This blog has (mostly) stayed out of the contretemps surrounding Arena Stage’s play submission policy (short version: they’ve stopped taking new play submissions, sort-of, for the long version read on below). There’s been two posts here on the subject, one linking to David Dower’s letter to Hal Brooks explaining the policy and one linking to Hal Brooks’s response. That second post noted that I leaned towards Hal on this issue.
This is going to be the third of these. Apparently, there has also been going on a loud a fairly angry conversation about it on other parts of the internet. Polly Carl discusses that conversation at great length here, and you should check that out.
One of the reasons I’ve stayed away from the conversation for awhile is that I wanted to resist the natural blogging tendency to provide more heat than light, to opine without really considering what’s going on, without talking to the people involved. While the instantaneous nature of blogging is one of its great assets, there are times when it can be confusing and less than helpful and in my odd hybrid role of writer/commentator/semi-retired-director and friend of many of the people involved in this story, I could wait, ask some questions and think.
Here’s where I am as a result of that. Before we begin, I should note that Arena Stage’s David Dower whom much of this controversy has centered on is a friend. He’s not only a friend, but he has also hired me to do freelance writing for Arena in the past, for which I was compensated a small amount and given travel to and from Washington, D.C. twice. That was when we met and became friendly, although we had been corresponding on the internet before then for some time. David’s not the only friend of mine involved in this, but since we have also had financial dealings in the past, it’s important to note in interests of full disclosure.
I have to admit, exploring this issue, it was hard for me to get my dander up in any direction. I read tweets from playwrights saying they felt personally hurt by Arena’s “new submission policy” and could not understand what they meant. For me, this question is a wonky one: What is the best policy for Arena to pursue vis-à-vis submissions given the new American play mission they're building out, their values, their goals, the institutional priorities and history, what the field needs and the realities of limited resources and man hours?
After talking to David and following the conversation for a while, I am fairly convinced (but open to discussing it) that the policy Arena is following right now is the right one. I don’t think they’ve done a fantastic job of explaining it, and confusion over what the policy is and how we got here is one of the reasons why the conversation has gotten so heated. So I’m going to try to explain it as best I understand it now and explain why I feel they’re making the right choice. Or should I say, a right choice, given the circumstances (there are probably others). It’s been difficult to even see what that choice is, however, because of three major points of confusion.
Confusion Point 1: PlayPenn
Let’s start where this conversation started: PlayPenn, a new play development conference held in Philadelphia. According to Hal Brooks’s post, Dower:
“began speaking by putting the playwrights in attendance on notice: they only have five years to get their plays produced. The landscape is changing. Funding will no longer be heading towards (singular) playwrights and instead is shifting towards groups who create devised work. David seemed to be saying, `You’d better get your plays produced now, or you won’t have a chance.’ It felt like a dire, stern warning.
Did I hear him right? Does David really believe that theaters are going to stop producing plays written by the singular playwright? (I’ll stop using the term “singular playwrights.” Let’s call them playwrights.) Are developmental conferences like PlayPenn, Ojai, BAPF, the O'Neill, Sundance, Cape Cod Theatre Project, Seven Devils, and JAW West completely obsolete? Is playwriting the horse and buggy of the new millennium?”
Over the phone, I asked David about this. He told me that he was surprised at Hal’s reading of his comments until he talked to more people who were at PlayPenn and learned that many people in attendance came away with the same interpretation. “I was having part two of a conversation that they weren’t at part one of,” he told me, “There had been a dinner prior to the panel where all this stuff got layed out. The question I was asked then was about an actor wanting to know if they had to wait for playwrights. Should [Play Penn] be making space for devised work at the festival and could I talk about it?”
As a result, “people did mishear me. Actually, they probably heard me, but what I meant to communicate wasn’t communicated.” Dower was trying to diagnose what was happening on the infrastructure side of the new play field as a way of motivating playwrights to “capture” the New Play resources. “The attention of these resources is moving towards devised work. There is fatigue [in the funding community] for focusing on playwrights and that is what concerns me… I’m worried the spotlight is going to move from the playwright at a time when those resources haven’t been captured.” Citing the birth of the regional theater movement—a birth Arena Stage was part of—David said he was trying to alert people to the need to “build the infrastructure for playwrights to stand on now and into the future… Right now we have the resources and we’re spending it all on ourselves. Can we build and sustain a more rational network of opportunities for writers?”
