Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why I'm not a cheerleader for the Mellon playwrights

I've been wondering why I've had so much trouble cheerleading for the new Andrew W. Mellon Foundation initiative placing resident playwrights in theatres across the country.

I mean I feel so guilty.

Shouldn't I want this kind of job security for practicing playwrights??  Shouldn't I be reacting the way the folks did at Emerson's Center for Theater Commons (at left)?

Well, I think I would break out my pom-poms and halter top if I was really confident that the $3.7 million being dropped would result in great (or even good) new plays.

And maybe it will, maybe it will!

But - ack - here's the rub; right now the residencies in question look like odd administrative hybrids. Indeed, our local recipient, Melinda Lopez, is already in print saying she's in discussion with her bosses at the Huntington about "finding a balance" over the course of her tenure.  Uh - a balance between what and what?  Well, here's what, according to the Boston Globe:

Lopez will also be involved in staff operations at the Huntington, where she will have an office, according to artistic director Peter DuBois. She will meet monthly with DuBois, traveling to New York or London if he is directing plays there, watching him lead rehearsals, and meeting with other writers. Lopez is also going to help produce the Huntington’s summer workshop, under which selected playwrights work with directors, dramaturgs, and actors to develop their new plays. By the third year, the expectation is that she will serve as the workshop’s lead producer. 

That sounds like close to a full-time job, frankly.  Staff operations, assisting the artistic director, producing a workshop . . . I mean it's better than waiting tables, yes, of course (and it's awfully nice that this new staff position is being paid for entirely by an outside foundation, isn't it).  Still it doesn't feel transformative for the playwright; it merely institutionalizes a system which is already in place: writers make their work around other commitments in the development infrastructure, and for the development infrastructure.  Not so long ago, Mike Daisey was criticizing foundation boards for funding buildings, not people.  Is this just the latest, slightly adjusted iteration of that meme?

And I keep wondering - why couldn't the Mellon Foundation have just given Ms. Lopez the money to finish her current project (apparently a play called Becoming Cuba)?  Were they more interested in funding the administration of various theaters than they were in supporting new work?  Or actually, not "new work" - I hate that pablum-y nomenclature of the development crowd - but rather specific scripts?

For when I looked over the roster of playwrights who were winning residencies, I was struck by how few names I recognized, and how none of the playwrights I think of today as edgy or interesting made the cut.  If you picked playwrights for this program based on plays that had recently made an impact, the roster would have looked quite different, I'm afraid.

Which led me to wonder . . . what kind of play do we really think we're going get out of someone who has an office down the hall and is attending development meetings?

Is this an argument for the garret, for the starving artist writing by candlelight?  No, not really.  But it is a question about artistic independence.  About a strange dodge around actually funding new work directly, because that's too scary.  I mean, don't we need oppositional new work, plays that question the theatre as well as support it?  

And don't we really need new work from people who are not flying with the artistic director to his next rehearsal?

This is why I find all this a little troubling.  

And I find actually quite funny an associated grant for $760,000 given to the Center for Theatre Commons, half of which will be devoted to tracking the success of these residencies.


Does anybody seriously think they'll find them unsuccessful?

I mean, $380,000 can buy you a lot of pom-poms and halter tops.


  1. You raise some questions about the structure of Melinda Lopez’s upcoming residency that I’d like to answer:

    The primary purpose of the residency is to provide Melinda with the time to write. Her “administrative responsibilities” at the Huntington have been somewhat overstated in the press, perhaps in part because they are easier to pin down than the more ephemeral process of making art.

    The grant proposal as written is consciously lopsided toward time for Melinda to write (in any space of her choosing, and certainly not while she’s running back and forth to “development meetings.”) The proposed schedule articulates a pattern: three months of personal research and writing time followed by a focused month of institutional activity.

    This framework was collaboratively designed around Melinda’s ambition to be a leader of the Boston arts scene. In her proposal to Mellon, she writes, “I want to be another resource for new writers…I want to know what steps to take when I come across a beautiful new play that begs to be developed or produced.” She has identified exposure to the Huntington’s artistic, producing, and fundraising activities as a way to assist her in this aspiration. Rest assured the grant specifies the Huntington's intention: if Melinda should want additional writing time, any of her institutional activities will be adjusted or dissolved in favor of more time for creative work.

    Mellon’s award covers three years of salary and employee benefits for Melinda to research and write whatever plays she wants to write – not fund the Huntington’s administrative activities. How Melinda chooses to structure her time during her residency to learn whatever else she wants to learn about the business will be an evolving conversation over the next three years.

    Melinda mentions working to “find a balance” between her long-term personal fulfillment (and job security) as a professor at Boston University and Wellesley College and the shorter-term opportunity of a three-year residency. The balance she’ll strike at the Huntington will always tip toward writing.

    Thanks for your interest in the program. I’m happy to answer any other questions you may have – just let me know.

  2. Thanks, Rebecca, for your comments, and your clarifications. It's good to know that Melinda will have long blocks of time specifically set aside for writing and nothing else.

    Still . . . hers is still in some way an administrative position. Otherwise it would be structured entirely differently. And you've made me realize that she is actually further embedded in the academy than I knew; I didn't understand that her concerns about "balance" were in regards to two other part-time positions at BU and Wellesley.

    Of course playwrights have always juggled playwriting with other work, nothing new there. As far as the Huntington is concerned, I'm sure Melinda will have time to finish her current project, and that's a good thing.

    I'm left wondering, though, why this all feels so Human Resources-y rather than arts-y, and I worry about the subtle effects of a writer being considered "staff." I wonder why no foundation seems to be willing to risk a major grant to a playwright to launch, say, a play with a larger cast than usual, but is instead willing to drop a substantial amount of cash on something totally open-ended artistically, but quite structured administratively. I'll have to think more carefully about why precisely I find that unsettling, but in the meantime I appreciate your input.