Internet map, Landesman remarks are top conversation topics

WASHINGTON — A user-generated Internet resource for new play development and controversy-baiting remarks from N.E.A. topper Rocco Landesman were among the principal topics at the American Voices New Play Institute confab, which concluded last weekend at D.C.’s Arena Stage.

More than 100 legiters from around the country attended the Jan. 26-29 confab, with the list encompassing artistic directors including Marc Masterson (Actors Theater of Louisville), Wendy Goldberg (O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference) and Todd London (New Dramatists); playwrights Amy Freed, Lisa Kron, Kristoffer Diaz and Katori Hall; and others including TDF exec director Victoria Bailey and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Ben Cameron.

A major discussion thread at the conference centered on improving dialogue about new play development within the Balkanized theater community — especially the various new digital ventures being created to enable it.

Unveiled at the conclave was the “New Play Map,” a user-generated, real-time map of the national new works infrastructure. Interactive and open sourced blueprint will chronicle the haphazard and largely invisible play development journeys taken by new projects from idea to full production. It is being piloted by American Voices institute with support from the Mellon Foundation and the NEA.

Wikipedia-style portal showcases the developmental process of readings, workshops and performances of new works held anywhere in the country. Data can be viewed by project, playwright or organization, and can be entered by artists and organizations alike, with fact-checking opportunities build in.

Map will benefit all participants of new development including artists, funders, literary managers and artistic directors, according to David Dower, the head of the institute and the associate a.d. of Arena. He added the portal’s next generation will be more media rich so individuals can upload video, photos, podcasts, blogs and other documentation of each developmental step.

Dower said that two of its important roles are to identify the new works sector’s most compelling ideas and to underscore the commitments involved in nurturing new works in the current legit landscape.

The New Play Map joins a burgeoning community of digital ventures also aimed at promoting collaborations and communication about new works. Among them are 2AMt, a website and community for social networking and other activities concerning new theater, and New Play TV, a website billing itself as “the open-source C-SPAN of the new play sector.” Both are soliciting broad participation by the theater community.

The D.C. conclave opened with spirited remarks from Rocco Landesman, the veteran Broadway producer who is current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The outspoken NEA chief restated his controversial view that the nonprofit theatrical landscape is decidedly overbuilt in today’s era of declining theater auds.

“There are too many theaters making too little money and failing to pay living wages to actors, directors and designers,” he said. “It will all come to a head one day,” he predicted. Landesman warned theaters not to count on audience growth because it’s “very difficult to increase demand.”

The remark drew immediate rebuttal from attendees and bloggers watching the session live on the Internet via the website New Play TV.

Landesman also repeated the controversial opinion that the NEA should make fewer and larger grants to successful theaters rather than spread its largesse so thinly. And he warned his audience that the pursuit by many resident theaters of commercially viable productions offers a mixed blessing for nonprofits if it means forsake their true missions.

The New Play Institute confab was also a coming out party within the trade for Arena’s new Mead Center, which debuted last fall after a major reconstruction. It was the first of numerous gatherings slated to be held there by the theater’s two-year-old institute, a center for research into new play development practices and programs.

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