Published in Breaking Character Magazine, December 2016
This past fall, Samuel French launched Playwrights Welcome, a national initiative for Dramatists Guild Members that asks theaters to offer unsold tickets to professional playwrights on the day of a performance. Our Breaking Character Magazine Editor, Courtney Kochuba, sat down with Bruce Lazarus (Samuel French’s Executive Director), Doug Wright (President of the Dramatists Guild) and Marsha Norman (Dramatists Guild Council Member) to discuss the importance of this program and why professional playwrights and theaters alike should take advantage.
Courtney Kochuba: Thank you all so much for taking the time to chat! The three of you have been very active with the rollout of Playwrights Welcome, so I’m excited to get your insight about why this program is important. Let’s kick off with a simple question. What is Playwrights Welcome and how does it work?
Bruce Lazarus: On a basic level, Playwrights Welcome is designed to allow professional playwrights to attend the theatre when they might not otherwise be able to afford to go. We’re asking theaters all over the country to participate by offering tickets to playwrights at no cost at the time of curtain, if they would otherwise go unsold. Dramatists Guild Members simply present their DG card and ID at the box office. It’s really a win-win for everyone. If a theater has a ticket that would go unsold, why not honor the profession and see let a playwright a show?
Courtney: Marsha, you started nodding quite a bit when Bruce said “honor the profession.”
Marsha Norman: Yes! I learned that phrase from Lisa Kron. Years ago, there was a practice on Broadway whereby someone could come to the box office at the last moment and ask, “Do you honor the profession?” And that was an indication to the staff that here was a professional, and if you honored the profession, you would let them in and sit in the empty seats. It’s the same premise as Playwrights Welcome. Empty seats won’t generate money, so let’s generate enthusiasm and inspiration.
Courtney: Sounds like “honor the profession” should be the tagline for Playwrights Welcome.
Marsha: Well, it’s crucial for theaters and writers to be connected through all of these programs. We are on the same team, and we need to find ways like this to really connect to that team spirit.
Courtney: Are all theaters, whether regional or community or educational, able to participate in Playwrights Welcome?
Doug Wright: Absolutely, yes. It’s a great way for theaters to further encourage writers in their very own community. I think the indicator of a mature cultural center is one that’s able to support the artist in their own backyard. Obviously, no major resident theater can produce every writer in their community, but they can offer them a helping hand by keeping them current in the profession. That’s what this program does, and it does so brilliantly by ensuring that playwrights can receive a continuing education in their own craft.
Marsha: Yes, yes. You know, I bet if you asked Doug and me, what was the moment when you realized you wanted to write for the theatre, we would know. Mine was in Atlanta when I was watching The Royal Hunt of the Sun on a student ticket. I thought, this what I want to do. This is where I belong. Doug, I bet you have a similar story.
Doug: Absolutely. For me, it was probably in Dallas seeing Life With Father. A much more benign play than Marsha’s! But no less consequential in my life.
Courtney: Is that what you hope playwrights will get out of this program? To feel connected to the community and get inspired for their future work?
Marsha: Certainly those two things. That connection to the theatre is crucial, plus the theatre needs to fully enjoy their relationship to writers. That day that I saw Royal Hunt, they didn’t know that 20 years later I would be coming back to present The Color Purple. But they were absolutely connected. That’s important to us, to the writers, that we stand together with theaters. What Playwrights Welcome offers is an opportunity to the community to actually feel like a community.
Bruce: Well said.
Doug: I’d like to add on to that as well. I have the privilege of going all across the country and talking to young playwrights. Often, I’ll be in a certain city and notice that there’s a new production by say, Halley Feiffer and directed by Trip Cullman at the local theater. And with great excitement, I’ll ask this group of young writers if they’ve seen it. Their faces kind of fall and they say, no, we can’t afford to go. So what I think Playwrights Welcome has the capacity to do is erase those forlorn looks. That’s what I would most like to see this program accomplish.
Courtney: That would certainly be beautiful. Actually Doug, since you’re President of the Dramatists Guild, could you speak a bit about the Guild itself, and how this is a benefit for those members?
Doug: Absolutely. The Guild is the largest advocacy and labor organization for playwrights in the country. We exist to support and protect the craft by protecting playwright’s copyright, the ownership of their work, their approval for cast and directors, and so on. Playwrights Welcome is a wonderful benefit for members who are already in the Guild, and it’s an incentive for those who aren’t. It goes another step in legitimizing playwrighting, composing, and libretto writing in our culture. It further strengthens us as an organization and makes our voice a little louder.
