A Q&A with Todd London of New Dramatists (New York, NY)

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    A mixed race and gender group of more than thirty people pose for a picture on the front steps of a former church building, now the headquarters of New Dramatists.

Nearly three dozen of New Dramatists resident playwrights gather on the steps of the organization's midtown Manhattan residency space, a former Lutheran church, for the semiannual All-Writers meeting.

In addition to providing grant support for individual productions of the nation's best classic and contemporary theatrical works, the NEA also supports the field through grants to organizations that support the writing and development of new plays, such as New York’s New Dramatists. For nearly six decades, New Dramatists has gifted the nation’s playwrights with time and space to develop new work. NEA Director of Theater Bill O’Brien spoke with New Dramatists’s Artistic Director Todd London about the organization’s mission and the current challenges to producing new plays.

NEA: What’s the history and mission of New Dramatists?

TODD LONDON: New Dramatists is a 58-year-old center for the support and development of playwrights. The mission is both simple and idealistic: to provide space and time for writers to develop their craft in the company of other gifted writers, so that they can make lasting contributions to the theater. Programmatically "space and time" translates into seven-year, free residencies for 5-8 writers a year.

In other words, our writers (we currently have 49 "in residence," plus a few short-term fellowship or exchange writers) have, for the course of their residencies, a laboratory that includes two theater spaces, a community center full of some of the country’s most inspired writers, an office if they need it -- we have a well tricked-out writing studio and a library full of the unpublished manuscripts of the current writers and generations of alumni, and a creative, professional home base. Because playwrights are usually invited guests in producing theaters, you can probably imagine their joy at having not just a room of their own, but a whole building.

It's a big and little gift at the same time because, on one hand, they have personal mailboxes and seven years of free [photocopying], which for playwrights means tens of thousands of copies and thousands of dollars, and, on the other hand, they have a home whose sole focus is on their artistic sustenance as they create bodies of work. Our staff is, essentially, their staff; the playwrights are the artistic directors of their own journeys through here.

This year alone, our current writers have more than 150 productions slated in at least 22 states and 11 countries internationally.

NEA: How does funding from the Arts Endowment support your mission?

LONDON: The NEA supports...the laboratory that's at the heart of our writers' self-directed work. Because the writers choose what they need to work on and when they need to work on it, and because they design and control their own developmental processes, this program has to stay flexible and respond to immediate artistic needs and impulses. It's always immensely important when the Arts Endowment, reflecting the understanding of our peers in the field, funds this pure research. It's like getting a letter (and check) in the mail that says: "Your colleagues across the country get what you do, value what you do, and share in the fruits of your labor."

NEA: What do you see as some of the challenges facing new plays today, especially in terms of reaching full production?

LONDON: There are so many challenges: widespread fear of the new, conservatism about planning the untried, shrinking audiences and shrinking seasons (both of which make opportunities for new work by less-well-known writers scarcer and more risky), the lack of money for true long-term development of work, and diminished expectations about the scale of new plays ...On top of this, playwrights have a terribly hard time making a living, and, so, they must spend more and more of their creative time either doing other jobs, especially teaching, or writing for TV and film.

Moreover, plays can take a long time to reach full bloom. They need heat and light, productive collaboration, and the kind of space and time rarely available in producing theatres working at full tilt to get seasons on stage. Each play has its own voice, shape, spirit, code of behavior, emotional vocabulary, and so on. And each needs a different process to fulfill itself. Too few theaters ask the right questions about what a particular play needs along the way.

NEA: Do you sense any emerging developments that might provide better support for new plays?

LONDON: Funders and theaters alike are starting to look to development centers like New Dramatists and the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis and Z Space in San Francisco for models of flexible, specific, artist-centered new play development. Producing theatres and labs like these are beginning to pioneer partnerships for moving plays from idea to production. And more and more artists and funders are beginning to explore ways of thinking about production as part of the development process -- how new play production differs from that of established plays, how necessary second and third productions are to the evolution of a play. Playwrights need two things: time and space to imagine and attempt, and production, realization. The field seems to be reexamining ways to integrate those two needs.

The NEA’s support for theater and musical theater is featured in the next issue of NEA Arts, due out in late January 2008.