Jonathan Norton

A Place at the Table

So your theater does new work. That's great. Why aren't you producing local playwrights, wonders guest columnist Jonathan Norton.

published Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Photo: Classi Nance
Jonathan Norton

Dallas — Dallas/Fort Worth is blessed with many talented playwrights, people like Vicki Caroline Cheatwood and Lee Trull and former residents Tom Sime and Matt Lyle. But their work has yet to see the inside of our larger theaters.

Why is this?

I understand that theaters take a chance on new plays—so why not take that gamble on new plays by local playwrights? I don't expect these companies to produce new plays written exclusively by local playwrights, but when season after season continues to exclude local playwrights from the mix, you can't help but think something unsavory is going down.

I have a great deal of respect for Dallas’ major theater companies and they do terrific work, but their track record with local writers—the occasional staged reading notwithstanding—leaves a lot to be desired.

The fault does not entirely lie with the Dallas Theater Center or Kitchen Dog Theater or the other major organizations. The American theater has delegated the task of identifying and developing "important" new playwrights to a select group of developmental programs and MFA playwriting programs. Regional theater literary offices are therefore left with very little of the truly difficult and dirty work of developing new writers for the stage. This current system makes no room for the local playwright.

I found an interesting online interview with Polly Carl, an expert in new play development. Ms. Carl, currently the Producing Artistic Director of The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and soon to be Director of New Play Development at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, explains how narrow the career path for playwrights has become in the last ten years. She says (somewhere around 7:25) that unless aspiring playwrights have an MFA from such schools as Yale, Brown, UT-Austin, UC-San Diego, University of Iowa or few others, they’ll have a difficult time getting a foot in the door.

Why have we allowed a small group of programs the power to determine the validity of a writer’s talent? Certainly it creates a mutually beneficial arrangement for the two groups’ involved—professional theaters and the MFA programs. The regional theater is spared the expense and responsibility of creating solid artist development programs. They simply wait for a fresh crop of playwrights to graduate. The MFA Playwriting Programs continue to enjoy a steady increase in applications, as more aspiring writers get the not-too-subtle message that it’s pay to play.

This is a call for Dallas’ larger theaters to explore more inclusive ways of creating new work and developing new writers for the stage. This is an opportunity for Dallas to honor and reclaim the legacy of Margo Jones. She is one of the true pioneers of American theater. The regional theater movement started right here, because of her. I think that Dallas often forgets that important piece of history. What's worse, we’ve let the rest of the country forget it, too.

It’s time to lead and not follow.

Sure, theaters can continue to read, develop and produce work by writers already in the national pipeline. But theaters should also create programming to identify and develop local talent as well. Perhaps consider co-productions or partnerships with smaller companies that support local writers. Create a reading series devoted to the work of Dallas/Fort Worth writers. I can imagine that the process might be somewhat difficult at first, especially given that it’s without the buffer provided by literary agents or professional recommendations. But that’s a reality of forging relationships with local writers—it’s more personal and one-on-one.

The polished MFA-approved playwrights that theaters ooh and aah over were at one time scruffy, not-so-polished young scribes with potential in need of sharpening. I don't believe someone wakes up one day and writes a great play in one draft. There's a process. Playwriting is rewriting. Playwrights need encouragement and a committed artistic home with the resources necessary to help take the play and its author to the next level. Local playwrights lack that opportunity.

As a young playwright, I would like to know that the same opportunities available to "nationally recognized" playwrights, offered in my hometown, might someday be available to me based upon my creative growth and ability. I would like to know that local programs are offered to give me incentive to keep working hard and maybe stay in Dallas a little bit longer. I would like to know that packing up and moving to NYC, Los Angeles or Chicago is just an option and not a career necessity.

At this point in the process, I am not looking for a spot in your season. I’m just looking for a place at the table.

I really believe regional theater audiences are hungry for work that is about them, for them and created by one of their own. Back in the early '70s, the Dallas Theater Center did just that when it produced A Texas Trilogy by company member Preston Jones. A Texas Trilogy gained national attention for Jones, DTC and Dallas. Most important is the special meaning that the trilogy holds for longtime Dallas theatergoers. There is a unique connection and feeling of ownership that audiences have for new work that is 100 percent homegrown.

I guess what I'm saying is: Screw the next Tony Kushner. What about the next Preston Jones?


Editor's Note, July 2019: The original photo of Norton that accompanied this column was lost in the system, and we've updated it with a more current one. Thanks For Reading

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A Place at the Table
So your theater does new work. That's great. Why aren't you producing local playwrights, wonders guest columnist Jonathan Norton.
by Jonathan Norton

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