Photo by Meg Taintor, on HowlRound.
Ever since taking Dramaturgy, I’ve thought a lot about the importance of financially supporting artists who make their livings doing creative work. Grants, fellowships, and residencies are invaluable for supporting the future generations of artists, especially for playwrights. Recently, HowlRound posted an assessment of the National Playwright Residency Program. My interest was sparked not only because I was curious about learning more about the cohorts from each 3-year round of residencies, but I was interested in what is working about this type of program and what can be improved for the benefit of the artists and for the theaters they work for.
From the program’s inception in 2012, the Mellon Foundation did make changes to the way it was set up, including making it possible for playwrights to initiate a relationship with a theatre, favoring local playwrights, more funds were provided for theaters to cover operational costs, and the program eliminated an additional position through that was tasked by HowlRound to document the project, making it a responsibility for the partnerships themselves. Overall, this project has strengthened relationships between theaters and playwrights, improved the diversity of the work produced at regional theaters, and bolstered the work happening at large and smaller theaters alike, but an assessment of the progress this program is crucial in affecting systemic change in the theatre.
The biggest takeaway from this study was that playwrights in the program had freedom that they’d never had before – some experimented with new mediums, directed their own work for the first time, and most of them saw their plays produced within their three years in the program. Financial stability allows an artist to expand their efforts beyond survival mode – some bought houses, some had kids, and enriched their lives so that their art could also grow. Nevertheless, some felt tension if they needed to keep another job, like teaching, in order to keep opportunities open for the future after the residency ends.
The program also allows playwrights to understand the theater’s needs and why decisions are made – to understand the reasons behind a “yes” or what comes with a “no,” when choosing plays to be produced.
One issue that arose with many of the playwrights of color (2/3 of the playwrights are African-American, Asian, or Latinx) in the program felt that part of the job was to become an educator about class and race issues – it’s important that these conversations are had but it requires a lot of effort for theaters to undergo massive change to make them more diverse and culturally competent. One playwright said,“I have been so conscious of race in every moment of every thing [in the residency]. It isn’t adversarial, people are engaged in trying to understand race and class. But that has meant we have to talk about it all the time, and I have had to find ways to frame questions that don’t put people’s backs up.” But another said, “I helped the institution question itself and its practices regarding race and class. Doing this work became critical to my ability to be successful.” There still is a lot of work to do with taking the pressure off of artists of color at theaters to be representatives for their communities, and I think that it comes down to a) hiring more artists of color and b) making it a documented part of a theater’s mission to take responsibility for telling diverse stories in ways that allows artists of color to be represented in the season.
The residencies helped connect theaters to communities that playwrights were involved in and increased the community’s engagement in the theater. One artistic director said, “Because our playwright was writing about something that is happening right now in our city, in our country, it encouraged us to think differently, to work differently.”
The theaters (mostly) cannot support the playwrights after the foundation’s money us up — meaning that they would have to fundraise exponentially to afford a position without this program.
Overall, I learned a lot from reading this report and I think that everyone should take a look to know more about how theaters are actively working, with successes and failures, to enrich the communities of artists in this country — and how national companies like HowlRound and TCG are working to make change happen on a large scale. They said, “The outcomes of the NPRP initiative to date do suggest that we are still some distance from a nonprofit theatre field that is artistically vital, relevant to communities and economically sustainable for playwrights, other theatre artists and theatre organizations themselves. How to create such a field requires more concerted discussion and collaborative action.” More efforts will be needed to change the entire status quo, and I hope that more young artists are invited to be a part of this conversation so that we understand what opportunities are being developed to make being an artist a less scary and more valued occupation within a theatre company.