Friday, February 18, 2011

The New Play Sector Talked (and talked, and talked, and talked) in the Capital

I represented Playwrights Foundation at the New Play Convening last month at Arena Stage’s new Mead Center for American Theatre, and hosted by new play raconteur, the Bay Area’s own David Dower, who was the founder of the Z Space Studio, and is now the Associate Artistic Director of Arena Stage, and architect of the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage.  It was an incredibly full four days, with a very diverse (everyone hates that overused, undermeaningful word) so I’ll give this a try instead: … a powerfully eclectic range of people from very different aesthetic/ geographic/gender/age/cultural /ethnic identities; representing all sizes of producing theaters, many geographic centers, individual  playwrights, ensemble theater makers, presenters, festivals, and yes, new play development labs and organizations, like Playwrights Foundation. And we did a lot of talking together. And a lot of listening. And those many conversations were a part of a national dialogue, all recorded, twittered and live streamed across the country. But all that listening and talking led us somewhere – somewhere that is intangible, and very hard to talk about succinctly.    Nonetheless, the momentum of this event will, I believe, succeed in pushing the national agenda about the practices of developing and producing new work and the learning about ourselves and our (un)common work, forward.

Not everyone who deserved to be in this circle got to be, and I feel a responsibility to keep writing about it, to share my experience and bring your thoughts and words into the dialogue. If you were in the third circle, on twitter or live stream video, or, if you weren’t, and you want to tell me your thoughts, please respond to my posts here on Playwrights Foundation’s Blogspot.

It seems fitting that we met up in DC where our elected reps are right now fighting tooth and nail to keep the NEA from becoming irrelevant. The NEA (a relatively tiny agency)  plays  a critical role in upholding our nation’s value for the arts, and its meaning to We, The People in a Democracy. If you haven’t expressed your opinion about cutting the NEA yet, please take this opportunity to do so! I did it in 5 minutes yesterday, and yeah, I felt that glow of citizenship wash over me. No, really, it is extremely important for us to speak up! Do it NOW, and then finish reading this. Okay, so...

Online there is a rich debate raging about NEA Chairman Rocco Landsman’s controversial and frank discussion on the issue of supply and demand in the American theater. You can read lots of interesting commentary on these links Diane Ragsdale and Arena Stage Blog and NEA Blog  and I suggest you do.  Need I say: these are some awesomely challenging times for us. The danger, I think, is to become self-congratulatory against the firestorm of anti-intellectual, anti-culture backlash.  To imagine that our relevancy to the majority is a shared value is myopic. But in the face of a real and present danger to lose faith is not an option, because, as cultural workers, as the planters and sowers of cultural seedlings, we are damn sure we are relevant but are challenged by issues of solvency.

One of my favorite quotes from the New Play Convening was from Diane Ragsdale, who herself was quoting a professor: “A model is the representation of your beliefs about causality.” Think about it. I don't know about you, but here at PF, we are constantly questioning our beliefs about our outcomes, and by inference our models of development. We are constantly making, deconstructing and redesigning our 'model(s)' (for organizational structure, staff roles, governance, and... programs for play and playwright advancement). I love the notion that at the heart of all those developing models is belief about impact, a belief about what we mean to cause and how.

So we new play makers are stuck here between blind passionate belief and the requirement to quantify our impact. Believing in our work, believing it actually does make a difference, in so many ways, as we so claim, believing in art as a transformative experience of beauty is absolutely essential to making the work – and yet, (and yet), we must become experts in making the case for its relevancy, and become savvy in the business of solvency.

Of course, as a theater professional that has not been my strong suit, believe you me, but learning those skills has been Playwrights Foundation's saving grace.

So, for me, sitting together with colleagues, new and old friends, and talking about our shared passion and our shared responsibility for carrying this work forward, that is, making new theater possible, was exhilarating and inspirational. I did cry a few times, and laughed a lot. Mostly, I listened, actively, heartfully, thoughtfully. It turns out that listening was itself the springboard.You too can listen in: it's all available at  #newplaytv.

Here's to: carrying the flame of passion, the innocence of blind belief, and the wicked ass savvy of financial know-how.

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Amy Mueller
Artistic Director

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