American playwriting is in crisis mode. Playwrights and nonprofit theaters can't effectively collaborate. It's impossible to make a living writing plays in the United States. When plays are produced, they're downsized to meet budget constraints. Audiences are dwindling. And playwriting itself has become a lost art.
Sounds dire, right?
I just summarized the gist of a study entitled "Outrageous Fortune: The Life and times of the New American Play," written by Todd London, with Ben Pesner and Zannie Giraud Voss. The book was published by the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund... in 2009.
That's right, the study was published six years ago, proving that—to paraphrase Mark Twain—the death of American playwriting has been greatly exaggerated.
That disconnect between playwrights and nonprofit theaters? The Doris Duke Foundation's on the case. Or the fact that playwrights lack the time and money to hone their craft? The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is funding three-year playwriting residencies, replete with salaries and benefits. Or the dwindling audience thing? The folks Off-Off-Broadway would beg to differ.
And, as for the lost art of the playwright itself, today brings satisfying news out of Aspen, Colorado, where Theater Masters, a non-profit organization whose core mission is to find and nurture the next generation of playwrights for the American theater, named Ian MacAllister-McDonald and Eva Suter as the eighth annual Theater Masters’ Visionary Playwright Award winners.
Theater Masters is like a farm system for American playwrights. In partnership with the Aspen Institute, Theater Masters invites the winning playwrights to attend the institute’s prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in July. Theater Masters then commissioned MacAllister-McDonald and Suter to write a full-length play inspired by a "big idea" they encountered at the festival and, better yet, guaranteed a future development and/or reading opportunity for the resulting new work.
I think we can all agree that "big ideas" are good for the art of playwriting.
"We are identifying some of the finest young playwrights in this country and encouraging them to write a new play inspired by attendance at the Aspen Ideas Festival," said Julia Hansen, Theater Masters founder and Artistic Director.
In 2008, Theater Masters initiated the Visionary Playwrights Award, in partnership with the Aspen Institute and three of America’s top regional theaters: Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, La Jolla Playhouse in California, and Playwrights Horizons in NYC.
Theater Masters is supported by the City of Aspen, the Thrift Shop of Aspen, the State of Colorado, and the Elizabeth George Foundation.
None of this, of course, is to say that the future of American playwriting isn't without its risks and challenges moving forward. However, deep-pocketed foundations and smaller incubators like Theater Masters continue to fund playwrights and theaters alike from idea generation all the way to production. Bad news may sell, but these folks want no part of it.