It’s true. The DC area has moved into the forefront of the nation’s theater communities. A recent report from Actors’ Equity Association named DC the “fastest-growing theater city.”
It was in the mid-1980s that the Helen Hayes Awards were established to bring attention to the outstanding theater in the DC area. At the time, there were about a dozen or so professional theater companies as members. Since then, the Helen Hayes Award program, administered by theatreWashington, has grown about seven-fold in membership.
But here is a key truth. In the collaborative art form that is theater, the playwrights, the book writers, and the musical theater creatures who are the originators of what audiences see and hear on stage, often toil in isolation.
The DMV area has become home to an extraordinary number of talented and widely-produced playwrights. Playwrights whose works are gracing not only area stages, but well beyond. Playwrights who are winning awards and national attention.
With the addition of local area playwrights, DC has become a true “theater-town.” That was celebrated in the recent coming together of Washington-area playwrights at The Kennedy Center REACH Festival. This landmark event was the “DC Playwrights Forum.” It was led by two nationally known local favorites and Helen Hayes Award winners: playwright/director Aaron Posner and playwright Karen Zacarías.
The Playwrights Forum was held on Monday, September 9, 2019. It provided the opportunity for a diverse group of about 30 established and emerging DC-area playwrights to gather together in an informal setting, to chat from their personal and collective perspectives about the state of being a professional playwright. I joined DCMTA writers Ravelle Brickman and John Stoltenberg to provide an inside look at the Playwrights’ Forum for our readers.
The event was opened by Posner and Zacarías with opening comments. The session was to have no set agenda. It was to be free-flowing. The idea was to “get the temperature of the playwrights,” indicated Posner.
Seated in a circle so each could easily see one another, the playwrights were asked for quick comments to describe themselves as a playwright, including strengths and weaknesses. They were also asked to mention one of their plays as a point of reference.
The playwrights offered a wide range of attributes. Responses included: passion, being too ambitious, difficulty with plots, need for/desire for collaboration with others, writing a story or writing characters, self-doubt, honesty, difficulty in “killing off characters,” finding joy working with students and emerging playwrights to further their talents, and remembering that the Deaf community has a story to tell theatergoers.
Posner then posed a question; “what works for you as a playwright, if you need to become unstuck”? The assembled dramatists mentioned “trying-out” plays at The Fringe, participating in informal writers’ groups, seeing the works of other Washington-area playwrights, especially those who have a different writing form, and using the National New Play Network. Several noted that talking to and having open conversations with trusted non-theater friends to solicit honest reactions is very helpful.
The conversation then shifted to address crucial issues. The participants spoke passionately on the effects of the “capitalist” aspects of producing theater. One example, can theater producers and artistic directors do more about high ticket prices, when prices can be unaffordable for some theatergoers, even playwrights? That elicited interactions about working with area Artistic Directors on concerns about high ticket prices that can price out audiences. Are additional Pay-What-You-Can performances or other price incentives possible? Do playwrights, as the originators of the original pages, have unconsidered influence that can be brought to bear?
Exchanging ideas about area theaters producing more works of DC-area playwrights led to a discussion of Chicago as a good example. Chicago was noted as an area where producers make extra effort and succeed at producing local area playwrights. Is that possible in the DC area?
The constant search for funding was a topic of dialogue as well as the oppressive social structures of current times. Can theater disrupt the current political climate in America? Does the current climate have both negative and positive affects on being a playwright?
The conversation continued as playwrights asked of themselves: what about our audiences and how can we “honor” them? Responses included honoring the audience as a “commandment,” for theater is not just for those who produce theater and theater-makers; “Without an audience, we wouldn’t exist.” There was comment as well about other means for the performing arts community to reach out to new audiences, including taking advantage of film and other media.
The event concluded with a discussion about concrete next steps with a lead-in asking, “What unites us?” How can playwrights continue to deepen their relationships begun at The REACH session?
There was an overwhelming aspiration to continue what had begun at the REACH and the Playwrights Forum. There was positive discussion to get together more often and on a regular basis. It was a community desire to continue to the open dialogue and fellowship the session had engendered.
Yes. It was a historic gathering of DC area playwrights. There is more to come. We at DCMTA will continue to follow this and update you.
DC Playwrights Forum was featured at The REACH Opening Festival, which runs through September 22, 2019, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. The complete schedule is here. Free timed passes are available at the box office, by phone at (202) 467-4600, or online.