In a follow up e-mail, David clarified further that what he meant by captured was captured “into any sustainable, permanent improvement for the lives of playwrights… they have been captured into one-off things like `some new plays have been developed, some playwrights are on salary, some new festivals have sprung up’ but none of this lasts beyond the period of interest of the funding community.” David’s chief concern, then was that when funders lost interest in new plays and moved on to, say, devised work that everything that had been built up in the past twenty years would vanish.
Clearly, this is not how David’s comments were heard. Instead, what many at PlayPenn perceived was a one-two punch of the suck: Here was Arena’s New Play guy, the founder of the New Play Institute, author of the gateways of opportunity study for the Mellon Foundation, telling them not only that they had five years to make it before the money dried up but that a major institutional player—Dower’s own theater!— was no longer taking submissions.
People who I spoke to about David’s talk additionally complained of a third problem: Arena Stage artistic staff did not attend the actual presentations of work at PlayPenn. From their point of view, Dower had declared that funding was going to move away from playwrights and that the way to get work done at Arena was to get your work seen by Arena and then had high-tailed it out of town without seeing any work. The fury grew from there.
Confusion Point 2: Submissions and Arena’s Submission Policy
But does Arena really not take submissions anymore? This is the main issue in the conversation, but having read the comments on Polly, Hal and David’s posts, there seems to be a big confusion about what the word submission even means. Part of the confusion is right there in David’s “Letter To Hal Brooks.”: David is mainly talking in his post about opensubmissions—the policy of a theater taking any script sent to them by anyone and logging, reading and reviewing them. Hal is pretty clearly talking about professional submissions, which are submissions to a theater done on behalf of a playwright by agents, literary managers at other theaters, artistic directors of New Work festivals etc.
No one I know who works regularly in the mainstream American theater system cares about open submissions for a theater the size of Arena. Heck, most of them don’t care about them period. I’ve written about this before here at Parabasis: very few LORT and TCG theaters take open submissions seriously, even if they have an open submissions policy. Playwright development organizations like The Lark and New Dramatists are a different story, but they have a different mission. Open Submissions are a way for theaters to placate playwrights, funders and audiences. They’re a way to make it seem like institutions are more open than they actually are and pretty much everyone working in that circuit knows it and will cop to it off the record if you ask them.
David himself cops to this in his “Letter To Hal Brooks,” it just happens to not be what Hal was actually asking when he said “how do we get our plays to you?” He meant (to paraphrase) “How do I, Hal Brooks, who runs new play festival theaters and other likeminded profressionals get my writers to be read and noticed by you?”
Because of this confusion, it appeared that Arena is not reading scripts anymore period. It appeared they were taking the Guthrie route (the Guthrie officially takes no submissions from anyone) even though they do more new work than the Guthrie. It felt to many I spoke to that Arena was throwing out a flawed-but-formal system and replacing it with a policy that was entirely social in nature: get someone at Arena to like you or somehow convince them to come see a reading and maybe your work will get produced there. It felt, in other words, like an enshrinement of the kind of nepotism that can corrupt a theater.
Having read the conversation back and forth, I was confused about this issue too, so I put it to David. He gave me some backstory on the new policy (which has actually been in place since 2009). Recounting a conference call he had with a group of agents, he said he first came clean about what Arena was doing with all the plays they were getting, “the literary manager is allocating these plays to interns, back come their reports, they get logged, a letter gets written, I sign it. Honestly, that [was] the process.”
The people he spoke to were, as one might suspect, both appalled and confirmed in what they thought was really going on the whole time. After noting that this system existed simply because Arena was getting too many scripts to operate in any other way, he hashed out a new policy. What they discovered is that, “playwrights wanted to have a conversation with the actual person who read the play,” and that Arena wanted people “to send us plays that they thought [Arena] was looking for.”
