Playwriting can be a precarious profession in a city with as high of a cost of living as Seattle. Even before the pandemic, as playwright Nikki Yeboah, known for her work as an oral historian and performer, pointed out, people didn’t get paid much to write plays. But as COVID-19 upended the theater industry, it exposed just how tenuous the support system really is around writers who are trying to make a living creating new work for the stage, especially those outside of major theater markets like New York City.
“It’s frightening,” said Yeboah, who last year became the University of Washington School of Drama’s new assistant professor of playwriting, the school’s first full-time faculty hire in playwriting since 1993. “As a playwright, you already feel like you’re a part of something that, in the eyes of the world, is a dying art form.”
Over the last year in particular, the playwriting community has watched as lauded national programs and institutions dedicated to cultivating the work of emerging playwrights have either folded or pulled back, limiting available opportunities for funding to create new works in an already competitive market. But instead of seeing this as a worrisome trend, local playwrights see this as a chance for Seattle to go from a city where it can feel like there’s a cap on success to one that is a launchpad for local playwrights and new works.
“I’m wondering if this is an opportunity for places like Seattle to begin to incubate their own theatermakers instead of us having to rely on looking outward,” Yeboah said. “What happens when we look inward and try to cultivate the talent we have within our cities?”
Historically, there have been a number of national programs playwrights have been able to apply for, programs that put concerted effort into supporting these creatives as they create new work — a task that is generally unpaid if, for instance, you’re sitting at home trying to write the next great stage play. For example, Yussef El Guindi, an award-winning playwright based in Seattle, cited The Lark, a 27-year-old play development program in New York City, as crucial to his progress as a playwright, enabling him to hone his craft while also forming connections to theaters across the country.
Similar playwright-centric programs have also hit rough times. The Sundance Institute cited the “financial impact of the pandemic” when pausing its Sundance Theater Lab, a program that saw the development of Tony Award-winning works like Duncan Sheik’s “Spring Awakening” and Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s “Fun Home” over the years. The future of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, which has seen world premieres from star playwrights like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Sarah Ruhl and Anne Washburn, sits uncertain after the cancellation of its 2022 iteration, faced with uncertain future support from the Humana Foundation, which has underwritten the annual event since the 1980s.
“That was kind of hard for me,” said Andrew Lee Creech, a Seattle-based, award-winning writer and performer whose play “Riverwood” had its world premiere with Seattle Public Theater and LANGSTON earlier this year. “I’ve been applying to these places and always looked forward to applying every single year, and then now all of a sudden that’s gone.”
Unfortunately, there’s no switch that can be flipped locally to replace the losses nationally, but turning an eye to the local scene can illuminate areas for improvement that can help turn Seattle into a thriving creative home for playwrights.
Cultivating our own
“We have a lot of talented playwrights in Seattle and the Northwest in general,” said El Guindi. “If every Seattle theater wanted to program one full season with only Northwest playwrights, they could easily do that.”
The talent is here, but where are the opportunities for them? El Guindi knows he’s in a fortunate position to have continued support over the years from Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre. El Guindi has been a core company member at ACT, with works like “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” “People of the Book” and “Hotter Than Egypt” seeing success on ACT’s stage. This type of partnership allows El Guindi access to a roster of professional actors and directors that can be hard to come by for individuals outside of an organization.
“Having them in my corner is a huge psychological boost,” El Guindi said. “Given that playwrights are essentially door-to-door salespeople knocking on theater doors hoping one of them will open, knowing there’s at least one theater out there with its door open for me really helps me write the next play.”
Finding an open door can be a significant challenge, especially for writers in Seattle looking to take their work to the next level and turn a local success into a national one. For Creech, there’s this thought in the back of his head that, in a place like New York City, there’s a chance to make connections that can get your play into the right hands to make that leap in a way he doesn’t see in Seattle.
“I’ve been thinking about ‘Riverwood’ too,” Creech said. “The play went up, the subscribers saw the show, a lot of the theater community sees the show, and then I’m like, ‘But what’s next for it?’”
The difficulty becomes getting this new work in front of a producer or organization that wants to take the work to another city and mount another production — a necessity for a playwright to continue making money for their work beyond a world premiere of that work in Seattle. Some national programs, like the Humana Festival, used to be a destination for producers looking to find fresh new works. But for a regional world premiere, getting the attention of an out-of-town producer is trickier.
