The Age of the Artist in Residence: Are Actors Next?

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The in-residence artist is ubiquitous, not just in the theater but in, say, the visual arts. But the theater seems to be cultivating a taste for the idea as a way to alleviate the poverty. And it has me thinking.

Specifically, two high-profile announcements — one relating to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the opening of its new house there, and one relating to New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company — has me wondering if we’re entering a new era of in-residence artists and if could mean they we’ll break the grim cycle of “development hell” that so many playwrights hate.

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It also has me wondering whether some companies shouldn’t start to think seriously out of the box in terms of who should be considered a potential in-residence artist. Should actors, to name one type of theater practitioner, appear on the list?

Let me be clear that this is purely something that popped into my head today and isn’t herewith being rendered on the basis of empirical study. Arena, back in June, announced that Katori Hall, Lisa Kron, Amy Freed and Charles Randolph-Wright would join Karen Zacarias as the “first resident playwreights” of the American Voices New Play Initiative at Arena Stage, “receiving three years of benefits and resources to develop new work,” while Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang would be “project residents” through “commissions from the Institute.” All enviable and obviously very exciting.

Meanwhile, at Roundabout, an Aug. 4 press release announced “an expansion of initiatives to support playwrights and composers,” including the appointment of Theresa Rebeck as associate artist.” It hasn’t been lost on anyone that the fair, if trenchant Rebeck, ardent proponent of the assertion that women playwrights are in the same under-produced position on Broadway as they were a century ago, is the first dramatist to be named to Roundabout’s august posse of resident artists. Here is a quote from Roundabout artistic director Todd Haimes:

Associate Artists have primarily been directors in the past, so we’ll be exploring a new avenue by adding Theresa Rebeck as the first playwright to take on this title. With her great knowledge of the industry, especially as Roundabout continues to deepen its commitment to producing and developing new work, we know that her voice will be an important one for the future.

All of which is excellent. It also makes me remember Mike Daisey’s How Theater Failed America, how he advanced the argument that theatrical nonprofits had lost sight of their principal responsibility: making art, or at least enabling artists to do so. Instead, he argued in the piece, theatrical nonprofits had come to favor building buildings, of glorifying a culture of the ultra-managerial. I took issue, then as now, with Daisey’s argument-cum-assertion that theatrical nonprofits were supposed to employ cadres of performers — I thought, then as now, that some groups might embed playwrights, directors, even producers as their artists in residence. But the question should be asked: If organizations like Arena, like Roundabout, have the resources to salary artists in residence, what is their responsibility to include an actor or two in amongst that group?