Writing for the stage is “one of the few jobs where you’re constantly competing with dead men who get more work than we do,” says Karen Zacarias, who is among the area’s more successful playwrights. Zacarias’s work has been produced at 10 local theaters, and she’s one of the few D.C. dramatists with a professional position: She’s the only local among five playwrights in residence at Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute.
There are other area playwrights who’ve been widely produced, including Allyson Currin, Renee Calarco, Ernest Joselovitz and Gwydion Suilebhan. Many more are waiting offstage.
Currin calls Washington “a hotbed of new play development,” but that doesn’t mean that local writers’ work makes it to the largest stages, either here or elsewhere. In addition to the competition from “dead men,” area playwrights generally haven’t established strong individual voices. Instead, they’re known for versatility, moving between adult plays and the “young audiences” fare that’s a more reliable source of work.
Rich Amada, a Washington-Baltimore regional representative for the Dramatists Guild, says the organization has “in the neighborhood of 150 area members.” The DC Playwrights Facebook Group — created last year by Suilebhan because “there was just no sense of the vibrancy and diversity of the voices in the city” — has 200 members.
Those numbers are comparable on a per capita basis to Chicago, perhaps the country’s liveliest regional-theater town. Chicago’s guild has 382 members, says Douglas Post, the representative for that region, which is roughly twice as populous as the Washington area.
“Right now, we’re bringing in far too many of the stories we tell in our theaters from around the country,” says Suilebhan, who is the resident playwright at Taffety Punk Theatre. “Ultimately, my goal is to help transform D.C. from a net importer of culture, and a new importer of stories, into more of an exporter.”
If the names of these potential exporters are not widely known, that’s probably because their work is rarely staged at the city’s top-tier theaters, which generally do classics, revivals and the work of established contemporary authors.
The principal exceptions are Arena Stage and such children’s venues as Imagination Stage, Glen Echo Park’s Adventure Theater, Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater and the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. These aren’t exactly the big leagues, but they’re well-funded, draw large audiences and are often affiliated with influential larger institutions.
Although local playwrights’ work for grown-ups is often staged, it’s generally for smaller crowds. Zacarias’s “The Book Club Play” finished a run at Arena in November, but other upcoming productions are at less-conspicuous venues. Calarco’s “The Religion Thing” opened Jan. 4 at Theater J near Dupont Circle. And Currin’s “Hercules in Russia” begins Feb. 10 at Doorway Arts Ensemble in Silver Spring.