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Hwang and Nottage get commissions while five other playwrights get 'living wage' grants

June 18, 2010 |  5:30 pm

YouNeroGallardo How do you keep playwrights down on the farm, harvesting their imaginations for theatrical works, after they've seen how much more they can earn from film and television?

The answer proposed Friday by Arena Stage, the leading theater company in Washington, D.C., is to pay five of them "a living wage," with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation footing most of the bill with a $1.1-million grant.

It establishes the American Voices New Play Institute as a three-year experiment aimed at making playwriting a real job, rather than something writers who love the stage try to squeeze in between the teaching or writing for film and television that nearly all playwrights need to make an actual living.

Landing those real jobs are three playwrights whose work has been produced on major Southern California stages; a fourth who just won Britain's top new play honor, the Olivier Award; and a fifth who has been produced at her hometown Arena Stage and Chicago's Goodman Theatre. For three years, they can "write whatever they want" for the stage, Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith told The Times, while earning a salary that appears to be about $40,000 to $50,000 a year, plus health benefits and a $15,000 a year allowance to spend as they choose in support of their work -- hiring actors and directors for workshop performances, travel expenses for field work, research assistants and the like.

LisaKronMelMelcon Amy Freed (a favorite at South Coast Repertory, including "The Beard of Avon" and "You, Nero," with a scene pictured above); Lisa Kron (pictured at right), whose "The Wake" was staged recently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre); Charles Randolph-Wright ("Blue" and "The Night Is a Child" at the Pasadena Playhouse); Katori Hall (the Olivier winner with "The Mountaintop"); and Washington, D.C.'s Karen Zacarias are the "resident playwrights" who'll draw salaries and benefits. Arena Stage also guarantees each a production of a play during the three years, although it might be one that's already been produced elsewhere rather than what they write during their residencies.

Despite the "resident playwright" title, the four who live elsewhere won't actually have to live in Washington, an Arena spokeswoman said. They'll be given free apartments when in town for play development work or other activities.

The new program is going to benefit two star playwrights as well. David Henry Hwang (the Tony-winning "M. Butterfly") and Lynn Nottage (the Pulitzer-winning "Ruined") have been commissioned to write new plays, which isn't unusual. But Arena Stage is promising to produce the resulting scripts, which is.

Smith said the annual salaries for the resident playwrights will be in "a mid-five-figure range," though not quite $49,999 -- the most middling of all five-figure salaries. "It's a real salary, not to parse it too much," she said.

Smith  and John Glore, the South Coast Repertory associate artistic director who is a playwright himself and has developed new work since 1984 at South Coast and Center Theatre Group, said the most lucrative commissions usually top out at about $20,000.

The Arena-Mellon gambit "is altruistic and wonderful for the writers," Glore said, especially since it includes health insurance. But he's skeptical that the program will be translatable elsewhere unless each theater can land a comparably large grant, or that a salary in the $40,000 range will keep many playwrights anchored in the theater and out of film and television's clutches.

"That would be naive," Glore said. "Playwrights are incredibly in demand, so that if you're any good and able to write work close to the middle of the artistic spectrum, you're being asked to write for TV. It's what theater faces, even if you can give out generous commissions. Our trump card used to be `Yeah, but you won't get artistic satisfaction.' " 

But since the advent of sharply written series such as "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under," Glore said, "that's not true anymore. Some of those shows are damned good, and the writers do get artistic satisfaction.'"

In fact, he noted, the two most recent plays that premiered at South Coast Rep were "Doctor Cerberus" by Robert Aguirre-Sacasa and "The Language Archive" by Julia Cho -- both staff writers for the HBO show "Big Love."

-- Mike Boehm

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Lisa Kron's `The Wake'

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Photos: Scene from Amy Freed's "You, Nero" at South Coast Repertory; playwright Lisa Kron; Molly Smith, Arena Stage artistic director. Credits: Los Angeles Times ("You, Nero"); Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times (Kron)

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