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