Monday, December 1, 2008


During times like these, when the value of everything from mortgages to barrels of oil is in question, it is natural for a person like me, who works in the arts, to question the worth of my efforts and the impact of my field as a whole. Certain age-old ironies are not lost on me. For instance, during prosperous times, when we are flush and comfortable, and have more leisure to appreciate our cultural heritage, and more resources to invest in expanding the boundaries of thought and possibility, it seems hard for many of us to imagine that the arts will really change our lives much, if at all. And when the Dow Jones drops and we can really use some inspiration and a little help readjusting to societal realities, along with fiscal ones, when words like “hope” and “vision” abound and the arts regains its footing as a window to truth and a foothold for innovation, we begin to take our investment in them more seriously, despite the fact that resources are scarcer.

As 2008 ends and we look ahead at what will clearly prove to be both an historic and challenging year in 2009, I am profoundly gratified by what the Lark has been able to accomplish in its 15 years of existence—supporting unheard voices and underrepresented perspectives, in the most basic and effective ways, in boom and bust—and proud beyond measure of our team, the impressive and diverse community of artists we serve, and the citizens with whom we engage in our audience. At this critical moment, as we leap together into an unknown future, I hope you join me in feeling good about the Lark’s efforts to encourage artists’ creativity and to dive deeper into new realms of human experience and humanity.

As we look to the future, we are recommitting ourselves to the core values in our mission—creating space for unheard voices and new ideas and preserving a nurturing environment of trust and respect—while turning new attention to promoting innovative partnerships and collaborations here in New York and beyond. With our core mission values at the center of our efforts, we have begun to turn our attention towards connecting the success of the artists we support to the world beyond our intimate community. Because we have established a successful platform for free expression by playwrights, we are increasingly focused on creating a safe and effective space for theater decision-makers to come together in different configurations and form multilateral partnerships that advance playwrights and their plays into a reinvigorated repertoire.

There are two ways we are doing this that I’d like to share with you. First, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded us $500,000 to “create a movement” around three Lark-developed plays: the first is Lloyd Suh’s AMERICAN HWANGAP, with scheduled productions at three U.S. and one foreign theater. Secondly, Lark’s was one of seven proposals selected for Round I of the NEA/Arena New Play Development Program: together with Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, InterAct in Philadelphia, and Fourth World Theater Lab in Bulgaria, we will commission a work by early-career playwright Aditi Kapil whose LOVE PERSON—also developed at Lark—is a nominee for the Pulitzer.

We are proud of the increased role we are playing in providing access to the arts for artists and the communities they serve, for the space we give our artists within which to grown and thrive, and the impact we are having on society—both through the new repertoire we are helping to develop and through the grassroots engagement of non-theater folks in important “surround” conversations that accompany the development of new work at the Lark. Whether you are a playwright, a theater artist of some other stripe, or a person in another field entirely, we welcome you into our community and hope that you will spend as much time as you can with us in the New Year!

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Central to the Lark’s mission is our work with artists from different countries and cultures. Over the years, I’ve traveled abroad to work with playwrights and theater makers in order to better understand how they see the world and express themselves differently than I do because of the unique vantage point of their geography and history. I’ve observed, too, the complex relationship between each of the nations I’ve visited and the visions of artists who call that nation their home. I am as intrigued by the surface stereotypes of national identity, and our tendency to want to simplify the world around us, as I am by how social and political themes provoke gifted artists to respond in individual ways. Certainly, a successful playwright reflects the truth of her country’s experience—and her own—back at its citizens, and the resulting dialogue is inextricably linked to that particular culture. But after my most recent trip to Romania last month, I noticed something new in the way the creative process differs from culture to culture. This is not strictly an observation about Romania, but about the creation of art in general. Something like a theory is forming in my mind (though it is way too early to call it by that name) which I will think about and test in the coming months.

Here it is: it occurs to me that every process we implement—everything we do—is a reflection of how our societies and families are structured. This is true even of how we make our theater. Freud saw this congruence in repeated patterns of behavior within his field of psychology. And I think that, similarly, in the creation of our art, we trace and retrace the patterns of our social structure, both to reinforce what is comfortable and to name our fears. In Romania, for instance, it is hard not to notice that the nation’s theater is guided—really, driven—by charismatic stage directors at the expense of significant participation by many other theater artists. This structure in Romanian theater makes absolute sense to me; Romanian society, haunted by the specter of a long and brutal dictatorship, returns again and again to explore—in its art and in the way it makes its art—the relationship between authority and submission.

Romania is by no means alone in this pathology. The reenactment of social oppression within the creative process exists as strongly, though differently, in other former communist countries, in “emerging democracies,” and in the United States, where, despite our self-characterization as a democracy, we have long suppressed the value of individual freedoms in favor of commercialism and entitlement. Concentrating power in the hands of a few people, whether in a monarchy, dictatorship, church state, or corporate oligarchy, makes for a sense of security and stability if not equal rights for citizens. Concentrated power comes at the expense of individual creativity and the many innovative solutions to critical challenges that become available in a society that is fundamentally democratic.

We are in a rut and need to change. Are there new ways of creating and developing works of theater that don’t rely on power struggle, but instead on trust, respect and the fundamentals of true democracy? Might it even be possible to influence new directions in society and politics by supporting a wide variety of creative processes in the art we make? Can the notion of working together—collaborating, and not compromising—transform our world?

On the eve of a Presidential election that will stand as a marker for change, no matter which candidate is elected, the Lark is poised to ask some very important questions about the role theater will play in America’s future and about the relationship between the very ideas of creativity and community. If you’ve followed some of the Lark’s happy accomplishments recently—our $500,000 Mellon grant, our special selection for new play innovation as part of a new program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arena Theater, our Booth Ferris Award to support more aggressive fundraising for artist compensation and fellowships, our TCG/New Generations mentorship of a future leader for the theater—you will get a sense of the kind of infrastructure that we are working to create so that artist of all stripes can come together to imagine brave new worlds and bold new ways of bringing these worlds together.

The idea in therapy, of course, is to identify the unhelpful patterns in one’s own behavior in order to be in a position to make a change. Can this concept be extended in larger ways, within our communities, to track pernicious patterns in the fabric of our social and political landscape and, through the creative process, transform them? It is an immense task, like energy independence or universal healthcare, but I think that change is possible if we begin today.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Societies everywhere, like the individuals who come together to form them, tend to desire a clear sense of identity and purpose. People don’t spend so much time thinking about these things on sunny days. But on bad days, whether it is simply gray and rainy or a natural disaster has struck, people suddenly feel the need to have a mission they can lean upon, a place to go, a ritual they can perform when there is nothing else to be done. It is healthy and natural for societies to look to their minds, memories and imaginations to explain the unexplainable, and this tendency in people and communities to want to root themselves in a better idea of their identity, to provide a context for good and evil, to offer space for hope and comfort in despair, is one of the origins of the theater.

Whether we’re talking about America as a whole or a community of monks in the mountains of Tibet, societies strive to establish a set of values and an interpretation of their own history that will underpin the actions they take internally as well as with respect to the wider world. Often this happens in reverse. None of us is unfamiliar with the notion of a society that seeks to justify questionable or controversial actions—say, going to war or damaging the environment—by reinterpreting history, adapting old rituals to new purposes, or, in essence, restating its mission.

