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Mellon Foundation rescues playwrights from developmental hamster wheel

October 22, 2008 |  6:29 am

Passing_strange Just as the Fed is pumping money into the beleaguered financial system, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is pouring funds into America’s strapped play development programs. Although $2.5 million may sound like chicken feed in these billion-dollar days of Wall Street welfare, it will come as balm to the four organizations that have been awarded grants: Lark Play Development Center (NYC), New Dramatists (NYC), the Playwrights' Center  (Minneapolis) and Sundance Institute Theatre Program (Beverly Hills).

With the NEA a pathetic shadow of its former self (2007 appropriations were lower than what they were in 1979) and state arts budgets being slashed as though they were screaming victims in a horror movie, every donated dollar helps.

But in the vacuum created by government’s abdication of its cultural responsibilities, philanthropic institutions can do only so much. And corporate arts funding -- which my colleague Christopher Knight recently pointed out has always been "just a self-congratulatory form of cautious corporate advertising" -- isn't likely to be expanding.

Still, let's give credit where credit is due and commend the Mellon Foundation for focusing its support not just for individual playwrights but also "for innovative strategies to launch vital new plays to production." 

One rationale here is that dramatists learn more from seeing their work performed before a live audience than they do through the hamster wheel of readings, workshops and dramaturgical feedback sessions.

Playwrights are indeed in danger of being developed to death.  But there's a little-discussed reason why artistic directors and producers have grown averse to taking risks on new plays: For too long they've treated their audiences like ticket buyers, and many playgoers have responded in turn by acting like huffy consumers. Intolerant of shoddy merchandise, they want guarantees that their cultural purchases are going to live up to the advertising. 

That's a recipe for institutional timidity -- the very opposite of what's needed for producing new works.  Fortunately, the Mellon gift provides a monetary incentive for artistic directors to take such daunting leaps of faith.

In the meantime, let's hope theaters start cultivating an attitude of shared exploration in their patrons. Audiences need development even more than dramatists these days, and there's no better way to do it than by taking them on funky dramatic rides.   

-- Charles McNulty

Photo: "Passing Strange" on Broadway, which was developed at the Sundance Theatre Institute.

Credit: Carol Rosegg

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