- American Playwriting and the Now New
I write from the University of Washington's School of Drama, which celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary during the 2015–16 academic year. It's a school that, like so many theatre programs, groped its way out of an English department long before colleges in the United States trained actors, directors, and designers for a living theatre, and a full two decades before American cities commonly housed permanent professional theatres. The "drama" in its name carries its origins as a literary art. As a result, it sounds rusty, a bit old-fashioned. The idea of writing about "new drama" feels oxymoronic. The study of dramatic literature long ago gave way the study of performance, and our notions of text expanded far beyond the mere playscript.
The days when theatre studies were a subsidiary teaching of English were the days, too, when professional playwriting had a single source: Broadway. Mainstream scholarship, like the mainstream theatre, described a unified field of then-contemporary dramatic writing, dominated by a triumvirate of major writers: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and the father of so much American playwriting, Eugene O'Neill. It would take until Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun in 1959 and off-off-Broadway's boom in the 1960s for the complexion of the profession to begin to change and for the image of the playwright as a pipe-smoking white man in a narrow tie, banging away at his Underwood manual, to reach its endgame.
Jump to now. If drama is old-school, what exactly is new about it now? The answer, even when considering playwriting as a literary art, is "a lot." A lot is new, and if Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty is correct—and he is—we [End Page 286] are living through a budding golden age for playwrights, a boom unlike any in the recent past. It's a boom of stories and who gets to tell them. It's a boom of formal experimentation, including those who would wrest playwriting away from the domination of story itself. It's a boom of talent, a professional boom. What follows is a quick tour: where new writing is in the United States, what it looks like, and some of the people who are doing it.
National geography has impact on contemporary drama. According to Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, the book that resulted from a study I led for New York's Theatre Development Fund from 2005 to 2009, 50 percent of our nation's playwrights live in New York City and another 25 percent in Los Angeles. The last quarter is spread across the other forty-eight states. In other words, 75 percent of our collective dramatic concerns are filtered through visions from these two urban poles—one constellated around Broadway, the other in the shadow of Hollywood.
This statistic might not matter in finance or mass media, but theatre is a local activity, and our cultural concerns change with the landscape. America looks very different from a Brooklyn subway, a freeway in Baja, California, or a bus in Seattle's International District. Audiences look different, too. Having relocated to Seattle in the summer of 2014 after twenty-nine years in New York, I crossed the threshold of Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover and entered the flat, indistinct no-man's-land separating Midtown Manhattan from the Pacific Ocean. It has become apparent that everything I thought I knew about contemporary playwriting was partial. Changing location, I found, can change your eyes. The demographics of casts look different in New York or Minneapolis or Custer, South Dakota. Decades-old formal experimentation can seem shocking when you trade "downtown" theatre for regional centers, a geographic shift that sometimes feels like backward time travel, depending on what is actually new to the place you land.
What's new in the American drama is also shaped by the angle of vision of the theatrical industry that selects, produces, and reviews contemporary work in mostly nonprofit, institutional venues—the curatorial politics of the new. What feels natural and contemporary on the East coast...