When a society gets as complex as ours—with as many cultural, spiritual, philosophical, historical, aesthetic and intellectual components struggling to find a unifying rubric—it becomes more difficult to explain why bad things happen, why some people have more than others, and what kind of social equation has the capacity to benefit the most people. I thought about this a lot last week, during our 15th annual Playwrights’ Week event. That was the week that the stock market suffered its largest drop in history, Congress was paralyzed by politics and the public didn’t have a clue what was happening—either to its wealth or sense of national identity. Lots of other bad things were going on, too, as usual, but the economic crisis was causing all the experts to stutter and flip-flop as they tried to right the boat and explain the complexities of what was happening in simple terms, which, it turns out, they couldn’t. The world is just not simple enough for one paradigm to be enough to explain it all. Newtonian physics can’t explain many of the questions that Einstein asked, nor does the bible explain how to solve world hunger. It is naïve and dangerous to expect that the multidimensional global challenges we face today can be understood and overcome without opening our eyes and ears to what we don’t yet know, in new ways. “Look for a solution out of the box,” the saying goes; trite as it is, a saying is a saying because there’s a lot of truth to it. To me, history’s biggest lesson is that we’ve successfully met challenges in the past though education and open minds.

So, during Playwrights’ Week I was thinking a lot about the difference between the experience of an audience member who came to only one or two of the 11 plays that were featured and my experience seeing them all. I would never expect most people to commit themselves to seeing 11 plays in six days, but I know what it meant to me to be able to see 11 freshly printed snapshots of the world superimposed as a single complex organism. Each separate piece, to me, seemed to mean more because of the presence of the others. And because I also attended many discussion sessions that involved all of the playwrights meeting to talk about their work, I got the feeling, for a few moments at least, of having my finger on the pulse of humanity. Right now. In this moment in history.

Most people had a wonderful experience of Playwrights’ Week seeing one or two plays selected from among the many options that were listed on our colorful Playwrights’ Week postcard, with its distinctive cover image (designed by Jeff Jackson) of the earth cracking open like an egg and lots of words and ideas splashing out into the world. They really knew what they were choosing, too, if they had shown up for the Playwrights’ Week’s launch event, “Meet the Playwrights,” which was hosted spectacularly by literary agent and connoisseur-of-playwrights Morgan Jenness, and was like sampling a flight of wines from 11 regions, both domestic and international. Participating writers read aloud small morsels from their own works-in-process with the wonderful humanity that only an author can plumb.

But there were a few other people, like me, who put their lives on hold for the week and experienced Playwrights’ Week as total immersion. This was true of the 11 participating playwrights and many of the directors. It was true of our staff, of course, and there were others there, too. Because the launch event was so seductive, alluring, charming, disarming, inspiring, and profoundly intimate, it encouraged a number of people who intended to see nothing to get more immersed.

“Total Immersion” people at Playwrights’ Week exist in a state of literary-social-cultural-historical intoxication, attending two readings a night, eating out between shows, and hanging out with playwrights at bars. They put a lot into it as Total Immersion requires significant energy and focus. It can feel a bit like a stint in a sweat lodge, including, on the one hand, profound insights and spiritual growth, and, on the other hand, disorientation and disturbing dreams when you go home each night after seeing two plays. And even the plays themselves are moving targets: each play in Playwrights’ Week is, in the playwright’s own estimation, not yet “finished,” still seeking to find itself. The purpose of Playwrights’ Week is to support writers in setting their own goals to deepen and strengthen their work. Taking in 11 plays in six days which was not for the faint-of-heart.

There was MIDDLEMEN by David Jenkins, almost prophetic, literally performed on the day that Lehman Brothers fell and Israeli playwright Motti Lerner’s frightening and compact political thriller, BENEDICTUS, about high-stakes negotiations between an Iranian politician and an Israeli arms dealer, followed by a multinational panel composed of the people who had commissioned and nurtured this controversial play. Ismail Khalidi’s TRUTH SERUM BLUES shared an American perspective on the Middle East, in a play originally developed as a high-tech one man touring show ambitiously transformed for Playwrights’ Week into the moving and ruefully funny inner monologue of a torture victim at Guantanamo Bay—in a technologically unadorned five-actor ensemble piece. Later, we saw Dano Madden’s IN THE SAWTOOTHS, in which the audience became a troop of eight year-old girl scouts getting advice about taking a camping trip from three young Idaho men, followed by Allison Moore’s SLASHER: a funny, campy, but ultimately dark take on gruesome horror films exploring America’s shattered value system, family dysfunction, and brutality between men and women. James McLindon’s FAITH centered on a 13 year-old boy, obsessed with Christian martyrdom, who meets a real but ambivalent angel in the Walmart parking lot, and WILDFLOWER by Lila Rose Kaplan looked at adults—and teenagers—in arrested emotional development that has stunted their capacity to truly love or accept another’s love. THE TWELFTH LABOR by Steven Gridley also looked at love and responsibility, what it means, whether a mentally retarded woman is capable of parenting, and when a parent has the right to make decisions for a grown child. THE NOISEMAKERS by Mark Borkowski was cruelly funny, exploring the breakup of a couple beset on both sides by family insanity, including a father who insists that his carpenter son crucify him in front of assembled guests. CHARM by Kathleen Cahill was a funny, fictional and poetic take on the life of feminist Margaret Fuller, a person with a powerful vision of the future, an unshakable sense of fairness and justice, and a hunger to live in her body even though such sensuality was considered an enormous social threat at the time. And finally, Lina Patel’s SANKALPAN was a unique and ingenious version of THE THREE SISTERS so perfectly adapted to India in 1904 that the universal themes of love, power, justice and happiness glisten freshly and originally in the air, as though it had been blessed by Chekhov who could have never written this play himself.

With this injection of images and ideas, I lived in a nearly hallucinatory state for seven days, and am finally coming out of my blissful immersion in ideas, feelings, thoughts, images, and imagination. While each play was remarkably satisfying as an individual experience, they collectively presented an amazing gallery of artistic expression, historical perspective, and vision for the future.

Not that I recommend a theatrical binge like this, but there is something important about understanding the role of theater in society as something of continual and continuous value, an ongoing conversation between artists and audiences, and a platform big enough for all of us to stand on and reach for the stars we can see together.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Monday, September 1, 2008


The church bell announces that it is 7:00 a.m. I am in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, México, and, although the sky is still pitch black, a parade of commuters’ headlights stream by my hotel window on the Avenida Mariano Otero and the hillsides in the distance gleam like diamonds with the lights of the awakening city . It rained again last night, in this mile-high city of nearly five million inhabitants, sending cataracts of water crashing down from the mountains and transforming the traffic-filled streets into churning rapids. I traveled upriver to my hotel last night from the workshop on “contemporary playwriting” that I’m leading here, amazed at the torrent around me and glad to be in a high-riding van, but the driver only shrugged and smiled when I snapped a photo with my cell phone. Even in the dark, I can tell it is still wet out there by the swoosh that accompanies the rumble of traffic, but I am sure it will be dry, bright and hot again by the middle of the day when I plan to take a walk around the historic town center before the van picks me up for today’s workshop session.

I am in México this time on the invitation of Aurora Cano, an actor, director and producer who leads a bi-annual festival called Drama Fest. Every two years, she invites artists from one other country to work with Mexican artists to create work and learn together, and to expose audiences to international audiences and exciting readings and productions. Her formula is unusual in México: she invites artists from another country to work in México City and the capital of another Mexican state. Two years ago, it was Germany and Pueblo; this time it is the U.S. and Jalisco. Cano was seeking playwrights, directors and workshop leaders, and ultimately created a fascinating program that included works and artists from México City, Jalisco and the U.S., including “Opus” by Michael Hollinger, “The Piano Teacher” by Julia Cho, “Yellow Face” by David Henry Hwang, and “Desaire de los elevadors” by Alberto Villarreal and directed by Tea Alegic.

During my two weeks in México, I am teaching two week-long workshops that focus on the creative process of playwrights, and I am having the opportunity to see some wonderful work, renew friendships, meet new people, and think more deeply about the intercultural work we do at the Lark. Although I’ve been to México City quite a few times in the last half dozen years two organize and implement the Lark’s growing international playwright exchange program, this is the first time I’ve traveled to another region and I am very excited about my visit to Guadalajara and getting a better sense of the country as a whole. Although we have set our programs up with institutions located in México City, which is a magnet for the arts in México, the Lark’s mission is very focused on democratizing and decentralizing our reach for new and unheard voices, and so I have relished the opportunity this month to spend two weeks—in two Mexican cities—working closely with theater artists to share skills and perspectives on playwriting and theater making.

Guadalajara is small compared to México City’s population of nearly 19,000,000, but it is the second-largest city in México. The city was founded in 1532 as part of a vicious campaign of conquest by Nuño de Guzmán (whose cruelty against native populations appalled even the Spanish authorities and he died in jail in Madrid) and it supported Hidalgo’s independence movement at the end of the 18 th century. Today, the state of Jalisco leads the nation in producing corn for tortillas, is the center of tequila production, and the home of the musical mariachis, the horsemen called charros, the hats called sombreros and, in fact, the Mexican Hat Dance itself. We drive past the factory where they produce the “cervesa mas fina”—Corona, of course, and we at first confused the smell of the brewery with melting chocolate—on our way to the workshop which takes place at the University of Guadalajara, the nation’s second largest. Interestingly, the day we arrived a coup took place at the university: the chancellor was forcibly removed and replaced by a new chancellor by a phalanx of faculty and students and there are demonstrations in the streets. Clearly academic politics exists everywhere.

My workshops have been wonderful, surprising, happy experiences. Although I put a great deal of thought into what I wanted to do in the workshops, and how they should be structured, there is nothing like intercultural exchange to encourage innovation. Every day was a new adventure, weaving together three strands: making work and sharing it, talking about work and the creative process, and sharing information about the difference, large and small, in the cultural contexts of México and the U.S. The diversity of the participants has been amazing! My groups have been comprised of the young, the old, the struggling, the jaded, the passionate, the experienced, and the neophyte. One man, who is not really connected to the cultural infrastructure of México at all, is an engineer who has run a theater for workers for nearly 30 years. He writes, directs and acts in plays for a passionate audience that he describes as “simple”—but the work he is creating—something like Dario Fo, but with a particular Mexican twist—is anything but simple, and it is very funny. Another writer, an actress, has created a work about a Mexican immigrant in Toronto and her ultimate collapse of identity—also very funny. And, naturally, there are much darker, Latin, stories about love and betrayal, and a real awareness of the power of actors to bring the written text to magical life. One thing these artists share in common with those in the U.S. is a need to connect with a community, and a need for answers about where they can go to make their work, finish it and see it produced. But they are making it happen. When I asked the group to tell me the aspect of the Mexican theater of which they were most proud, they all answered in unison that Mexican theater artists have the heart and the passion to succeed against nearly impossible odds.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Friday, August 8, 2008


A few weeks ago, 15 Lark artists were packing their suitcases for a week in the country on the glorious and woodsy campus of Vassar College for our annual playwrights’ retreat in partnership with New York Stage and Film.

Then the phone call came: there was a stomach bug on the loose in the dorms that, though short-lived (it reportedly sped through the human metabolism in 36 hours), was observed to be unpleasant. The local authorities in Poughkeepsie insisted that all of the students attending summer programs on the Vassar campus return home at once and no new people (like the 11 writers, two actors and two facilitators from the Lark) were to be allowed to come. Thankfully, our colleagues at New York Stage and Film were able to convince the powers-that-be not to cancel their production schedule. Miraculously, only one NYSF staff member had suffered from the bug (and was already up again) and the threat of contagion seemed limited to the campus dormitories. It was agreed that the audiences attending NYSF shows in the theaters themselves would be safe.

There was something mildly exciting about this quick change of plans. It all felt like the opening scene of a Hollywood summer release disaster film that you know will not end well. I don’t know about anyone else, but I privately imagined my own encounter with the disease, the sweaty palms and dull eyes, the highway full of Red Cross trucks and state troopers, a massive toilet paper shortage, and all the suffering playwrights and theater artists whining and shrieking. It seemed like a good idea not to take the risk.

But something had to be done, and fast. The 15 Lark artists bound for Vassar had been setting artistic goals and laying the strategic groundwork for weeks to be able to take full advantage of the weeklong artistic Nirvana they had been promised and were expecting. Visions of sugarplums had danced in their heads along with images of modern college athletic facilities, sloping green lawns, a tranquil arboretum, mixing with the artists from other companies and the happy college interns, hanging out at the Beech Tree bar, time to think and to write, and lots of peace. And every day a two our block of time to share work and reflect: a daily deadline that was enough to push things along and get the blood pumping, but still low-key. A sense of personal space and time, where the only obligation that anyone had to feel was to herself. Now all that was gone. Tabula rasa. How could we come up with a solution that could jibe with people’s expectations?

Naturally, we couldn’t. The only thing we really had going for us was that we had kept everyone from suffering a very unpleasant 36-hour intestinal upset. More a glass half-empty than half-full. Amanda Berkowitz, our Company Manager, was amazing and rescheduled the retreat in our own overcrowded facilities here in New York. She invented all sorts of ways of spicing things up and provided lots of snacks. And Catherine Coray and Sturgis Warner, the retreat facilitators were truly inspired leaders. They spoke eloquently and kept everyone’s “eye on the prize.” I thought of the “wooden ‘O’” speech in HENRY V, and appreciated that the Lark’s mission is really about managing expectations and rejecting the muse of fire as long as the creative inspiration alone could suffice. Still, I was kind of depressed because I thought I had disappointed everyone and I realize now that I skulked about and felt a bit sick to my stomach for 36 hours even though I was nowhere near the Vassar campus.

But then I began to notice something: each day, the group seemed to grow tighter, closer, just as though they were upstate in vernal isolation. The pages kept pouring in and I could see the frantic eyes of the staff as they rushed copies of new-minted scenes down to the room where the group assembled each afternoon. And everyone was hanging out afterwards, or, occasionally, running off to the NYU library to write a scene they had to get down on paper immediately. There was laughing, and, when I joined the group to see the work myself, there was unbelievably amazing creativity going on. And a lot of love. Everyone was listening to and supporting one another, challenging one another to do their very best, and feeling good about it. They had set aside a week of their lives to focus on their own creative lives—and to be with one another—and they were following through on it, even in a scrappy New York rehearsal studio with a groaning air conditioner.

After we popped the champagne at the end of the week, took some photos, and talked about how we’d all been affected by our Manhattan retreat, people just wanted to hang out and be together. And they did.

As the summer winds down, I hope you’ll find the time and space to design and implement your own retreat—whether it is just a few hours long, or an entire week—and that you are able to experience as much renewal and growth as our Vassar campers did even when they didn’t get what they expected.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Anyone who has spent time with me during the past two weeks knows that I have been on Jury Duty. Naturally, I complained endlessly about the inconvenience it caused me. My whole schedule was disrupted, I got behind in my work, and I had to stay up late at night to catch up. My friends and family were polite about it: they listen with apparent rapt attention, but I could see their eyes darting nervously ab aout the room, looking for anvenue of escape or an opportunity to change the subject, as I droned on about the stress of it all. Whining is de rigueur when a New Yorker is compelled to head downtown for such civic service, with the caveat that lunch in Chinatown and Little Italy can ease some of the pain and indignity.

Deep inside, however, I have other, different and opposite feelings about Jury Duty. To tell the whole truth, the experience excites me. First of all, it is a change of pace: new people, new venue, a new responsibility. Next, there is something wonderfully reassuring in knowing that, as a citizen, I am fully qualified to do an excellent job as a juror. Finally, I feel a combination of pride, delight, wonder and terror in performing an act so fundamentally essential, so profoundly spiritual, and so incontrovertibly American. To tell the truth, all of my courthouse visits as a juror have felt this way. Whining aside, I think that serving on a jury brings out the best in people—it certainly does in me. It presses me to be more straightforward with myself about what I know and don’t know, and it requires me to express myself honestly and articulately to my peers. Even when it gets emotional and jurors become irritated with one another because—well—no two people think or feel alike, the experience is exhilarating and, to my mind, redemptive.

The case on which I just served wasn’t particularly sexy, nor was it critically important in the big picture of social or criminal justice. It was interesting enough, though, and involved a melee with a machete in an uptown neighborhood and the contradictory testimony of a passel of marginally reliable witnesses who bore something of a latter-day resemblance to characters from the Damon Runyan stories that inspired the musical Guys and Dolls. While they spoke truthfully for the most part, as far as I could make out, the men’s testimony seemed influenced by testosterone and the women’s by a jaded and slightly irritated fatigue which manifested itself in inaudibility. A typical exchange between attorney and witness: “Is that when you graduated from heroin?” “No! I graduated from high school!” The witnesses were often painfully anxious and defensive, from the neighborhood bully to a policeman who testified that he had never read the Police Guide, which contains policy and procedures for arrests and evidence-gathering. When asked how he knew that he was performing his job correctly, he replied, “when I do something wrong my supervisor yells at me.”

Basically, the story is this: the neighborhood bully/drug dealer, a 42 year-old man who was born on the same block where he still lives with his mother and sisters, and who has a rap sheet a mile long, was habitually picking on another guy he apparently doesn’t like: “He never showed me no respect and, like, would spit on the ground when he was near me—which I took for a provocation.” One day the other guy (the man who spits) buys a big knife and publicly wields it, in peacock fashion, as if to say, “Stay away, or else!” This was unquestionably the wrong thing to do: the bully (whom we come to know affectionately as “the complaining witness”) is incensed. He robustly threatens the guy brandishing the machete, explicitly and colorfully describing where he intends to place it when he gets hold of it himself. He proceeds to attack the guy who has the knife, and is, unsurprisingly, stabbed accidentally through the ribs and one lung. Nevertheless, he is enraged and persists in attacking the startled knife-brandisher. Bleeding and screaming invectives, the bully chases the guy with the knife up five flights of stairs. He is followed by every kid in the neighborhood as he tries to kick in the man’s apartment door. The girlfriend of the guy with the knife, along with most of the neighbors, calls 911 to stop the riot. The police come, handcuff the bleeding bully to a gurney (he is resisting arrest), and take him to the hospital. The police don’t request a search warrant and never recover the knife, and fail to get any useful testimony at the scene. Most of the crowd disappears into the woodwork and the few kids who are tapped to give testimony fail to remember much of importance in the Grand Jury or when they testify for us. The case has as many holes as Swiss cheese, and, ultimately, we find him not guilty on two counts of assault and we spend nearly three more days deliberating a weapons possession charge before failing to reach a verdict—mostly because there is so little evidence to go on.

I have to say, most of us on that jury felt absolutely terrible because we couldn’t reach a verdict on a measly misdemeanor. We were wracked by guilt because the 12 of us couldn’t buckle down and agree on how to speedily administer justice in a situation that clearly involved illegal brawling and lawlessness. And the judge was fantastic! He was smart and funny, and he managed the case brilliantly—never wasting a moment of our time. Still, we couldn’t seem to get the camel of evidence through the heavenly eye of justice’s needle.

In retrospect, I understand two important things. First, finding the defendant guilty requires that all 12 jurors believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he actually committed those crimes. Our “hung” jury was itself testimony to the fact that we could not unanimously agree to this outcome. The system of presumed innocence had worked, even though the process of deliberation had been painful: reaching an impasse meant that individuals and factions of the whole group had to agree that they had irreconcilable differences with one another—that they could not agree on the truth as it was presented to them. Second, I have pulled back from my narrow focus on a single case about a knife fight in Harlem in order to see the big picture. There are many layers to this broader frame for society. For instance, long before the trial took place the police failed to gather evidence to present a viable case. The police department had failed to adequately train the officers on the scene to do so. Arguably, the police force is underpaid and undervalued. Many of the people in the neighborhood are the victims of a drug culture, which is itself caused by poor educational resources and a lack of job opportunities. The community in which this riot occurred is full of people who do not feel respected by the society in which they live, and are struggling merely to survive. This community is deemed unworthy of investment, and therefore it is unlikely to amount to much for itself or for the rest of us. These and other factors are what caused the alleged crime in the first place as well as the social structures that made it inevitable. This experience for me is an affirmation of an entire process we must all take part in on a daily basis if we want our society to have deep, intrinsic value. We need to take a closer look at where self-respect begins; at how we can assure that knowledge and justice are understood as virtues; where we accept individual responsibility for ourselves, our communities, and our environment; and the role of democracy and freedom in our culture.

Naturally, this makes me think of my job at the Lark where I work with many unheard voices trying to tell their stories in the theater. I have begun to see that each play that we work on at the Lark, and every show I go to see, is not unlike the isolated trial in which I just participated. My courtroom trial declared a man innocent of a crime, but implicated me in a much more complex understanding of justice, systemic failure, and the need for social activism. Can each piece of theater that I make or observe bring me to the same place of connection to society—and anxiety about my culture and its values—that my Jury Duty has afforded me? I hope so.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Spring is awards season in the theater world. With the exception of the New York Innovative Theater Awards, which are presented in September to members of the “Indie” theater community, most every event that recognizes, honors, or encourages excellence in the theater field is happening about now: the Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Awards, the Obies, the Outer Critics Circle Awards, and, of course, the Tonys. And dozens of other awards are being proffered all around the country, as buds appear on the trees and the earth springs back to life. It is the perfect time of year to reflect back upon the work of which we are most proud before turning our eyes to the future and the important challenges ahead.

The recognition associated with these awards encourages talent and enterprise, sets public standards for excellence, and is helpful, ostensibly, to the marketing folks faced with the daunting task of creating audiences for the theater. However, I can’t help but harbor a few feelings of unease each year during awards season, as I sit in the audience at various ceremonies to applaud worthy prize winners, because there is an elephant in the room that I can never quite ignore even in my earnest joy at celebrating the accomplishments of my peers. These doubts of mine are nothing new to theater insiders, and they itch at my consciousness. I worry that the public’s general sense of the scope and responsibility of the theater is that it has shrunk to nest comfortably in what is commonly called a “boutique niche” and has lost its broad impact on society. I fear that we are becoming too insular in our profession, too isolated as Americans in the world, and too unambitious about where our work reaches and whom it touches. I quietly despair that the inspiration and vision of our artists, inventors and entrepreneurs are seen as mere “luxuries” in a market economy that increasingly measures success using the bottom line rather than the high bar. Deep within me, though, I have an unshakeable conviction that every person matters, that every choice we make is vital, and that the people of the world are interconnected locally and globally.

At the Lark, I spend lots of time with playwrights who don’t know where the plays they write will be seen and heard. And I can’t promise them much because the infrastructure that currently exists serves too few people at too high a price to provide opportunities to enough good playwrights or to give access for audiences to precious new ideas. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I’ve come to describe as “public outreach networks” within different fields. In the U.S. theater, for instance, the most developed public networks are audiences for Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the regional theater institutions in many major cities. But there are many other existing networks connected to other industries: journalism, education, law, social justice, security, the military, music, science, and many more. How can the value of the work done in all these fields find new intersections that will reverse the sense of drift and isolation that many people seem to feel nowadays?

I can only enter into this conversation with my own knowledge as a theater professional. The vital perspectives of playwrights, and the stories they tell, have historically influenced our society at many levels, both directly through live audiences and indirectly through the dispersal of ideas and images to the public through the media, the cultural and educational sectors, policymaking, and elsewhere. For example, every boy and girl tragedy on TV or the Hollywood screen is drawn in some way from Romeo and Juliet, and every newspaper account of a double suicide evokes that play as well; politicians frequently borrow language from playwrights like Shakespeare and Kushner; and the U.S. Constitution itself is built on principles established in Greek drama. However, as the post-internet public becomes more segmented, organizing itself into highly-refined social networks and interest areas, many industries, including the theater, are challenged to find new ways of reaching audiences and customer bases by tapping into and mobilizing these “networks.”

The Lark, along with the rest of the theater industry, currently faces many challenges such as the lack of funds to pay artists adequately for their work, rising productions costs and ticket prices, and commercial and political pressures on artistic content. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all, however, is the segmentation of the theater audience into interest-specific social networks and the field’s growing disconnection from a wide and diverse public. When a playwright, new or established, delivers a work that might once have been considered to have universal appeal, the play rarely receives multiple productions (if it is produced at all) and is unlikely to become widely known. Sometimes “cross-over” marketing is employed to attract subject-specific audiences, to temporarily align the social network that identifies itself as “theatergoers” with another, subject-specific social network. For instance, many mathematicians have been persuaded to attend math-based plays like Proof or Copenhagen and citizens with social justice concerns are attracted to The Exonerated. Even though marketers have made audience segmentation a science, these splinter-marketing strategies backfire in terms of retaining audiences because they attract people to what they know already rather than bringing them to the theater to experience the art form itself.

How will we choose to confront the challenge of the theater’s growing disconnection from a wide and diverse public? How can we establish meaningful, long-term intersections with existing networks in other fields? I am curious to reach outside of what I know and to learn what challenges people in other fields are facing, how isolated they feel (which I suspect they do), and whether their customer and user networks are also shifting. What if the theater community chose to come out of isolation, meet new people in other fields, and take a more interdisciplinary approach to understanding the public outreach challenges currently being faced in other fields like news and media, science, health care, or social justice? I feel certain that there will be reciprocal benefits to outside industries and their networks as they intersect with the unique visions of our playwrights and exposure to their creative process.

At this moment of reflection and renewal, I look back proudly on a successful season that was made possible by a ferociously tenacious community of artists. But I am also looking at the road ahead. I want us to discover new ways to address the challenges that separate and distance people that are prospective theater lovers, and the Lark hopes to start by bringing theater practitioners together with key players in other disciplines in order to discuss and discover new modes of connecting our varied user networks to one another and increasing the effectiveness of public outreach and engagement for all parties. In fact, if you have thoughts or questions to add to this topic, feel free to email them to me at It is a wonderful dream to contemplate as another summer begins!

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Thursday, May 1, 2008


At the Lark, we think about the artistic growth of our company in two distinct ways. The first, probably the easiest, may be described as “broadening.” Broadening expands the involvement and diversity of participants in our programs and the number of projects that we support. This kind of growth is important because it is about opening doors to new ideas and new worlds and is one of the critical functions that theater performs in our society. These activities allow members of our community to see quite a bit of the world, hear lots of stories, plunge into brand new adventures, and wrap their minds around a wide array of experiences.

The second kind of growth may be called “deepening.” If broadening is compared to dating, then deepening is about committing to a relationship, learning from it, and making it work. Deepening, in a certain respect, is what begins to happen after a series of successful dates have occurred and respect is established, goals are agreed upon, and new ideas are imagined and tested collaboratively. Deepening involves setting clear priorities and developing more sophisticated communications tools. It involves a deeper investment in a project or a group of collaborators, and increased stakes. One of the most the most meaningful aspects of the theater to me is how it intensifies – and, yes, deepens – my experience of the world.

As the Lark continues to develop artistic programs, raise funds, build staff capacity, travel to find new voices, and stand behind those we already know, we are constantly balancing these twin notions of broadening and deepening to achieve growth, to sustain ourselves, and to impact the world around us in the ways consistent with our mission. However, this tension between two kinds of growth is not unique to the Lark, but also applies to every nonprofit and commercial institution concerned with achieving its mission. The idea also applies to every individual’s personal growth from the time we are children and throughout our lives. And, finally, this dilemma about growth integral to the much wider framework of the arts in society and how we struggle with the challenge of connecting people to their communities, and to a rapidly globalizing world, through culture.

In the larger context of the American theater, then, there is a similar tension between two dynamic forces that guide the industry’s growth in order to provide access to more people and to strengthen the quality of artistic work overall. On the one hand, the principles of democratization and decentralization, which are core components of American ideology, have led to the expansion of theater to communities all across the country and to the establishment of our regional theater network. More Americans than ever before are connected to local arts communities that generate indigenous art and there is a thrilling new interplay between locally-developed work and work “imported” from other arts markets. On the other hand, as theater artists have spread out around the country and are less concentrated in New York City, there is, at least temporarily, a diminution of regular interactivity among the most skilled members of the field. Once upon a time in New York City, the majority of American theater artists could see each others’ work, discuss it, riff on it, and grow from their close interaction. Today, as part of the process of decentralizing the art form, artists in the regional theaters are more isolated from one another than in the past and rely more on the internet, theater journals, and long-distance travel to stay aware of new developments in the field. Because the most talented arts leaders are so thinly spread across the country, the members of the field bear an increased burden for making a “case” to their constituencies for the existence and value of the art they create and for the funding it requires.

A couple of years ago, along with Lark colleague Daniella Topol, I attended a two-day workshop presented by National Arts Strategies on the subject of “Creative Alliances.” N.A.S. is an initiative of the Harvard and Stanford University Business Schools that supports deeper thinking by arts leaders, and we attended this event in order to learn more about ways of partnering with others. There, we became aware of a concept known as “cluster economics.” According to the website of the Economic Development Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Industry clusters are geographic concentrations of competing, complementary, or interdependent firms and industries that do business with each other and/or have common needs for talent, technology, and infrastructure.” This idea has been around for a long time and is based on concepts developed by British economist Alfred Marshall around 1890 and significantly expanded upon by Harvard economist Michael E. Porter in 1990. Notable examples of business clusters include the California and French wine industries, Detroit’s auto industry, Connecticut’s insurance industry, northern Italy’s fashion industry, Hollywood’s film industry, gambling in Las Vegas, and Silicon Valley.

Although economists generally agreed that clusters had been critically important to many fields in creating competitive advantages, many economists imagined that clusters would become less important with the advent of the internet, improved transportation, and globalization. Not so. The success of Silicon Valley and similar high tech corporate communities throughout the world has proven that clusters are still important – partly because geographic proximity is still useful on the manufacturing end of the market, but more so because competitive advantage is sustained only through relentless improvements to the producer’s product and organization. Porter states that clusters impact competition and create competitive advantage in three ways: by increasing productivity of the companies based in the cluster; by driving the direction and pace of innovation, which underpins future productivity growth; and by stimulating the formation of new businesses, which expands and strengthens the cluster, forming a virtuous circle or positive feedback (Kuah, Adrian T.H. “Cluster Theory and Practice: Advantages for the Small Business Locating in a Vibrant Cluster.” Journal of Research in Marketing and Entrepreneurship. Volume Four, Issue 3, 2002: 206).

