My daughter has recently found great delight repeating the phrase “in the thick of it.” This is because she keeps hearing me utter it when on the phone. We are moving from our small-for-a-family-of-four apartment to a three-bedroom in Waltham. And we are in the thick of all that this entails: the endless boxes, the scramble of small children underfoot. (I gave them one box to be their “home,” which they decorated with stickers.)
Since I am a playwright, many assume we are picking up and moving to where many think a playwright should go: New York. If you are a playwright, what makes New York so attractive, despite how difficult and pricey it can be to live there, is that there is new work happening all around. It’s expected in those parts, while for years this was not quite so here. Boston has some of the features of a city able to nurture a productive creative class. But for a playwright — and, I imagine, for others in the arts — simultaneously living and working here is not as simple as finding the perfect coffee shop to use as your office.
What Boston provides is so vast it verges on overwhelming: museums and libraries, genealogical archives, and historical societies. Even just the tradition of thought and the written word, of fierce ideology and curiosity, can be intoxicating to writers and other artists.
But as Boston artists, we often live in the long shadow of New York. “Will this go to New York?” is something people often ask me. “I’m not sure, but it’s here now,” is usually how I answer. “Well,” they say, “maybe next year.” But the work can happen here, just as it does in New York and in other cities with large numbers of creative people. A vibrant arts world isn’t just about trendy neighborhoods; it should also be about the actual work that artists do, and what they need to be able to complete that work well.
When I graduated from the University of Iowa, I returned to the Boston area because I had a day job as a nanny that I loved and that welcomed me back. The theater community was welcoming as well. Yet the development infrastructure that’s needed to make new plays into functional productions wasn’t terribly strong. There were readings and there were productions, but not many opportunities to see if untested ideas actually work on the stage.
A vibrant arts world isn’t just about trendy neighborhoods; it should also be about the actual work that artists do.
There is, of course, a danger to too much development. It costs money. A healthy return is not guaranteed. Worse yet, the development process can smooth out a play’s rough spots in a way that renders it producible but dull. I am certain a theater today would have told Euripides to make Medea more likeable “because she comes across as shrill and will scare people.”
Still, playwrights from Shakespeare on have always needed groups of regular collaborators. And most of the important playwrights of the last 50 years owe their successes to a development process that, for years, was largely absent in Boston. Then, when you factored in how expensive it is to live well in Boston (having six roommates can be a wonderful thing, but is not conducive to writing well) and how difficult it can be to get a day job that is flexible enough to accommodate your writing, being a working playwright here could be bleak.
But there were upsides. One salvation for me was access to good and affordable health care. Without that, my husband and I may have packed our boxes and headed elsewhere years ago.
And today, new programs are helping Boston playwrights work through their plays. It’s incredibly important that theaters such as Boston Playwrights, the Huntington, and CompanyOne are being joined by development initiatives at New Rep and Fresh Ink, to name a few. More artistic directors are supporting new plays. It is why I am still excited to live and work here in Boston.
Or, I would be working if I weren’t still “in the thick of it.” Which has just included evicting my kids from their mutilated box for bedtime as I brush the dust from my bookshelves off my fingers. Once “the thick of it” subsides, I will be where I am supposed to be. No shadows, just the warm beckoning of more work to be done.