Why Couldn't the Dallas Theater Center's New House Playwright Be Someone from Dallas?

Dallas Theater Center now has a full-time playwright-in-residence. He is Will Power, recipient of a fat grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which is spending $3.7 million to support new playwrights-in-residence programs at 14 regional theaters across the country.

As DTC's in-house playwright and a member of its artistic company for the next three years, Power will write a play or plays and do some teaching, according to the maddeningly vague press release from the theater. (I've asked for clarifications on several points, but haven't heard back from DTC yet.) A second playwright, overlapping Power's residency, will arrive in 2014.

According to the release, Power's job, aside from writing and teaching, will be to work with artistic director Kevin Moriarty "on a new strategic initiative" to "reach out to two under-represented neighborhoods in Dallas, one affluent and one made up of low-income households, and help DTC to forge relationships that will welcome audiences from both neighborhoods into the theater."

I have some beefs with their choice of playwright, but let's parse that "strategic initiative" thing for a sec. Ever seen the audience at Dallas Theater Center? Affluence is not under-represented. You can't swing a dead mink at the Wyly Theatre without hitting a rich person. Under-repped? Hardly.

The affluent aren't under-represented as characters on the stage, either. DTC's next show, opening January 18 at the Wyly, is Shakespeare's King Lear. The whole play is about a man's great wealth and who'll get it when he dies.

Maybe they mean as playwrights. That's it. There aren't enough rich people writing plays. Where is the new Noel Coward? Although with all the grants, fellowships and residencies he's won, including the 2010 Meadows Prize at SMU, Power isn't exactly a starving artist. DTC didn't provide the numbers for his salary for his new three-year gig, but in the same position at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, playwright Melinda Lopez, who's a Boston native, is getting a total of $245,000 in salary plus benefits. Not bad. Each of these 14 playwrights-in-residence around the country also is eligible for another $10K a year for travel and research expenses.

That's all wonderful. Playwrights shouldn't have to starve. More good plays could be written if writers could focus their energies on their scripts and not have to wear aprons and work shifts brewing lattes. One of the stated goals of the Mellon grant program is to stem the "brain drain" in the theater and to keep playwrights from migrating to high-paying jobs writing screenplays and TV pilots. (As if those are bad things.) Marketing staffs outnumber playwrights at nonprofit theaters, and maybe this Mellon money will help birth some fabulous new plays and musicals that will make American theater exciting again.

Making sure that happens, by the way, are some roving freelance monitors from The Center for Theater Commons, a research center at Emerson College in Boston, which has been given a $760,000 chunk of Mellon Foundation money to track the 14 resident playwrights and see how they fare. (Will Power will be given workspace at DTC. But will he have to punch a time-clock to show he's on the job?) The Mellon Foundation has been let down in similar situations before. A few years ago, they awarded $1.1 million to Arena Stage in D.C. to establish the "American Voices New Play Institute," which included a cushy playwriting residency spot. Its highest profile playwright, Katori Hall, split a year early, having had nothing produced there.

Look, if they're worried about "brain drain" at regional theaters like Dallas Theater Center, why didn't they award the DTC residency to a Dallas-based playwright? We do have a bunch. Good ones. Who could all use the job, the salary, benefits and time to write. Atlanta's Alliance Theatre's new resident playwright is Atlanta playwright and Spelman College professor Pearl Cleage. Others on the list of the 14 matched a local writer with a local theater. But not here. It ain't magical if it ain't from New York City, so that's where Will Power came from. He actually moved to Dallas from there when he got the Meadows prize at SMU. He may be one of American's hottest rising theatermakers, but he's about as Texan as those New York actors they hired for that DTC musical flop of Giant last winter.

Power's an unknown entity in these parts. Except for a short run at SMU of his hip-hop Alice in Wonderland (didn't see it), his work hasn't been done in theaters here. He's much better known in the East Coast theater circles, where he's the "hip-hop playwright" who's still trying to produce his first big hit show. He's hip-hopped Greek tragedies and some Shakespeare. In the video above, he talks about creating a hip-hop Tempest with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Power now is working on a musical version of Stagger Lee, based on the true tale of an early 20th century black carriage driver who was convicted of murder. The story of the crime inspired pop songs recorded in various versions by Tommy Roe, The Grateful Dead and The Clash. Due to debut the musical at DTC in 2014, Power has already benefited from $120,000 grants just for that project, including $70K from the National Endowment for the Arts and $50K from TACA's Donna Wilhelm Family News Works Fund.

Good for him. Maybe he'll be the best money ever spent at DTC. Kevin Moriarty loves to support these "edgy" playwrights and has commissions going with several besides Power. None from Dallas, mind you. From L.A. and New York.

Power will be DTC's first full-time playwright-in-residence. First in this century, that is. DTC's founder and first artistic director Paul Baker always had lots of writers in his resident company. They wrote some fine plays, including Preston Jones' A Texas Trilogy, still produced in regional theaters today, and Jack Ruby, All-American Boy, which deserves to be revived.

So if I'm not powerfully excited about this big announcement from Dallas Theater Center, it's because I've already seen and loved the work of Dallas playwright Matthew Posey, whose role as an oil field foreman on the next season of Dallas will pay for his next couple of plays to be produced at his Ochre House theater this year; and Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood, who wrote her great play Ruth, which premiered last year at Kitchen Dog, during breaks at her day job at the Dallas Zoo; and prolific young playwright Jonathan Norton, who rose at 5 a.m. to write My Tidy List of Terrors and Mississippi Goddamn before going to his job running McFarlin Auditorium. I could list a dozen more, all living and writing right here. Some of them also make a fine latte.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner