D.C. theater launches residency program

Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage has launched an initiative to advance its development branch — American Voices New Play Institute — by instituting a residency program.

With a $125 million three-theater campus set to open later this year, the initiative — financed by a $1.1 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — is the next step in Arena’s efforts to become a national center for theater.

The institute will host five playwrights for three-year residencies, one of which has already begun. It will give each playwright a salary, an annual budget for development and collaboration, health benefits and housing for three years to write and develop new plays. Arena has committed to producing at least one play by each writer during the residency.

While two main aims of the residency are to write plays and advance the careers of the participating writers, the program also tests a new model for play development, which Arena hopes can identify the best practices for similar residencies across the country.

Theaters have often commissioned productions, and a few have established residency programs, but none has take in as many writers or pay as well as the Arena program.

Of the five playwrights selected, one is a D.C. native, Karen Zacarias. Arena has announced the company will try to maintain a local focus by keeping at least one resident playwright from the D.C. area in all future programs. Zacarias began her residency in January and will be joined by two more playwrights in July, Lisa Kron and Amy Freed. Kron’s “Well” made it to Broadway in 2006, while Freed was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Freedomland” in 1998. The last two scribes, Charles Randolph-Wright and Katori Hall, will begin next January.

In addition to the three-year residents, the Institute will also host a pair of Project Residents, Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang. They will receive commissions to develop a specific project, starting July 1, as well as a budget to cover research, collaboration and development. As with the other residents, Arena has committed to producing each project once it is completed.

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