Day Two: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation – part two

Todd London of New Dramatists gave the keynote address on Friday, on “After Outrageous Fortune.”
Here’s some excerpts: “We are perhaps a roomful of anachronisms, relying on outdated views of time and space.”

New Dramatists is in a Lutheran church in Manhattan. It used to house a soup kitchen and thrift store in the early 1900’s. It’s now a soup kitchen for playwrights. The altar is a writing area. The thrift store is a theatre space. The soup kitchen is a library. That library contains a stage manager’s copy of an August Wilson play called “Millhand’s Cast Bucket” – now known as “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”

“What a difference a play makes” is a song title suggested by Marsha Norman for an event celebrating the career of Horton Foote. They didn’t use the song, but the phrase stuck in London’s brain. Do plays really make a difference? To whom? Do they still? London says he’s a rabbi in a church for playwrights, constantly questioning his faith.

Horton Foote tried to stop time by remembering. Had so much been written about such a small space of real estate? Nothing can be lost as long as there are artists to write it down. But is it possible plays themselves are disappearing?

Robert Anderson had a note taped to his typewriter: nobody asked you to be a playwright. You write the plays no one asked you to write, that no one may ever produce, cultivate a garden that no one may ever wander with you. The world has no intention of meeting you where you live. Even the American Theatre doesn’t want to meet playwrights where they live. No sustainable structure that will last over time to provide a dignified life for playwrights. Theatres are concerned with pleasing an older, more conservative audience – or perhaps just the theatre’s “assets” – large donors. And audiences for straight plays are dropping every year.

Think about O’Neill. When it came to style, he tried everything. Think about how that would have played today. How could he have wrestled with scale, the years of internal struggle that separated early work and later? Where would Clifford Odets or Edward Albee or Horton Foote be without their theatres?

But London says there’s a “weird seismic shift.” The Guild will permanently fund the “Lily” awards. Arena Stage is providing its five resident playwrights with salaries, offices, and health insurance. Two separate black play festivals launched in a single year because of the “convenings” gathering at Arena this year. Money is appearing for second productions. TCG is holding national conversations on the individual artist. “The ground on which you stand is shifting.”

London says think of asking August Wilson what he was working on – a ten page cycle, performed in every theatre in the country. Will statistics keep it down? “Attention must be paid.” Think of the sweep and magnitude of his Century Cycle. “The highest possibility of human life.”

Where do we look for inspiration? London says he looks to playwrights. When you stare at a thing, it grows larger – a face, a flower, a play. We stare at plays and the machine of culture grows quiet. And the play speaks. The institutional theatre isn’t evil. It’s misguided.

“Your example is in you alone and you together: a community of writers.” Don’t be plagued by bitterness. It has killed more poets. Don’t be bitter. Or envious, which fuels that bitterness.

You have each other. You have power. Just use it.

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