To understand what cluster economics has to do with theater, and because innovation is one of the Lark’s primary concerns as a research and development institution in the theater industry, let’s focus on the innovation end of things for a moment. Let’s imagine a café in Silicon Valley where four creative thinkers from the computer industry are gathering for a few hours to chat about what’s on their minds. During their time together, this casually convened “think tank” will share dozens of out-of-the-box ideas about technology innovation. Most of these new ideas will be abandoned after the group has poked holes in them, of course, but one or two ideas may stick. The solid ideas that survive the group’s intensive scrutiny will generate dozens of more refined ideas, and these ideas will be brought to the table the next time the group gets together at the café. Not only will these four people, and the companies for which they work, benefit from this in-depth analysis, but many of the most unproductive ideas will be more quickly identified and eliminated before valuable resources are unnecessarily expended on them. In addition, from the start, this brainstorming of successful ideas will include cooperation strategies to link partner firms within the cluster. Similarly, clusters in the theater have supported healthy innovation and artistic growth in the theater industry. Great theater minds have met – and have been created – at the Algonquin Roundtable, Elaine’s, Sardi’s and at numerous other hot spots. With the expansion of the theater beyond Broadway and New York City, some of the competitive advantages of clustering have been temporarily lost. We have broadened the theater industry very successfully, but perhaps we can learn more from the business world about deepening the theater industry by reengaging in successful cluster strategies to support innovation, cooperation, and community engagement.

A related challenge is that this national proliferation of resident theaters has raised the exposure of new or controversial ideas that may seem threatening to many communities not yet prepared for change or ideological friction. While the theater business was safely confined to New York City, bands of artists touring around the country were little more than a temporary curiosity or cautionary example. But as new clusters form in other American cities, the ideas they develop – and the artists developing them – become part of the local scene and need to be dealt with on a daily basis. It is clear that the direction the American Theatre has taken during the past century, broadening its national presence while supporting democracy by providing a platform for free expression, has constantly encountered resistance. As new clusters are born, and as they deepen and become truly integrated into local culture, communities are becoming more engaged in the arts – though often this progress seems to take one step back for each two steps forward.

America ’s widespread network of regional theaters is to a large extent the outgrowth of two large-scale arts movements during the twentieth century. The first of these national expansions was the creation in 1935 of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal initiative by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression. Hallie Flanagan, appointed as the leader of the FTP, described this program in her essay, “Democracy and the Drama,” as representing “…the new frontier in America, a frontier against disease, dirt, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and despair….” However, Roosevelt’s New Deal immediately came under fire by those who believed that it represented unwarranted federal involvement in many aspects of American life, eroding State’s Rights and long-held values of individualism and self-determination. These critics were also concerned about the threat to America of fascism and communism which was on the rise overseas, and so, in 1938, the House of Representatives established the Un-American Activities Committee to safeguard against unwanted political influences. The Federal Theatre Project, which championed free speech and marginalized populations (believed to be susceptible to the influence of malevolent foreign interests), was a prime target for the committee and the FTP was decommissioned within a year. Nevertheless, theater pioneers, like Margo Jones in Dallas, Zelda Fichandler in Washington, D.C., and Bill Ball in San Francisco, kept their shoulders to the grindstone to deeply connect theater to their respective communities.

The second growth surge of the resident regional theater movement came in the wake of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, when the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation joined forces in the mid 1960’s to expand the nation’s cultural infrastructure. This ambitious effort supported the construction of huge new arts centers, created fund streams for individual artists and companies, and supplied generous challenge grants which provoked new levels of private philanthropic giving that has become a critical component of the current not-for-profit model. This second national arts movement declined during the “culture wars” of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina led a campaign to impose content restrictions on federally funded arts projects which ultimately led to widespread elimination of support for individual artists. When the money moved away from the artists and into the hands of professional managers and board members at institutions, what had previously been a substantially artist-driven movement quickly became a market-driven business focused more on pleasing consumers than on creating art. As we face mounting economic, political and social challenges today, we are confronted by the bald fact that the arts culture we may desire to enable meaningful social advancement is not fully supportable by a market economy, and that we are in need of new and innovative approaches to funding the arts and allowing freedom of expression.

Both of these twentieth century movements were launched by the impulse to democratize and decentralize the arts in America. Each effort was connected to deeply-held convictions, rooted in the American experience, about the importance of entrepreneurship and individual free thought, the value of locally-generated art, and the broad distribution of talent that could make it just as possible to encounter meaningful art in Nebraska as in New York. This impulse to grow and serve the interests of a broader American public, by supporting the idiosyncratic genius of as-yet-unheard leaders, remains central to the psyche of the American Theatre – and the Lark – and is the force that drives many of this country’s best practitioners to create new work despite rising commercial and political pressures. However, I think that we have spread ourselves out quite enough for the time being. Our next job is to hunker down and go deeper into our own communities, to grow our roots, to seek meaning in the local impact of theater, and to celebrate each cluster’s unique attributes. Just as a child experiences growing pains when her bones grow faster than the muscles that connect them, we are experiencing new challenges in meeting the access needs of our artists and audiences while deepening the quality and relevance of new work that is being creating in many communities around the country.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


A new play from Mexico is running this month in a New York City co-production by The Working Theatre and Queens Theatre in the Park. “Our Dad is in Atlantis,” by Javier Malpica, was translated by New York playwright Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas as part of the Lark’s annual “Word Exchange” partnership with the Mexican National Fund for Culture and the Arts. This poignant road story of two young boys trailing their immigrant father to the U.S. was featured at the TCG National Conference last summer and at the National New Play Network’s showcase of new works in the fall. It is also scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of American Theatre Magazine and is on the desks of many decision makers at theaters around the country. As I think about this project, and the many other international plays at the Lark this year that bring people from different cultures together, it is clear that we have learned a lot through our work on translating dramatic works for the stage.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned personally is that you can make no assumptions when you sit down at the table to work on a play in another language with a playwright from another country and culture. At the Lark, we work through the play line by line, beat by beat, with a team that includes its original author, a translator who is also a skilled playwright, a director and actors. It is not enough to translate the language for the meaning of the words alone: you must first understand what the language of the play means within its original cultural context in order to derive an acceptable and relevant equivalent in the destination language. Further, you have to develop a clear sense of how the action itself may mean different things in different cultural contexts.

We’ve seen many examples of translation misunderstandings during the ten years the Lark has been involved in international artist exchange. For instance, we set up a roundtable to examine a draft of a translation of a play by Hong Kong author Candace Chong who was visiting New York on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. We were reading the play around the table, and everything was going along fine. It was a play about a pair of young lovers thwarted by their families and, naturally, images of Romeo and Juliet wafted through my mind. Then along came a scene where the man gave the woman he loved a 100 dollar bill, folded, origami-style, into the shape of a heart. Whew! What happened? I had missed some kind of sharp curve in the play, and now the man was cruelly insulting the woman by presenting her with such an expensive little green heart. Why was he treating her as a prostitute? Was the heart green because he was jealous of somebody? I readjusted my take on the play, however, and we read through to the end. In the discussion that followed about the relationship between the characters, Candace was shocked that her intention wasn’t clear. She explained that, in her culture, a 100 dollar bill was pastel-pink and worth hardly anything, a trifle. The character’s gesture was not one of contempt, but of courtship, and I had to again reframe my entire take on the play.

I think this kind of cultural misunderstanding happens more often than we think in the process of translation. I distinctly remember the first time we held a “simultaneous translation session” with a play by Argentine author Jorge Goldenberg, led by Lark’s international program pioneer, Michael Johnson-Chase. There were seven bilingual New Yorkers around the Lark’s roundtable, each, by chance, hailing from a different Spanish-speaking culture. Not a page went by that we didn’t have to stop to clarify idioms that actually existed, with vastly different meanings, in the seven cultures represented around the table.

I love this experience of having my eyes opened to the true meaning of an image or moment, when the context shifts swiftly into focus and everything becomes suddenly clear. It’s like falling for a well-crafted practical joke that you have to admire in its wit and execution, or the breakthrough moment of understanding a terrific pun. For this reason, I prize the never-empty grab-bag of revelatory and frequently amusing cultural surprises that the process of translation is all about.

