Theatre Companies I Want to Form: 3 of 3

Click here for the beginning of this series, and here for part two.

3) DC Playwrights Theatre

Look, I love the Inkwell and all, but they’re a national play-development organization (with a DC focus).  And while First Draft is great, and locally-focused, they too are a development organization primarily.  Both aim for full productions and have achieved them, but it’s not their exclusive focus.  So there is a very important service to the local community I don’t think they fulfill (nothing wrong with that- it’s just a different mission).  I believe we need – very much need – a DC-only play company.  And we need it to exclusively perform – not just develop – plays by DC playwrights.

There are two visions of such a company.  The wildest-dreams one, and the more modest and feasible one.

Modest Version

Early-career playwrights have as hard a time – if not a much harder time – getting the second production than they do the first.  And not just early-career writers: why can’t Norman Allen‘s and Karen Zacarias’s hits of yesteryear get a remount?  Why can’t DC have pride in its local playwriting, such that it supports a half-dozen remounts of great plays by our hometown talents each year?  Why can’t these plays be a part of our local theatre mythology, to be revisited and reinterpreted and seen by everybody in the region?

Heck, between Allen and Zacarias alone (throw in a Renee Calarco, an Ari Roth) you could program three or four seasons of high-quality remounts.  Draw from the best local hits from Fringe, Source, DC Black Theatre Festival.  Put them on again, let them be seen, re-evaluated, and shown off to the world.  A theatre company dedicated to full-length productions of DC plays, new or old, with a three-to-five show standard season.  Other organizations (like Inkwell and First Draft) work on the development side of the local-playwrights equation; but just having a single company dedicated to local work and local work alone, at a professional level, in full performance and without regard to every play having to be “new, new, new” – that would be such a boon.  Heck, you could even forget new productions altogether – make it strictly a remount company of DC-written works.  That’d still be pretty swell.  Maybe call it DC’s Best Theatre (or something with the same gist that doesn’t sound like a microbrew).

Slight Alternate Version to the Modest Version

Or, heck, just a company that has as its sole purpose facilitating other companies in the production and remount of local works would be a boon.  Like, if there was an organization that 1) archived and tracked ALL the plays by all the local playwrights and all the locally-grown productions throughout DC’s history, 2) advocated for their production, when relevant, at local theatres, and 3) helped playwrights and producers promote and network in the region – that would all be quite helpful.  (Again, Inkwell and First Draft do work like this, but focus on new works.)

The advantage of this approach is it prevents anything remotely like DC plays getting ignored by major local theatres, because you could argue that the Modest Version above would encourage the community to just shove new plays aside for DC Playwrights’ Theatre to produce.  Obviously it would be best if DC playwrights constantly have a real presence in local theatres, not just in one “designated” for them.  That said…

Wildest Dreams Version

Okay.  So I envision a theatre company which takes plays by DC playwrights, and ONLY DC playwrights, from the draft to the stage.  It might work best partnering with the Inkwell and First Draft to handle the development work, but basically I see three purposes:

a) Script development – take the plays by DC playwrights and stage-read them, work on them, develop them.

b) Easy-access performance – produce very cheap, quick but full and loving productions of plays by DC playwrights.

c) Full high-quality performance – marquee productions of established, top-quality DC plays.

Playwrights NEED TO SEE THEIR WORK PRODUCED in order to improve.  The DC playwrights community has very little outlet for this, besides the Fringe festival, which has its pros and cons as a new play workshop.  There is a preponderance of evidence that playwrights, and communities of playwrights in general, move from “promising” to “great” when there is ample opportunity for the writers to practice, learn and fail.  We have at least 200 playwrights in the area.  If we want for more than just a couple of them to have much chance of realizing their potential, we need to be giving them, as a group, something like a few dozen full productions a year (as in a few dozen playwrights get individual productions each year; maybe a few of them get two productions).  Theoretically, with this many playwrights in the region, there should be at least a couple dozen almost-ready-but-not-quite new full-length scripts floating around annually.  Some – most, even – won’t be quite Arena Stage-worthy.  But the point would be to give the plays – and the playwrights – a chance to grow.

These productions would have to be very very cheap and quick, but as long as you have decent actors, a playwright can learn a lot from a quick-and-dirty production even if it only has two weeks of rehearsal time and one weekend of performances.

The logistics of this seem nigh-impossible, I admit.  The company would pretty much have to own a venue, in order to rehearse and perform quick easy-access shows every two weeks or more often.  You’d have to get the playwrights in the community to get involved – but I believe, once again again, that as soon as it’s shown viable and the playwrights know that they’re pretty much guaranteed to get to see their work developed and performed – that there is almost no “gatekeeping” – that they will come out in droves.  I know for a fact, personally, that the uncertainty of whether what I’m working on will ever even get a chance to see the light of day puts a damper on my iniative to continue writing it.  Theoretically, the more performance and development opportunities there are for the local playwriting community, the more (and the better) they’ll write.

And the cream of the crop gets the marquee productions (or passed on to local theatres for same).  Here’s where the audience comes in – what few dedicated people come to the easy-access cheap performances will vote on their favorites, and based on response and judgment, the company could pick out one or two top plays a year for fully-rehearsed, completely-designed and bigger-budgeted full runs.

AAAAANNNNDDD that wouldn’t be the whole entire season of full, marquee runs.  I think the DC Playwrights Theatre should have a standard three-to-five production season.  One or two of those are plays developed and voted-up in the preceding year; the other one, two, three or four of them are existing plays by DC playwrights as in the “modest” version above.

Yes, my concept here is pretty extreme, but to start producing great work community-wide and developing a real DC-theatre character, you need to get the pyramid effect.  You have to have lots of failures, just-sorta-alright plays, awkward drafts, restarts, half-decent writers and idea-bouncers, in order to create enough of a foundation to raise up those couple outstanding works each year.  See: New York.  See: Chicago.  New York has a massive community that does the work I’m proposing here in a thousand Off-Off shows and showcases; I see no reason you couldn’t approximate at least a good portion of that with one well-oiled and inclusive theatre company, because currently that kind of work is done very haphazardly all over the city.

Conclusion

Unlike the other two theatre company ideas (as far as I’m aware), I’m not the first or only one to bring up the possibility of a DC Playwright’s Theatre.  And really, this is the messiest of my ideas, because it’s less “I wish there was a theatre company like this” and more “Here’s a bunch of things the playwriting community in DC needs, and OH GOSH which of those can one organization handle?”

You readers who are in DC – which of these would you like to see?  What, in my proposals, do you think would make them not work or struggle to succeed?  You readers who are not in DC – would anything like these work in your communities?  Has anyone seen a Suddenly Theatre type-organization (besides the Neo-Futurists), or a Tiny Gems Theatre, or a Playwright’s Theatre outside of New York?  Feed me back, kids!

Anyways, thanks for reading.

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2 comments

  1. Random person · · Reply

    I would say get a space and have an informal weekly show, something fast and cheap, like DC improv does, and work from there, but theater space is not easy to come by. Rents are too expensive and the competition for audience too divisive. Why support the locals when there’s always a NYC troupe that can come in and put on a tested performance? Baltimore can do it, but who can put on an informal show when rental space might be $80/hour?

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