Financial security is elusive for playwrights. Equally rare is the opportunity for a sustained immersion within the theater companies they rely on to present their work to the world.
For 14 playwrights, including Boston playwright Melinda Lopez, that is about to change, at least for a while.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has launched a $3.7 million initiative that will fund three-year playwright residencies, putting the selected scribes on staff at theaters around the country, complete with salaries and benefits. Lopez, whose plays include “Sonia Flew’’ and “From Orchids to Octopi: An Evolutionary Love Story,’’ will begin a residency at the Huntington Theatre Company on July 1.
Playing a key role in the Mellon Foundation initiative is the Center for the Theater Commons, a research center based at Emerson College. The center will receive a $760,000 grant, of which more than half will be distributed to the playwrights for travel and research expenses, according to the center’s director, Polly Carl. The rest will fund a project to hire freelancers who will closely track the residencies to see how well they are working and what difference they are making for the playwrights, the individual theaters and the communities where they are located, as well as, potentially, the American theater in general.
Each of the playwrights will also have a residency at Emerson College that will last one or two weeks, Carl said. The center will organize regular retreats where playwrights and artistic directors will discuss the long-term residencies — information that the center will communicate to theaters nationwide.
The overall goal of the initiative, said Carl, is to engender “a rethinking of the role of the playwright in nonprofit theater,’’ with an eye toward finding ways to stem “the huge brain drain in the theater, of theater people migrating to Hollywood because you can make a living writing for television and the movies in a way you can’t in the theater.’’ Noting that “the number of actual artists on staff in theaters compared to marketers and developers is a minuscule percentage,’’ Carl said that the initiative will enable playwrights “to contribute as an artistic voice’’ within theaters.
That is Lopez’s goal at the Huntington.
“It’s like a dream come true. It really is,’’ said Lopez, 48, of Bedford. “My brain is working overtime on all the ways that this is going to generate new work. I’m really looking forward to the time to have periods of quiet in my life when I can just think about theater.’’
Lopez teaches in Boston University’s graduate playwriting program and is a half-time faculty member at Wellesley College, where she teaches theater studies. She said she plans to speak with university officials about ways “to find a balance in the next three years.’’ Lopez is also an actress, and is currently appearing in David Cromer’s production of “Our Town’’ at the Huntington.
The Mellon money is designed to enable the writers to focus more fully on their writing without scrambling to make ends meet, but under the initiative they will also shoulder duties that could include taking part in planning sessions for theater companies’ upcoming seasons, providing a writer’s voice at board meetings, and participating in playwright development programs.
A total of $245,000 will cover Lopez’s salary and benefits at the Huntington for the three-year residency. She will also be eligible to apply each year for an additional $10,000 from the Center for the Theater Commons to cover travel and research expenses. Lopez said she plans to finish “Becoming Cuba,’’ a historical drama set on the eve of the Spanish-American War, and also write two additional full-length plays during the residency.
But Lopez will also be involved in staff operations at the Huntington, where she will have an office, according to artistic director Peter DuBois. She will meet monthly with DuBois, traveling to New York or London if he is directing plays there, watching him lead rehearsals, and meeting with other writers. Lopez is also going to help produce the Huntington’s summer workshop, under which selected playwrights work with directors, dramaturgs, and actors to develop their new plays. By the third year, the expectation is that she will serve as the workshop’s lead producer. “Melinda was really interested in the producing side of things,’’ said DuBois. “She wanted to be able to drop in to all the different departments and figure out more intimately how the machine works.’’
However, DuBois acknowledged that his discussions with Lopez also focused on their shared concerns that operational duties might pull her away from writing, an issue that sometimes crops up during playwright residencies. “While we wanted to respect the vision of embedding the playwright in the institution, the most important thing was that Melinda could be a playwright,’’ he said. “We’re working really hard to protect her from the day-to-day.’’
“We’ll also learn a lot from her perspective as a playwright,’’ DuBois added. “It brings a huge value into the institution. Often what happens is people on the administrative side in the cultural sector, they come into it because they have a passion for the arts, while their skill might be marketing or accounting. The more that those individuals have a sense of connection to the artists, it’s like a fuel for the passion. They have access to the source of what they do.’’
This is not the first time the Mellon Foundation has made a splash in an effort to provide playwrights with some stability. A few years ago, the foundation awarded $1.1 million to Washington, D.C.-based Arena Stage, to establish the American Voices New Play Institute, which included much-touted playwright residencies. One of that program’s highest-profile playwrights, Katori Hall, recently left Arena one year early, according to The Washington Post, without reaching the goal of having one of her plays staged there.
In addition to Lopez, the playwrights and the theaters where they have residences under the Mellon’s new initiative are: David Adjmi, at Soho Repertory Theatre, New York; Luis Alfaro, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore. ; Pearl Cleage, Alliance Theatre, Atlanta; Marcus Gardley, Victory Gardens Theatre, Chicago; Nathan Louis Jackson, Kansas City (Mo.) Repertory Theatre; Dan LeFranc, Playwrights Horizons, New York; Julie Marie Myatt, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, Calif.; Peter Nachtrieb, Z Space, San Francisco; Qui Nguyen, Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Minneapolis; Kira Obolensky, Ten Thousand Things Theater, Minneapolis; Robert O’Hara, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington, D.C.; Will Power, Dallas Theater Center, Dallas; and Andrew Saito, Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco.