Behind the Scenes: Assessing the National Playwright Residency Program

Option 3.pngAttendees at a convening of the National Playwright Residency Program hosted by HowlRound at Emerson College, 2014. Photo courtesy of Meg Taintor.

American theater is at a crossroads.  Audience interest in non-musical performances is dwindling, and theatres are under more pressure than ever to remain financially sustainable.  Tight budgets and creative constraints have made it ever more difficult for playwrights to earn a living.  In response, in 2012, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in collaboration with HowlRound—a free and open platform for theater makers worldwide based at Emerson College—launched the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP).

NPRP was created with a simple idea: placing important playwrights inside of established institutional theaters, and providing them with a living wage and health insurance, will ultimately create stronger artistic communities around the country. 

Over two rounds, NPRP has provided playwrights with multiyear salaries and benefits that enable them to be in residence in producing theaters, along with a range of other support including developmental residencies at Emerson and micro grants.  By providing the playwrights with a living wage, the program lets them take artistic risks in an increasingly corporate theater culture that is often alienating to individual artists.  

In 2016, HowlRound commissioned Helicon to help assess the program's impact to date.  The recently released report, Assessment of the National Playwright Residency Program, illustrates the initiative's impact on the first round of 14 theaters and playwrights.  The report shows that full-time salary, and time and space to write had profound impacts on the playwrights, including increased artistic output and enhanced professional standing.  Positive influences for the theaters included an emboldened approach to creative risk-taking, diversity of work on stage, and connections with community.

Supporting Playwrights from Diverse Backgrounds

Nearly two-thirds of the original NPRP playwright cohort identify as African American, Asian, or Latinx. Many reflected that during their residencies they became de facto educators around diversity and inclusion.  Their perspectives and insight in some cases led directors and board members to think more critically about race and gender, and to consider more diverse work for their stages that would better reflect the country’s diverse cultural and demographic landscape.  Many theaters noted that while they were not the sole catalysts for change, the NPRP playwrights were significant facilitators of this work, serving as an important artistic voice in shifting internal cultures and organizational practices.  Their work was most effective when supported by staff and driven by a real desire for institutional change to artistic and organizational practices. 

2JWB3916.jpgTinashe Kajese-Bolden and Terry Burrell in the Alliance Theatre’s 2017/18 production of Pointing at the Moon written by Pearl Cleage, Alliance Theatre's Mellon Playwright-in-Residence. Photo courtesy of by James Barker.

Community-wide Benefits

Many of the NPRP playwrights were instrumental in enriching the theaters’ connections with local residents and in several cases, helped theaters engage with and strengthen their relationship to diverse communities.  That proved especially true for younger people, and African American and Latinx communities.  Playwrights engaged with community members through youth groups, neighborhood associations, churches, schools, and prisons—opportunities that enriched their artistic goals as they learned about local residents and considered their histories as inspiration for their works.  Some playwrights also helped their theater’s staff members better understand how to engage with community members so this activity could continue after the program’s end.  Theater directors and board members acknowledged the value of this work and the need for authentic interaction and understanding if they are to align their audience demographics with those of their communities, a critical issue for a producing theater's long-term health and survival. 

Long-term Systemic Shift Needed

While many of NPRP’s outcomes positively impacted participating theaters and playwrights in a variety of ways, the report found that most of the NPRP theaters will be unable to sustain their residency programs without Mellon’s funding—in part because of theaters’ business models and organizational structures, which do not prioritize such support.  The report also found that despite the conventional understanding around diversity’s importance, progress towards cultural equity in the theater industry remains slow.  Although theaters understand the need to support the work of typically underrepresented populations including women, people of color, and LGBT individuals, doing so will require a long-term systemic shift.

Read the full report for more on how NPRP, in its tenure to date, is addressing field-wide challenges across the theater industry.  While NPRP cannot serve as the sole solution to providing playwrights with a living wage within the organizational construct of nonprofit theater, nor to the complicated challenges around diversifying America’s theaters, it has benefitted more than just the diverse array of fellows it supports. NPRP has produced lasting institutional changes in the theaters themselves and has inspired the kind of diverse, dynamic art that has always made the theater a pillar of its community.

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