Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Mellon Foundation Antes Up

This from The New York Times:

With that in mind, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded nearly $10 million to playwriting organizations and theaters in the hopes of getting more fresh voices before an audience. Although Mellon has regularly contributed to theaters around the country for years, the recent grants are a result of a three-year study into the particular problems new plays encounter, said Diane E. Ragsdale, the foundation’s program officer for theater and dance.

It turns out that developing plays is not the problem. Producing them is. New playwrights often get stuck in “workshop hell,” as Ms. Ragsdale put it. Supporting playwrights directly and creating long-term residencies at theaters were among the recommendations that emerged.

“We are more attuned now to some of the critical issues surrounding new plays,” she said, including the importance for theater groups to develop “strong, deep relationships with artists over time and involve them in the culture of the institution.”

There is much good and much puzzling about this article. For instance, one grant will try to bust the issue of "world premiere-itis". To quote Michael Robertson, director of the Lark Play Development Program, "three new plays are staged by four theatre companies around the country."

Here is the explanation:

“In contrast to a world premiere, producers commit to the notion that a play belongs in the American theater’s repertory,” Mr. Robertson said. The original producing company stays on board throughout the entire run, sharing information and advocating for the play. Each of the four institutions will get to call the production a world premiere.

That is fantastic, but only if the play really does belong in the American theater's repertory. This type of process will be a great thing for American theatre, only if it makes things tougher on playwrights' craft rather than easier.

The article makes vague references to how Shakespeare and Clifford Odets had " a base, a group or a place that supported them." Fair enough, but such a statement is an over-simplification of what went on both those instances.

If you read about some of the greatest dramatists you will find that their patrons and producers would have tough, pointed, sharply critical discussions with them. There was an ebb and flow to these relationships. It is true enough that producers would sometimes have more than a few commercial concerns they were trying to push, but not always.

Apparently, from the articles I have read, the grant is the result of a three year study of "the particular problems new plays encounter." I went to the Mellon Foundation website and could not even find the press release, never mind the results of the study.

To paraphrase a commenter on another blog: It just seems strange that in order to combat the development hell, the foundation is merely giving more money to some of the organizations that have fostered and perpetuated these development programs.

If anyone has a link to the 3-year study or its findings, please let me know

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