This lead to a new policy: First, open submissions were done away with entirely. Second, for professional submissions—those from agents and other professionals in the new play sector—David asks that they “send me or Molly or Edgar or Amrita an e-mail saying `this playwright is working on this play. We think it’s related to what you’re doing.’ We will read that e-mail and if there’s something there, if we think they’re right, we’ll get them to send it. Sometimes we say yes. Sometimes we say no and explain why. So it becomes a dialogue with them about submissions.”
With this new policy, Arena is still reading scripts. Between the artistic staff, Arena covers roughly three to five hundred scripts a year sent by agents and other advocates for playwrights.
On the phone with David, I likened this to a query letter system in publishing (many magazines take letters detailing a potential article or essay or review before looking at the review itself). “The big difference,” he said “is that we are unable to respond as much to individuals writing on their own behalf. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously. We’re engaging in authentic dialogue with advocates for plays and we’re putting ourselves out there in the world, in the physical world at conferences and the festival world and scouting new work and also through online discussions.”
In other words, Arena doesn’t have a no submissions policy. The answer to the question Hal was asking is a simple one: “write me an e-mail when you think you have a script that’s right for Arena.” But due to confusion over what the questions even were and what were the issues at stake, this became difficult to see.
If people want to discuss and argue over the policy articulated above, I’m all ears (and eyes). Having talked to David, I think it makes sense. But there may be problems with it I am not seeing.
Confusion Three: Arena, New Playwrights and New Plays
A few years back, Arena announced the formation of the New Play Institute. The launch of the Institute coincided with a lot of other activity in the New Play Sector including the publication of Outrageous Fortune, and Arena’s administration of a new grant in new play development and production funded by the NEA. Under Molly Smith’s Artistic Direction, Arena Stage has been reshaping itself into a theater devoted to American Plays and the American Experience specifically (for those of you who didn’t grow up in DC, when I was a child Arena was the place you went to see Strindberg and Arthur Miller) and the Institute was part and parcel of that.
It felt to many people that perhaps the doors of Arena were opening to new writers as well as new plays. They weren’t. Or rather, they were, but not in the way people thought.
The New Play Institute is not a producing body. It does not develop, nor does it produce plays, nor will it. The NPI’s job is to study the landscape of the American Theater and determine new ways to help new plays flourish. It’s not part of Arena’s producing mission. To use a political metaphor, it’s essentially an infrastructure and civic planning policy think tank. This is the door that’s open to emerging playwrights. While there’s been some controversy over the closed door nature of the convenings, the NPI invites a pretty broad range of people down to talk about new play issues and they’ve been quite engaged with internet conversation.
That said, Arena stage never has been and never really was going to be a home for producing new plays by emerging playwrights. They were never going to be the kingmaker. That’s not their history, that’s not their mission and it’s not what their staff or spaces or board are really set up to do.
This, again, might bug you. I’d definitely be interested in reading someone making the argument for why Arena specifically should be focusing more on earlier career writers. I’m just saying that would be a fairly radical break with what they do. It’s also in my opinion not what the DC theater community needs. DC already has one of the country’s best new play theaters in Woolly Mammoth, Studio is moving into the New Play sector as well, it now has a playwrights support organization in Inkwell, many other theater companies like Forum and Roundhouse are doing new plays.
There are many other institutions whose history and legacy and mission and identity centers more on finding emerging writers, on launching new voices to a larger stage. Many of those theaters have abandoned or cut down on that aspect of their producing as they’ve gotten shinier, more expensive new buildings and as people close to the mission of theater on their boards have been replaced with corporate fundraisers. This problem was really the fuel that burned within us first and second gen theater bloggers, this problem created 13P. And while there’s been some improvement on many fronts,Outrageous Fortune shows us how much work is left to be done. According to that book, mid-career playwrights are underserved by the funding community in particular ways that are different from newer writers and require their own solutions. Someone trying to tackle that problem doesn’t bother me, although I join Hal in hoping that one of the residency slots at Arena could go to someone a earlier in their journey as the kind of producing help, financial backing and knowledge the residency supplies would be of greater benefit to someone who hasn’t been produced that often.