NEA Arts Magazine

The Play House

The NEA Talks With Todd London of New Dramatists

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Todd London

Todd London, artistic director of New Dramatists. Photo courtesy of New Dramatists.

For nearly six decades, New York's New Dramatists has gifted the nation's playwrights with time and space to develop new work. In this interview excerpt, NEA Director of Theater and Musical Theater Bill O'Brien spoke with New Dramatists Artistic Director Todd London about the organization's mission and the current challenges to producing new plays. Read the full interview at www.arts.gov/features/index.html.

NEA: What's the mission of New Dramatists?

TODD LONDON: The mission is both simple and idealistic: to provide space and time for writers to develop their craft in the company of other gifted writers so that they can make lasting contributions to the theater. Programmatically, "space and time" translates into seven-year, free residencies for five to eight writers a year. This year alone, our current writers have more than 150 productions slated in at least 22 states and 11 countries internationally.

NEA: How does funding from the NEA support your mission?

LONDON: The NEA supports...the laboratory that's at the heart of our writers' self-directed work. Because the writers choose what they need to work on and when they need to work on it, and because they design and control their own developmental processes, this program has to stay flexible and respond to immediate artistic needs and impulses. It's always immensely important when the Arts Endowment, reflecting the understanding of our peers in the field, funds this pure research. It's like getting a letter (and check) in the mail that says: "Your colleagues across the country get what you do, value what you do, and share in the fruits of your labor."

NEA: What do you see as some of the challenges facing new plays today, especially in terms of reaching full production?

LONDON: There are so many challenges: widespread fear of the new, conservatism about planning the untried, shrinking audiences and shrinking seasons (both of which make opportunities for new work by less well-known writers scarcer and more risky), the lack of money for true long-term development of work, and diminished expectations about the scale of new plays...On top of this, playwrights have a terribly hard time making a living, and, so, they must spend more and more of their creative time either doing other jobs, especially teaching, or writing for TV and film.

Moreover, plays can take a long time to reach full bloom. They need heat and light, productive collaboration, and the kind of space and time rarely available in producing theaters working at full tilt to get seasons on stage.

NEA: Do you sense any emerging developments that might provide better support for new plays?

LONDON: Producing theaters and labs like [New Dramatists] are beginning to pioneer partnerships for moving plays from idea to production. And more and more artists and funders are beginning to explore ways of thinking about production as part of the development process -- how new play production differs from that of established plays, how necessary second and third productions are to the evolution of a play.