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Molly Smith — Arena Stage

Molly Smith -- Arena Stage

So, Molly Smith was the Keynote speaker at the Dramatists Guild tonight, and never, I think, have I heard/seen a more appropriate choice for a keynote speaker in terms of setting the tone.

I feel compelled, immediately, to discuss Mike Daisey and his explosive article on how Resident Theaters failed America. A year or so ago I brought up Mike Daisey at a Dramatist Guild meeting at the Cleveland Play House–which was boasting about its “innovative” adaptation approach to “theater”. I think Michael Bloom’s head nearly exploded when I suggested that adaptations weren’t real theater.

Molly Smith’s talk goes directly to the heart of this. Smith, at Arena Stage, has turned the “theater” into a “center” that addresses her “four pillars”: production, presentation, development, and study of American Theater. This is more than talk. When Gary Garrison introduced Smith, he noted that Arena Stage has started a new program (New Play Institute) that provides 3 playwrights with 3 years at Arena at Full Salary, Full Medical Benefits, an Office, Travel Expenses, and 1 Full Production. Smith immediately corrected Garrison to note that now it is 5 playwrights. Thunderous applause followed.

Let me be clear. Daisey’s argument in How Theater Failed America is that the whole point of Resident Theaters was to SUPPORT theater artists. To provide a living to playwrights, actors, directors, and other technical stage personnel instead of what has happened: a steady stream of support to Artistic Directors, Marketing personnel, Development Officers and staff, etc; while theater artists have been designated as expendable and thrown aside. Case in point, the Cleveland Play House now makes the majority of its season’s productions Adaptations of works by “popular” or “long dead” writers. Then it adds some “classic” plays. In the past few years it has expanded to “Fusion Fest” which may be considered new theater, but, it pales in comparison to Cleveland Public Theatre, for instance, which is dedicating itself to a complete process of staging new works by local playwrights–such as Eric Coble‘s My Barking Dog. The question might legitimately be asked, why hasn’t the Playhouse given Eric Coble and Eric Schmiedl and others the 3 year salary and 3 year health benefits and 1 guaranteed main stage production? Where is the Play House in the innovation game that Arena Stage clearly is marking out? Arena worked with the Mellon Foundation to get it done and support the artists in its community, and it aims to go national with it.

I’m no fool. I have a certificate in Nonprofit Management from the Mandel Center at Case. I know you need Artistic Directors to provide charismatic leadership; Marketing people to develop your targets and “offerings”; and Development officers to keep in touch with $$ in the community. But somewhere along the line too many theaters got far too caught up in this aspect of the “corporation” and lost sight of the actual reason for their existence.

Thank God Molly Smith has come along to provide clear and refreshingly committed energy to theaters and their commitment to their artists.

Smith is no fool. She understands the necessity of a variety of offerings: Classic theater for audiences that expect O’Neill and Williams and so on; Musical theater for those who want relief from thoughtful anything when it comes to theater entertainment; and new voices for those who are more daring in their palettes. She has worked at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, for instance, and knows assuredly the value of the “marketing mix.” But she hasn’t let that kill her vision of the place of the modern artists in the equation–and God bless her for it.

Smith received constant applause and a standing ovation for her keynote, as she well-deserved, for saying what to my mind should be a basic truth: playwrights provide value to our culture: not through simple “civilizing” of theater-goers, nor through new, modern approaches of “engines for economic development”, but as forces for empathy and understanding in a world that is becoming more and more detached, impersonal, and removed in its day-to-day human interactions.

Smith, equally, pointed out that Theaters as organizations deserve loyalty from those whom they helped. Smith posited the question of what would have happened to Florida Stage had every writer and actor who had his/her start at that theater come to the aid of that theater in its time of need? As artists we are obligated to our theaters and theater communities just as much as we insist that our theaters are obligated to us.

In another fascinating moment, Smith pointed to a resource or experiment called the New Play Map (http://newplaymap.org) that seeks input from all playwrights. This map will “map” new productions and second productions and so forth so that trends and patterns of the staging of plays can be seen; as well as the theaters in which they are appearing.

Along these lines, like so many others, Smith bemoaned the fact that playwrights are not getting full productions, but readings and workshops, etc. A topic that was equally taken up by Christopher Durang, whom I’ll touch on soon.

Coming from the Perseverance Theater in Alaska, Smith frankly stated that theaters owe more to their artists, especially playwrights, but it is equally important that playwrights (as assembled at this conference) take responsibility as well and work for serious systemic change.

Clearly Molly Smith is someone to be admired and respected and I look forward to talking with her at greater length.

  1. June 11th, 2011 at 22:31 | #1

    Regarding Florida Stage, I feel certain that everyone who had ever worked there would have gladly done something to help – if only we had known that they were at that point. No one knew that they were on the verge of closing.

    Several other companies seem to be on shakier ground, and I don’t know what can be done to help them. Some of them are poorly managed, so while raising money helps, it doesn’t solve the real problem. One of them simply doesn’t do great work, and it’s hard to rally behind mediocrity. A few are poorly located, and it’s hard to fix that; they are in the space they can afford, but the space is off the beaten trail.

    Florida Stage had such a unique niche, a drive to save the nation’s largest producer of brand new plays seems to me to be a cause that would attract supporters. We all would have taken up that rallying cry.

    But honestly, we didn’t know. Their STAFF didn’t know. Sure, they noted a drop in ticket sales – and we all are experiencing that. Sure, they lost some donors – every theatre has. But they made a bold move that cut down on their expenses, and everything the community heard from them seemed to say that the future was bright.

    Sadly, the theatre known for its excellent management and open channels of communication didn’t manage to communicate its peril to the rest of us.

  2. Weebelly
    June 11th, 2011 at 23:14 | #2

    Yes, I also learned that they moved the theater 9 miles from where it had been located. It was unclear to what extent any “user needs assessment” had been conducted or studies to determine the impact of such a radical move; but from what you’re reporting the input seemed to be there and support such a move. I am not wholly aware of the situation, nor am I with regard to the Cleveland Play House which itself just underwent a radical relocation to cut costs. The impact of its move will be unclear for a bit. But, as you mention, there are other more serious questions that need to be addressed with theaters today: management, mediocrity, (strange play selection…adaptations, etc); and a model of theater production and engagement that is “last century”. To be sure it is hard to react to a threat when no one communicates that the threat exists or fails to uncover how serious the threat really is.

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