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Molly Smith — Arena Stage

June 10th, 2011 2 comments

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 ( 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.

Holiday Giving — Do Your Part

December 2nd, 2016 No comments

We’ve entered the giving season, so I thought I’d write about one organization, other than Playwrights Local that is, to which I’m giving my money.

I’m writing about a black box theater in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. A theater company that changed my theatrical life, and radically altered my perception of how intimate, how powerful, how threatening, and how exhilarating theater can be.

petrol23I was introduced to convergence-continuum in 2007, when Mike Geither took me to see Chris Johnston’s play Spawn of the Petrolsexuals. The experience was fundamentally altering. Chris wrote a play about a dystopian, bombed-out landscape in which homeless superheroes fought brutal, oil-hungry Commandoids that I can only compare to the Enclave, for those of you familiar with Fallout. There was Angerboy, and Freegrrl, Ingen and Holyman. It reminds me, now looking back, of an early Eric Overmyer play, like Native Speech. The set the convergence created was a character in the play: fabricated steel structures, junk scattered, a broken television set, the massive east wall that was used as movie screen, a motorcycle, a garage door that really opened on Scranton Road, garbage cans, and the trap door near the west wall that leads to the cellar.

Lucy Bredeson-Smith, playing Darkangel—-a sort of black sorceress –- opens the trap door leading down to her underground lair and, as soon as she opens the door: the image of Darkangel looking down is on the movie screen east wall. I watch her descend away from me in the theater. I watch her descend toward me on the screen.

It was too meta. I was IN a B-movie and IN a real theater experience all at the same time. My head swelled to explode. The production was well-executed, but the feeling was raw. I went back two more times to see Chris’ play because I’d never seen anything like it. And this is what I hear whenever I take someone to convergence who has never been to convergence. The person who accompanies me is blown away, overwhelmed with a theater experience that they’ve didn’t know was possible: to be that close, to be that much a part of the experience, to feel so intensely.

Convergence is a true ensemble company. It’s made up of passionate, wholly committed actors, directors, light designers, sound designers, playwrights, video designers, costumers, set designers, painters, box office managers, and musicians—all volunteers: virtually impossible to believe in many ways. And they are all successful!! Critically acclaimed productions! Awards for acting, design, productions! And all working for the production itself, and not some small rapacious little thing like money or notoriety or any self-proclaimed “groundbreaking” aesthetic.

So, besides this… why give? convergence-continuum, the theater company, doesn’t own The Liminis, the theater space, in which they create their magic worlds! The Liminis space itself, that was so unique to the production I described above—-the garage door, the trap door, the movie screen wall—-all of the three-dimensional feast of experiences possible in a location—-is at risk.

What if theatre weren’t a mirror reflecting the familiar, but an opening into unknown territory? What if there were no fourth wall? What if, instead of going to the theatre to watch a play, you crossed the threshold into the world of the play to experience it? Theatre that expands the imagination and extends the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space, and performance that challenges the conventional notions of what theatre is. What sort of theatre would this be?


I’m giving to convergence right now. Please give to them as well.

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