Friday, May 7, 2010

May 2010 - John Clinton Eisner

Spring is When Things Bloom
John Clinton Eisner

Spring has arrived in New York City—the signs are everywhere! Warm rainstorms are followed by cool days of sunshine and blue skies. Hay fever descends on some of us as pollen swirls out of the park and accumulates in small, pale green snow banks where the sidewalk meets the sides of the buildings on my block. Overcoats have disappeared and new spring fashion blooms with color amidst the customary gray tones of the city.

At the Lark, spring has also sprung. Winter jackets no longer hang from the backs of chairs. The hallways of our building—a beehive of theater activity--are filled with young actors warming up for summer stock auditions. Our interns have grown confident and extremely effective in their jobs—and our staff has come to count on them—just in time for the semester to end! So, staff member Anna Kull is already interviewing interns for the summer and the fall. Meanwhile, everyone is in planning mode for next season, busily tracking artists’ projects, confirming collaborations with our partners, budgeting and raising necessary funds before the fiscal year ends on June 30th. And we are preparing for our Annual Year-End All-Company Celebration Bash on June 2nd.

The seasons, taken together, are, in and of themselves, occasions for reflection and assessment and they help me to establish a rhythm and a structure within which to set goals, establish effective processes aligned with those goals and measure progress towards a stated outcome. But each season, considered separately, embodies very distinctive characteristics. Spring, to my mind, is a time for shedding layers, stretching unused muscles and renewing our commitments to life and work. The cycle of life encoded in the seasons is the yardstick by which we measure progress—individually or, as in the case of the Lark, institutionally.

As I contemplate the Lark’s journey this spring, I see a major shift in our capacity to support playwrights far beyond the early stages of developing their work by helping them to play a hands-on role in advancing their own project to one or more productions. We are beginning to see a real leap in the way Lark-developed plays are recognized locally, nationally and globally and there have been some exciting breakthroughs in pursuit of our mission to bring unheard voices into significant public awareness. This month, for instance, four new writers have moved into a higher level of visibility as a result of two major awards recognizing works created at the Lark. One of these plays, Katori Hall's "The Mountaintop," a beautiful imagining of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last night alive at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, won “Best Play” at the Olivier Awards for its run at London’s Theatre 503 and its West End extension, and is now heading to Broadway. “The Mountaintop” was developed at Lark over a two-year period from conception to completion. Katori is Lark's third annual Playwrights of New York ("PONY") Fellow.

In addition, all three of this year's Pulitzer Prize finalists in Drama are Lark writers—Kristoffer Diaz, Rajiv Joseph and Sarah Ruhl—which means that they wrote the plays that first earned them major attention in Lark-supported programs. And two of the finalist plays (Diaz' "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" and Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo") were themselves written at the Lark! All this on the heels of last year’s OBIE and Lucille Lortel awards recognizing Lark’s service to the community and our “body of work.”

But, as all members of the Lark community know, our bread and butter is not the flashy stuff. While we have helped bring many playwrights to prominence, what matters to us is not the commercial potential of the plays we support but the vision of the artists who have found a home with us. We are, at heart, a community-based organization and we depend upon friends like you who have experienced our work and believe in our mission to nurture innovation and welcome risk. I think that Lark's process for supporting playwrights is unique in that it capitalizes on each writer's idiosyncratic voice and vision and protects them from outside influences until their plays are quite fully formed. This commitment to the "long haul" is why I think the work that is created at Lark is so often rich and distinctive. It is important to note as well that Lark receives no royalties from the plays that are created here. The reason is simple: the moment we choose work based on an expectation of financial return--if we speculate upon what will be a "hit" or not--we stray from our mission of supporting original and unheard voices and opening up access to the theater for new communities. For similar reasons, we don't produce work ourselves (though we help producers get to know writers and to form collaborations to advance ambitious plays). Because playwrights can't "get a production" at the Lark, they don't need to impress us or please us. They can write however they want.

In this moment of spring tranquility, I feel excited, energized and ready to move forward. A spring breeze is dancing through the window. I hear the Cinco de Mayo celebrants downstairs at Cancun, one of our playwrights’ favorite haunts. I am preparing my itinerary for a week in Romania this month with David Henry Hwang, Arthur Kopit, Theresa Rebeck and Saviana Stanescu, followed by a week in Moscow scouting out new opportunities for American playwrights. I hear laughter in the other room where the staff is organizing May’s impossibly tight program schedule: Franco-African playwright Koffi Kwahule will be in residency with playwright/translator Chantal Bilodeau at work on the seventh play by Kwahule to be translated at the Lark “That Old Black Magic,” directed by Lucie Tiberghien; all five of our Playwrights’ Workshop fellows (Michi Barall, Madeleine George, Katori Hall, Sarah Treem and David Wiener) will be presenting work they’ve developed since last fall; David Henry Hwang is preparing for a workshop of his new play “Chinglish” in collaboration with the Public Theater; and Mark Lutwak of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park will be in residence to work with Arlene Hutton on a new commission they commissioned through a young audiences initiative funded by Macy’s.

The projects rise up just like the daffodils, and they are just as wondrously beautiful! I hope your spring is full of reflection and possibility as ours!

Warmest wishes,