Perhaps even more important to me is what I’ve learned from the translation process about how I encounter plays in my own language—people with whom I am more likely to share a cultural context and common idiom. Even though I think I understand where the writer is coming from, it is not necessarily true. I’ve solved this problem by asking more “stupid” questions about things that I might have formerly considered obvious. Ironically, many playwrights make the same kind of assumptions as I have that they are on the same page with the people who read or see their plays. I’ve come to the conclusion that translation is part of every discussion between two people. Even when you ostensibly share the same language, meanings can be elusive. Taking the time up front to get things straight makes a big difference in any relationship that we hope will endure. That’s why there’s got to be a little of the translator in all of us.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Saturday, March 1, 2008


As the leader of a company that is dedicated to playwrights and the advancement of playwriting as an art form, I struggle constantly to define for myself what does or does not constitute a play. I remember some of the plays that turned me on to the theater when I was very young: a bold and vibrant Mother Courage at the Guthrie Theater; a beautiful, simple Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company; an adaptation of The Iliad (in football motif, with The Odyssey as a halftime show!) by the National Theater of the Deaf. I know how these plays made me feel, and I continue to look for ways of experiencing those feelings again. But I also know that what’s most important in life—and art—is to keep one’s eyes open to new possibilities. So I try to avoid “rules” about what makes a play good, or what makes it a play at all. I think that this decision has helped me to enjoy theater a great deal more than I might have otherwise, which is a good thing as I see a great deal of theater throughout the year.

One thing I do know about theater, however, is that, at its most basic, it is a live art form. Simply put, theater requires that one group of living people (the actors) perform for another group of living people (the audience). There are lots of other qualifiers that can go in different ways, but I don’t know how you can get around the idea of “liveness” in the theater. This amazing notion of “liveness” was introduced to me by a staff member at the Lark, Anna Kull, who is also an actor. She took a course in college that dealt with this intriguing subject of "liveness"--a course I very want to take myself The topic came up when we went together to see the Wooster Group’s Hamlet at the Public Theater, and we were both struck by the fact that the extreme amounts of technology that were applied to the production did not in any way diminish the accomplishments of the actors on stage. It was thrilling to see how this contemporary production celebrated the live actor as much as I imagine Shakespeare intended his play to do in the first place.

All this is to say that I think it is important to remember that playwriting is an art form that only comes to life when actors put the words in their mouths and the action in their bodies. Playwrights who have trouble with this concept are seldom happy when they hear their plays read or see them onstage, while those who write to put actors in control of the theatrical event find themselves in seventh heaven when they see their work. For that reason, we consider the actors who work with us at the Lark essential players in the process of making plays and supporting playwrights.

To better understand the relationship between actors and the playwright’s process at the Lark, we have explored this idea in two ways. First, we’ve worked with a fascinating group of actors, called “Circling the Drain,” who are asking lots of questions about the role of actors in the creative process. We’ve attended “Drain” convenings and recently had the opportunity to host a think-tank session that brought members of this group, the brainchild of Olympia Dukakis, together with Lark playwrights to talk about their most exciting and frustrating experiences in developing new work. We have also taken the time to reach out to a number of the many actors who are part of our community in order to listen to what they have to say about their experiences at the Lark. It has been gratifying to open up this conversation and to learn that many of them find their time with us particularly rewarding. It has also been helpful to know what about the Lark is important to each of them. I am exciting to share some of these actors’ ideas about the Lark, which are listed below. Please read and enjoy what they have to say, and join me in celebrating their participation in the playmaking process—and in gratitude for the extraordinary power of “liveness” (thank you, Anna, for broadening my vocabulary!) that the theater brings to our lives.

Here is what some of our actors have told us about their Lark experiences:

LYNN COHEN: “Working with the Lark provides the rare—and enriching—opportunity for an actor to take an interactive role in the vital process of creating new works for theater.”

MARIA-CHRISTINA OLIVERAS: “We get to jump in, make bold choices, discover and experiment all together to help illuminate and clarify the text—we're not just plugged in to a predetermined structure or form. The work is truly collaborative and we're involved in all phases of development. What emerges is a vital forum of actor, director, dramaturge, theatergoer and playwright—a community dedicated to developing and telling these playwrights’ great stories.”

JESSMA EVANS: “Being an actor at the Lark is wonderful because it really is about the play you are getting off of the ground. This makes acting a pure joy because it's collaborative and stimulating. I've learned so much about my own craft from watching playwrights work through theirs. I always feel like I just got a great massage when I leave the Lark!”

BRIAN DYKSTRA: “Acting at the Lark is more than just a terrific opportunity to keep your teeth sharp. It is a workout that flexes first choice or first impulse muscles and rewards daring.”

ALOK TEWARI: “Because everything is geared towards the playwright, in some ways there is less pressure on the actor. Put that together with the lack of pretentiousness at the Lark and you have a safe place to grow and play. I haven't been to too many places where the overriding mission—to serve the playwright and the theater—is as clear as it is to the people who gather at the hallowed studios of the Lark on Eighth Avenue.”

HARRIET D. FOY: “ For me, the Lark is a great place to network and keep my acting chops sharp. I always look forward to Monday night workshops because I can't wait to see how the playwrights have altered their plays. The environment is very open and encouraging to all participants. It is also great to work on a play that you might not ordinarily be cast in.”

HOON LEE: “The Lark has created an environment that feels much like a gym for actors like me. To me, the company is an idealist's dream: a place that recognizes the fundamental need for the subordination of commercial concerns in order to prioritize artistic achievement, trusting that the merit of the work will lead to its own reward, cultural or commercial. It is an example for any artistic institution and any individual artistic pursuit. The relative ease with which Lark playwrights share their work is also an object lesson for any actor. As much credit as actors are given for laying themselves on the line in auditions, I cringe at the thought of what writers must go through in allowing a group of strangers to read highly personal work that they've just set down.”

ANDRES MUNAR: “From my first day, I was made to feel indispensable: A conduit for the unique process at the Lark. I feel appreciated, respected, needed. I can't tell you what a difference it makes for an actor to feel that kind of confidence. It means the work is unencumbered, expansive, free.The dialogue between writers and actors is also unique to the Lark. We tend to live in a theater culture where the reins are handed to the director and sometimes we over-think ideas in that process. It is interesting to talk to writers directly, who almost always have a way of opening things up by simply talking and being themselves. 939 Eighth Avenue is a place where I always feel welcome.

John Clinton Eisner

Producing Director

Friday, February 1, 2008


From the granddaddy of playwright sanctuaries at New Dramatists to the National Playwrights Conference born nearly two generations ago at the O’Neill Center, playwriting centers and play development labs have proliferated and spread nationally and even globally. Wherever they spring up, they dig deeply into their communities to provoke thought and theater on a grassroots level and to work together to lead alliances and collaborations that move the best work forward in brave new ways. Every time I have the opportunity to sit down with the Lark’s peers at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center, Sundance, the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco, New Dramatists, the O’Neill, and others, I am simply amazed that these organizations emerged separately around the same principles of supporting individual voices and engaging disconnected communities through theater. Isn’t is strange and wonderful that different people in different places responded to their environments and arrived at similar conclusions, like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace reading Malthus and theorizing about natural selection?

By any and all measures, the play lab institutions are playing a major role in shaping the field and re-involving the public in the creative process and in the theater. They—we—are opening doors to new voices and new thinking in ways that are not possible for institutions where marketing concerns frequently take precedence over artistic vision. We are training emerging playwrights to become leaders and supporting recognized writers in reaching further and diving deeper. Theaters and their audiences benefit directly from our work at very little cost. Perhaps most important, we are building diverse and sustainable audiences through the intimacy of the creative process in a laboratory setting.