Marsha: It’s also worth mentioning that the Dramatists Guild has a student membership.
Courtney: Is that at a reduced membership cost?
Marsha: It’s free. And there is a first year out membership, also free. Because we know that students’ education is crucial. And by using their Dramatists Guild membership, they can see professional theatre in their community.
Bruce: It is not just that playwrights and students see work in their community, but as they travel and visit their folks, they’re also exposed to different theatre makers around the nation.
Courtney: Very true. Since this program is nationwide, playwrights can take advantage of it everywhere.
Bruce: Exactly. I also want to mention why this program is designed specifically for playwrights, composers, and lyricists, because they are the originating artist. They start with a blank page and weave a quilt that a director can direct, an actor can act, and a designer can design. Without that initial creation, there is no theatre.
Doug: And in crass political and economic terms, playwrights happen to be the job creators.
Marsha and Bruce: Yes, yes!
Doug: Also, it’s importance to distinguish Playwrights Welcome from papering the house. Anybody can, at the 11th hour, paper the house. This is about investing in the future of the craft and substantiating the profession. That’s far more advantagous than just filling a seat with a random soul.
Marsha: Plus, it’s about continued education for playwrights. They need to see theatre and ask, “is there something that’s missing? Is there something that I know that nobody seems to be writing?” That’s where contiunued access to the theatre can help.
Doug: And then that can diversify the palette of writers. If going to the theatre is possible for a broad range of writers, you’re going to get a richer, broader, more diverse range of plays. I don’t think there’s a theater in the country that doesn’t have a serious investment in that.
Courtney: On that note, beyond the connection to playwrights, what is the benefit of Playwrights Welcome to theaters?
Bruce: On a practical level, it fills seats. No one wants to play to an empty house. Why not fill it with an intelligent, concerned and involved audience? The theater really benefits in a myriad of ways. Even the PR aspect. Their name is getting out there, they are part of this larger community. If the playwright brings a friend, the theatre has just sold another ticket.
Courtney: In fact, there are already 20 theaters that are participating, correct?
Bruce: Yes! The Alliance, Berkeley Rep, Dallas Theater, Geffen Playhouse, the Goodman, La Jolla, McCarter, and more. From all corners of the country, we have the top theaters involved. As other theaters join the community, they get to associate themselves with these more prestigious theaters.
Courtney: Speaking of association, you also have a Playwrights Welcome Council, which is made up of a lot of influential people from Sarah Ruhl to Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to Jeanine Tesori. My understanding is that these individuals are on the Council to lend their name and support to the program. Doug and Marsha, I know you two are part of it as well. Why do you think these artists are so willing to get involved?
Marsha: I don’t know anyone who would refuse to be on this Council if you asked, because it’s that important that writers have access to theatre. When a theater puts up the Playwrights Welcome window cling in their box office, every audience member who sees it will know that this is a place that respects and associates itself with playwrights. You have extraordinary people on this Council. I think there are seven Pulitzer Prize winners. It is a significant group of people, all of whom are raising their hands to say, this is important and everyone needs to get behind it.
Doug: And it’s not just writers. There are producers on this list like Daryl Roth and Tom Schumacher, and Artistic Directors like Todd Haimes. So people who regularly sell theatre tickets for a living still see the strategic advantage of giving them away to the community to those who would benefit from them the most. Because a free ticket today might yield a new play tomorrow that they can produce.
Courtney: Very true. Now, where did the idea for Playwrights Welcome come from?
Marsha and Doug point to Bruce.
Bruce: Actually, I give Marsha the credit! She came to me one day and said that her students at Juilliard couldn’t afford to buy the scripts. It got me thinking that we needed to find a way to give them plays. Around the same time, our president, Nate Collins, tasked our team to create a subscription reading app. We called it Abbott after Abbot Van Nostrand, our past president. Our team came up with the idea that we could provide a free subscription to Dramatists Guild Members to access the plays. Following that, after many discussions with Marsha and Doug, as well as reading Outrageous Fortune by Todd London, we kept talking about the fact that playwrights can’t afford to go to the theatre. Eventually, Playwrights Welcome was born.
Courtney: To wrap up, I have one final question. If you had to put the goal into one short sentence, what would it be?
Bruce: To educate and inspire playwrights, composers, lyricists, and librettists.
Doug: To make theatre available to the very artists who craft it.
Marsha: (Smiling) What they said.