Reviews also play a role here, as El Guindi points out. The effect that the power and weight of, say, The New York Times can have on the life of a play is the reason he feels so passionately about seeing the base of theater critics in the Seattle area increase. A local effort in New York City, coupled with a review from The New York Times, can lead a playwright to national success and subsequent productions in cities around the country. Meanwhile, a dwindling critic presence in Seattle means fewer reviews, and fewer reviews means fewer chances to catch the attention of producers outside the Pacific Northwest who may read about the play.
“As much as I have sometimes gnashed my teeth at some reviews,” El Guindi said, “the importance of having quality critics who know how to engage with plays and theater is crucial to the overall ecology and health of a theater scene in any city.”
The world premiere problem
“As difficult as it is to get a theater to take a chance on your untested play — especially one that hasn’t been blessed by New York critics, which usually ensures it a continued life elsewhere — it’s even more of a challenge to get theaters to do a second or third production,” said El Guindi. “If a theater can’t sell the play as a world premiere, or use quotes from The New York Times to attest to its quality, then it feels like theaters seem to be at a loss as to how to sell it.”
El Guindi said he finds the fixation on world premieres to be both a good thing and “extraordinarily dispiriting.”
There’s an odd mindset around a world premiere play, like it can’t be produced again in the same city by a different organization. Thinking about “Riverwood,” could it see another production in Seattle? The weird feeling is that the answer is likely “no,” despite the fact that “Come From Away” is taking the 5th Avenue Theatre stage yet again, “Hamilton” is coming back to town and you can catch any number of classic musical revivals across the city this upcoming season.
“The reality of this particular situation is that these institutions need to get people to come back to the theater,” said Creech. “The risk of producing new work is one that I think a lot of institutions are really kind of terrified to take right now.”
Plus, said Rebecca Tourino Collinsworth, artistic director of Seattle playwrights’ group and producing organization Parley Productions, “Developing new work takes a lot of time, and that resource of time combined with the people that need to be paid in order to put that time in is something that’s harder for organizations to justify because it’s experimental.”
Now, we’ve seen some big-budget works come along this year, with both Seattle Rep’s production of “Bruce” and 5th Avenue’s upcoming production of “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation.” But both of those productions come with Broadway-level aspirations and Broadway-credentialed teams. “The Griswolds’ Broadway Vacation” has Broadway producer Ken Davenport attached, whose lengthy credentials include Tony Award wins for best revival of a musical in 2018 for “Once on This Island” and best musical in 2013 for “Kinky Boots.”
In fact, that’s what made 5th Avenue’s “And So That Happened …” such a unique production. The show, which brought together three local writing teams to create a new musical reflecting on life during the pandemic, was a rare opportunity for musical theater writers in the city. Six creatives were given the backing and freedom to take a chance with a regional theater as large as 5th Avenue in a full production, and not just in a workshop setting.
Jasmine Joshua, who participated in “And So That Happened …” and is the producing artistic director of Seattle’s Reboot Theatre Company, called the business of new works for musicals intense, “because you basically are begging for a workshop, even if it’s a cold read.” The musicals that tend to get the inside track to a full production are the ones that have funding behind them.
“What I’m learning is, even if the company is like, ‘Wow, what a great idea, I love it,’” Joshua explained, the company will then say, “‘We don’t really have the ability to produce a new musical.’”
What can change?
The biggest challenge remains production opportunities. As Seattle’s theaters reopen their doors, the hope is that the return and growth of a vibrant fringe, or smaller-scale, theater scene can support the wealth of creative talent in the city.
“Seattle is perfectly positioned to have a thriving fringe theater scene,” said Yeboah. “That’s an amazing opportunity for artists to make works that are nontraditional or challenging or different.”
But for that to work, that fringe scene needs the support of audiences willing to see new work that might not have the polish of the larger productions, and of larger theaters extending their support of new local works beyond their individual workshop programs.
The city is already seeing collaboration between theater companies of all sizes, both through groups like Seattle Theatre Leaders and coproductions like “Riverwood” and the upcoming two-stop run of “Choir Boy” at ACT and 5th Avenue. But as the conversation around new work from local creatives continues, playwrights are hoping to see additional support from larger organizations and audiences alike go toward smaller companies like Annex Theatre and Pork Filled Productions — companies that can commit specifically to new works from emerging and local playwrights.
“It’s going to take a while to recover from the pandemic and bring audiences back in the same numbers,” El Guindi said. “But I do hope, as we get back on our feet, part of that recovery involves programming more and more local playwrights.”