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DC Playwrights Plot to Take the Stage

Gwydion Suilebhan

Theater in DC seems to live in the shadow of New York. Many of the big theaters here cast actors out of New York, rather than casting from the talented local pool. And they readily introduce new plays to the area, as long as they’ve had a successful run elsewhere. Like New York. All of which frustrates DC’s playwrights.

Although the Washington, DC, area might not seem to be brimming with creativity when viewed from afar (doesn’t one think of politics and monolithic white buildings?) it is, in fact, home to more than 220 playwrights, many of whom are quite accomplished and the vast majority of whom are woefully underrepresented on DC’s stages.

Part of the problem: theaters often don’t want to risk producing new work, no matter where it was created. Tried-and-true classics, revivals, and works by widely hailed contemporary playwrights, fresh off a run in–you guessed it, New York–sell the most tickets.

Audiences, according to DC-area playwright Gwydion Suilebhan, are another part of the problem. DC audiences, in his opinion, need to be willing to welcome the new, the uncomfortable.  Suilebhan points to another problem, too: civic pride, or lack thereof. During a panel hosted by Theater J, which Suilebhan organized to explore how to get DC playwrights’ work to local stages, a Theater J board member asked why she should be moved by the fact that a playwright is from this area.

Doesn’t the question itself reveal a missing sense of community?

Suilebhan, in his multi-part blog on the state of the new play, asks, “Why isn’t every artistic director in this city producing, say, one play by a local playwright every two or three years (at least), just to say ‘Look at what we did!’ to the rest of the country?”

The area has some very fine playwrights: Jacqueline Lawton, who was recently named one of the top thirty Black playwrights in America, Renee Calarco, Allyson Currin, Laura Zam, Kitty Felde, Rich Amanda, Stephen Spotswood, Karen Zacharias . . . .the list could go on for pages.

And now they are organizing. Suilebhan and playwright Rebecca Jones-Gingrich administer a site for playwrights to exchange ideas, network, and offer mutual support. They organize regular happy hours.   And they have created a new reading series, the Beltway Drama Series, only for local playwrights.

Their efforts to bring local work to the stage have generated some press. And some of DC’s theaters are starting to make a special effort to foster and engage with DC-area talent. Theater J hosted Locally Grown, an initiative that lasted for months and featured readings of area playwrights’ work, mini-commissions, rountable discussions, and the production of Renee Calarco’s play, “The Religion Thing.”  Doorway Arts produced Allyson Currin’s play, “Hercules.” Taffety Punk has contracted Suilebhan a resident playwright, and Arena Theater has hired Karen Zacharias as one of five resident playwrights, acknowledging her great success (Zacharias has had several world premieres in recent years in the DC area, including at Round House and Arena). Rorschach Theater produced a week-long run of plays in March about DC events and places, featuring the work of DC-area playwrights.  Bright Alchemy, formed after its members produced a successful play by Stephen Spotswood in the Capital Fringe Festival, continues to bring Spotswood’s work to light.

The Capital Fringe Festival, which also gave rise to Taffety Punk, could germinate  even more opportunities, under the right circumstances.   Held every summer, it is a showcase of new work, most of it by DC-area playwrights.  If DC theaters look too much to New York, here is a case where following their Big Apple colleagues’ lead might be helpful.  Artistic directors of New York’s professional theaters attend the New York International Fringe Festival to scout for plays to produce and to suss out talent.  If artistic directors of DC-area theaters, large and small, broke with their tradition of staying home and attended plays at the Capital Fringe, they would likely find some compelling work for their own stages.

What is already a good theater scene is starting to become, ever so slowly, a theater community. The more that evolution occurs, the more Washington theater can shimmer with a brilliance all its own.