I think that it is critical to understand that the emergence of the play labs themselves has been a natural response to the rise of institutional attitudes about the theater that have made generative artists, such as playwrights, mere cogs in an assembly line to manufacture saleable theater experiences that, in turn, are marketed to audiences of consumers. With all due respect to the artists and entrepreneurs who pioneered the regional theater movement in the high hope of democratizing and decentralizing the theater in America, the net result has been often, though not always, a kind of “Walmartization” of the art form and a protectionist consolidation of financial resources around branded artists, artistic properties (i.e., plays), and affluent audiences. As a consequence, a roadblock has persisted between many artists and institutions and between many institutions and various sectors of American society. It is urgent that we restore a direct route between artists and their constituencies even if it means reconfiguring our infrastructure to make that possible.

The play labs arose as artist-driven collectives to reclaim the theater from the commercial sector, within which I place many of the major regional theaters, and challenged the motives and practices of these larger, less flexible institutions. Strangely, the play labs have also sought to rediscover the entrepreneurial resourcefulness and individualism of old-time Broadway producers who strove to create singular and compelling works of theater outside of existing formulas. The terrible truth is that, while it would be incredible if there were ways of writing and producing theater that were both effective and efficient, the behemoth and often patriarchal structures that currently exist fall prey to the same corporate pitfalls that IBM tripped over in the 1990’s; in an attempt to preserve its infrastructure, IBM clung to its comfortable and simplistic views about selling technology while Silicon Valley adapted to a changing society. I am convinced that the “call for change” that is echoing across America and along the campaign trail these days, which emanates from every social and political sector, is actually a desperate cry for new language and fresh expression to articulate what is going on in the world right now and light the path ahead.

John Clinton Eisner
Producing Director

Tuesday, January 1, 2008


Something about counting down to midnight on New Year’s Eve has troubled me all my life. Even before globalization existed as a commonly understood notion, I had always been anxious about the fact that the New Year starts at different times in different parts of the world.

It isn’t fair, I thought as a young lad, if we don’t start the year at the same time. Who gets to make the first resolutions, and will those people stay awake long enough to learn about the resolutions made by people in other parts of the world? Of course, when I was a child we really only dealt with different time zones when we were tuning in to live television on one of the three networks that existed before cable, taking a long flight on an airplane, or waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. Now, however, I consider the relationship between time and geography just about every moment of every day. Say I call Alina in Romania: will she still be in the office or should I try her cell phone? Or, hanging up the phone, I consider how awfully groggy David sounded when we just spoke and I remember—oh, no!—he is in Hong Kong this week and I just woke him up in the middle of the night on a relatively inconsequential matter. Progress and globalism have introduced whole new realms of faux pas to be avoided. When I was a child, the world was a distant curiosity for most of the people I knew; now we’re wired to the entire space-time continuum. If, back then, from my perch in Madison, Wisconsin, I was conscious and a bit resentful, for the briefest of moments, of the New Year arriving first in New York City before rolling casually in our direction like a plume of second-hand smoke, I am constantly aware of global interconnectivity these days. It’s like I have a row of clocks on the wall inside my head set to the times of all the world’s major capitals.

Please don’t misunderstand my powerfully sentimental feelings about New Year’s Eve itself. I truly enjoy the celebration and the ritual, raising a glass to friends and family, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” and lining up a few well-intentioned resolutions. I’ve been to a few wild and extravagant parties, I’ve stayed at home for blissfully quiet family time, and one time I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean from a snowy beach, emerging bright red like a newborn baby and gasping for breath. I love all that! New Year’s Eve as a local event, among friends and family who consider their lives a shared journey, works beautifully for me. It becomes more complicated to celebrate New Year’s more globally. Ownership becomes fuzzy. Does the year belong to New York City, Las Vegas, or Hollywood? Must people, say, in Africa and Asia accept the year “branded” by America, like factory seconds with the imprint of previously articulated resolutions about the dissemination of democracy and wealth?

Confronted with so much exhausting competition, we may allow our most fiercely idiosyncratic and wonderful dreams to fade along with our confidence. Like the visions of political candidates corroded by too much market research, honest and personal New Year’s resolutions are difficult to formulate, much less carry out, in the cross-breeze of conformism. For all the grandeur that technology and television bring to New Year’s Eve as it rolls around the globe, accompanied by the chipper commentary of pretty newscasters and the market-testing of pop music, and for all my earnest belief that it is possible for people to hold hands around the globe and make the world a better place, the experience of New Year’s Eve television, to me, is fundamentally simplistic and inauthentic. I think that’s why the holiday leaves so many lonely people maudlin and depressed.

Perhaps it is because I am a creature of the theater, or a child of the Apollo space program, that I have always been captivated by the drama of the countdown. A momentous event is given its power to a large extent because of the countdown ritual itself, leading up to the launch of a space ship, for instance, or the silent rush of a curtain going up at the start of a play. The countdown is just about the simplest and most magical dramaturgical tool ever invented, creating suspense by accelerating our impressions of mounting danger as we hurtle towards the point of no return, together, like the clock running down at a football game. The very action of counting down brings people together around the idea of perfect synchronicity and completion. Most of us recall learning to count down on the playground, our volume and intensity rising, our voices merging as one, as the count gets closer to zero, followed by the inevitably satisfying rebound on the other side of zero: “Blastoff!” or Happy New Year!”

Such collective rituals for experiencing the movement of time seem to me to be an innately human way of acknowledging our own mortality and celebrating the power of community. When millions of us witnessed the New England Patriots in a record-breaking game against the Giants on December 29th, for example, we were first exhilarated by the race against the clock and, then, deeply moved in the moment when we recognized that history had been made. Even the losing Giants embraced the Patriots in their accomplishment. This experience was thrilling to everyone because it was local in nature, despite the size of the television audience. On television you could sense and appreciate the emotional intensity in the stadium, even if you couldn’t actually feel it the way you would have if you were there in person.

On Christmas Eve, my 12 year-old daughter and her chorister colleagues sang in the beautiful service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It is the last Christmas Eve service that they will sing with the choirmaster they know and love, who, after more than 20 years in his position, has been dismissed by the church’s administration for political reasons that have rankled the choristers and their parents. Johnson Flucker is a charismatic man of six and a half feet, passionate, musical, kind, a strong disciplinarian, and full of jokes and magic tricks. I love the fact that this musician’s passion is magic! The day before, he had given special Christmas gifts to all the children: wrist watches with colored leather bands. He cried as he handed out the packages, though he tried hard not to show his sadness in front of the children. We parents bit our lips and cried, too, and the children recognized the intensity of the moment and the importance of the ritual. On Christmas Eve, it is my impression that they sang more beautifully than ever before. But what really got to me was how, as the minutes ticked away towards midnight, all the children kept comparing the time and adjusting their watches, and, at the exact moment that they agreed was midnight, huge smiles spread across all the children’s faces and outward to the rest of the church. They owned the moment and all that it meant, and no atomic clock anywhere in the universe could have made the moment more significant.

My musings on the New Year have led me to my own heartfelt resolution for 2008, which is to take more time this year to contemplate and celebrate the power of what is local, to cherish my family and community, and to nurture the magic of theater’s incredible intimacy. While theater is, for me, an important platform for free expression and untold stories, connecting communities all around the world in our hopes for the future, it is most importantly a small place where people gather to be with one another, to plant the seeds of trust, to admire and honor talent, and to move outward into the world with a message of peace.

It is tradition in Jewish pedagogy that young children are asked to name the most important moment in Jewish history. Was it when God spoke to Abraham on the mountaintop? Or when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God? Or when God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to escape to the Promised Land? The answer is now: now is the most important moment in history.

Happy New Year to all of you!

John Clinton Eisner

Producing Director