New Avenues for New Play Development:
Arena Stage’s Polly Carl + David Dower
On the American Voices New Play Institute
Monday, December 5, 2011 at 6:30pm
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY

(L-R) David Dower and Polly Carl. Image by Martha Wade Steketee
  • “I built a career by creating the rooms I want to live in and insisting that I have a soul.” (Polly Carl)

Speaking as much with each other (bouncing ideas off each other let us say) as with the energized theatre folks in the audience at the Martin Segal Theatre this Monday evening, David Dower and Polly Carl of Arena Stage share their infectious enthusiasm for the future of playwriting and institutional theatre-making and strategies of building theatre communities in the digital age.  Each has been performer or director or theatre maker in several cities across the country (San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago to name a few) and are now both located at Arena Stage in Washington DC — where Dower is Associate Artistic Director and Carl directs the American Voices New Play Institute housed there.  As Dower often states of the DC-resident Arena and repeats this evening “This is not a national theatre but a regional theater that happens to be located in the nation’s capital.”  This actors’ theatre is morphing into a playwrights’ theatre with the assistance of these two professionals and the Institute they are building with a small resident staff and a growing series of overlapping communities who feel some stake in its success.

Moderator and host Frank Hentschker asks just a few questions to get things going, then watches and listens along with the rest of us to the articulate and enthused pair.

Moment of abundance.  Dower reflects on what he acknowledges is sometimes received as a provocative statement.  He feels that we’re living in a “moment of abundance” of theatre resources, distributed inefficiently and lop-sidedly toward the early end of artist careers and early end of a play’s lifetime (e.g. on emerging artists and premiere productions).  “There is more,” he notes, “but yet it feels like scarcity.”  This moment of abundance carries with it the obligation to use the resources with care, or otherwise risk squandering them.  What the Institute is attempting, through various means, it the creation of a cultural community that will, in part, inform this distribution.

Room not an office.  Carl notes that when she negotiated her agreement with the Arena and the Institute earlier this year to come on as Institute Director, she had several requirements.  First, she didn’t want to be Senior Staff and the accompanying distractions of meetings and management.  Second, she didn’t want her own office but a room with a table around which she, staff, and others could meet, discuss, build together.  She describes herself as “purposely downwardly mobile” with the smile of a visionary.  For her, community begins at the most cellular level at work.

Playwright artistic and professional homebase.  Details about the playwrights supported (5 currently with full-time salaries and three-year residencies, and two fellows with commissioning relationships) and resources developed since the Institute began in July 2009 can be explored in several locations including a page on the main Arena theatre blog.  Resonant details of the support received by the Institute playwrights, powerful for any consultant or freelance artist, include: salary, benefits, a place at the decision-making table and keys to the building.  In every possible concrete and psychological sense, these artists are being welcomed home within the structure of the Institute.

New space new rooms new conversations.  Carl is most animated when she speaks about the ways in which she and her colleagues are using current and freely accessible technologies to build and to model community building.  Through a curated on-line journal and web-based video feeds and a map charting the evolution of a play’s life (illustrating the “map of relationships” as a play moves from reading through productions and through various play development labs such as the Lark and Chicago Dramatists and New Dramatists and PlayPenn and Carl’s old home base The Playwrights’ Center) and other methods, the Institute reaches beyond its walls, the people it funds, and local/regional/state/national boundaries. For a disparate theatre community, these resources can root and welcome.  For those mobile among us (I, for example, have moved cities twice in the two years since the Institute has existed), its resources and growth have provided a sense of excitement and continuity in one package into which I tap into from my multiple locations.  The Institute is modeling, in Carl’s words, “new spaces and new rooms for new conversations in the field” with free technologies.  The conversation is open, but you must opt in.  When talking about the “new play map” linked above, Carl reflected (with practical and symbolic resonance): “If you don’t put yourself on the map you’re not on there.”

From ME to WE.  Dower and Carl speak for some time about the institutional and professional challenges in the field of new play development — moving the conversation “from me to we.”  Carl asks “what are the tools I need to build a community on something other than a ticket transaction?” In this regard, communities of theatre goers are invited into the process at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.  In First Look 101, the audience is invited into the rehearsal hall in a coordinated way, inviting investment and understanding and familiarity and, yes, community.  Such a program is in the works at Arena stage.

Carl and Dower ponder how to move the community from taking individual credit for particular playwrights and plays to sense of sharing them.   Carl sees her job as building the map of new play development across the country and working on ways to figure out what these maps (of productions, of relationships) actually mean.  Carl describes her own “well-meaning but misguided” thinking earlier in her career (that reflected general thinking in the new play development field) that leads to individual symbolic ownership.  She admits she would think of “my playwright” and “my play” when aggregating information for reports or following the production life of a play.  Moving the conversation to one of a community supporting “our” playwrights and their plays is her focus now.  She adds: “The theatre is a community despite itself, even though it doesn’t acknowledge it.”  She wants “to find a way to see the relationships … to see the infrastructure” of new play development.  Carl’s passion “is for the work but only work that is contextualized in a way that is meaningful.” Elaborating, she explains that she loves facilitating and dramaturging individual productions but personally wanted to see the larger picture for those pieces and others in the times of increased sources but non-systematic distribution of those resources.  “The regional theatres went the way of Wall Street … the resources are for the one percent … and people are banging on the door” for access.  The community ethic is apparent in the resources being developed at the Institute, as Dower reflects. “Everything that we’re building here is free and open source. We’re trying to move into the world of alignment of resources, not empire building.”

Publishing as performance.  Carl reflected on documentation and conversation and sharing of words in several ways.  “Publishing is the new world of performance” is one of her provocative statements.  For Carl the means of inviting community members into a conversation and sharing information with them is through the digital home, the portal, the digital home base that is being built around Howlround, the Institute’s journal.  A soon-to-be-unveiled revamp of the Institute’s web presence places this Journal and the other Institute resources and linked avenues all on a single page.

The best thing you can offer.  The attendees at tonight’s event include institutional dramaturgs, literary managers, playwrights, and other theatre writers.  Established and early career playwrights ask questions about access, representation, and strategies.  One particular imminent MFA graduate asks Carl about how to approach submitting his work to theatres — suggestive pieces or the best work he has in hand? Carl sympathizes with the plight of access.  As someone who reads many plays she reminds the playwright that what is being sought is an hour or two of someone’s reading time.  “If you can get someone’s attention to read your play, you better have sent them the best thing you can offer.”  Another consistent lesson: don’t squander the resource, and don’t squander the access.  But use it.

Thinking bigger. Carl’s comments about her own career (moving from individual season production to developing field-level conversational capacity) are paralleled by comments to theatres in general.  “If you’re going to survive in this field, you’re going to have to think bigger about it. … Not just getting the plays produced” but (as Dower continues her thought) “aligning not replicating” resources.  As Dower concludes: “The gates of opportunity are overwhelmed by people trying to get through.”

So to work in room of one’s creation, building upon the concept of “a room of one’s own,” with colleagues accessible and collaborating on new play development.  An inclusive vision.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 7, 2011)


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