Embedding playwrights in theatres is catalytic for participants, but has it transformed the field?
American theater is at a crossroads. Audience interest in non-musical performances is dwindling, and theatres are under more pressure than ever to remain financially sustainable, which has led many to mimic corporate production models. Meanwhile, tight budgets and broader economic conditions have made it ever more difficult for playwrights to earn a living, and have further constrained artistic experimentation and community engagement.
In 2012, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in collaboration with HowlRound launched the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP) to attempt to improve conditions for playwrights and increase the relevancy of theatres to communities. For the last six years NPRP has provided funding to support placing playwrights inside of established institutional theatres, and providing them with a living wage and health insurance.
In 2016, HowlRound commissioned Helicon to help assess the program’s impact to date. The report shows that full-time salary, and time and space to write had profound impacts on the playwrights, including increased artistic output and enhanced professional standing. Positive influences for the theatres included an emboldened approach to creative risk-taking, more diversity of work on stage, and stronger connections with community. However, despite these positive impacts, the program has not yet demonstrably shifted norms or conditions in the theatre field or the dynamic between playwrights and theatres overall.
Watch Alexis Frasz present the findings at the 2018 NPRP cohort meeting, or download the report.
Having a full-time salary and the time and space to write profoundly affected the creative lives of the playwrights, and their financial health.
Nearly two-thirds of the original NPRP playwright cohort identify as African American, Asian, or Latinx. Many became de facto educators around diversity and inclusion during their residencies. Their perspectives and insight in some cases led directors and board members to think more critically about race and gender, and to consider more diverse work for their stages that better reflects the country’s cultural and demographic landscape. Often the NPRP playwrights were significant facilitators of this work, helping to shift internal cultures and organizational practices. This work was most effective when supported by staff and driven by a real desire for institutional change to artistic and organizational practices.
Many of the NPRP playwrights were instrumental in enriching the theaters’ connections with their local communities. That proved especially true for younger people, and African American and Latinx communities. Playwrights engaged with community members through youth groups, neighborhood associations, churches, schools, and prisons—opportunities that enriched their artistic work in addition to benefiting the community. Some playwrights helped their theater’s staff members better understand how to engage with community members so this activity could continue after the program’s end. Theater directors acknowledged the importance of learning how to more authentically engage communities to theater's long-term health and survival.
The NPRP initiative catalyzed many theatres and playwrights to think and behave differently in the short term, but truly changing playwrights’ compensation, the relationship between playwrights and theatres, the diversity of voices on theatre stages and in theatre offices, and the relevance to theatres to their communities requires these institutions to be internally motivated to behave differently, with or without philanthropic incentives.
The NPRP reinforces the need to renew efforts to understand and grapple with the systemic barriers to more widespread change in the theatre sector. What might true sustainability for playwrights and theatres look like? What are the ideal role(s) for playwrights within nonprofit theatres today? What will it take for theatres to become more equitable in their practices and more relevant to their communities, and what is the opportunity for playwrights in this work?