those of us working hard to develop new narratives in the nation's capital — to write plays here, develop them here, and produce them here, and be proud of what we do here, and export what we do here to the rest of the country. We have more seats in theaters here in DC than in any other city in America, other than New York — yes, you read that correctly — but most of them are filled with people seeing shows that were written, developed, and first premiered in other cities. That's a shame.

    These are not sour grapes, mind you. My own work has been produced at least as often in DC as it has elsewhere in the country, and I have good relationships here that make me proud to work and create in DC. I love being a playwright here, for many reasons. But I do think we need to challenge ourselves, as a community, to rethink our relationship to culture: to restore the export/import balance just a bit. And I'm afraid the program you've proposed would make that more difficult to do… for all of its many merits.

  • Yes, D.C. should embrace its local artists as well–every major theatre should, and that’s a topic for an upcoming post.

    But at the same time, as the nation’s capital, it should, and to a degree does, support artists from all over the country. It’s more than a single city or region.

    This isn’t a matter of import/export balance; other cities, yes, they need to balance the homegrown with the imports. But D.C. has to represent the country as well.

    Of course, as David Dower pointed out, Arena is developing along those lines…