On a Thursday afternoon in early May, the ballroom in the Marriott Marquis was buzzing. The occasion: New Dramatists’ spring luncheon, a fundraiser for New York’s seminal refuge for playwrights. Always a schmoozefest, this year’s fete was an even bigger deal than usual. It’s the organization’s 50th anniversary, and New Dramatists was giving a lifetime achievement award to that doyenne of Broadway, Julie Andrews.
It was a bit of a head-scratcher that a playwrights’ organization should be celebrating Mary Poppins, but that didn’t seem to weigh heavily on anyone’s mind; over 900 folks paid $175 a plate to join the festivities. And indeed, it was veritably star-lad en. Robert Falls and Brian Dennehy perched on their seats like a pair of hefty grizzly bears. Robert Goulet and Carol Burnett chatted up front. Even Frank and Kathy Lee Gifford made an appearance.
Meanwhile, a bunch of younger, scrappier-looking folk languished near the back. Done up in their Sunday best, they were still a ragtag bunch, wolfing down the food, and making inquiries about their neighbors’ uneaten portions. When Michaela O’Harra, the octogenarian founder of the organization, was introduced, they—and only they—gave her a standing ovation.
These were the members of New Dramatists.
Go on a tour of New Dramatists’ headquarters—a converted Lutheran church on West 44th Street—with artistic director Todd London, and the incongruities between the flash of the Marriott and the grungy realities of the organization become even more pronounced. Take, for instance, the “library,” a large, dark room lined with scripts. The room feels cozy, but the furniture—heavy wood tables and leather chairs and couches—look like they’ve been there for, oh, just about 50 years or so. Then there’s the third floor, which has been converted into a rooming house, ostensibly because the company has a number of international exchange programs but also be cause some members live outside New York and others are, well, sort of homeless. (“Nilo Cruz lived here for three years,” London laughs.) The three rooms are monastically decorated, and with the single bathroom down the hall, the atmosphere is a little like a YMCA.
Yet, despite the run-down atmosphere, the building is alive. Playwrights, directors, and actors can be found in just about every nook and cranny, leafing through the latest draft of some new masterpiece or another. “Most members would say the best thing about New Dramatists is the centralized sense of community,” says Diana Son, whose play Stop Kiss enjoyed a successful run at the Public Theater last season.
London exudes an infectious enthusiasm and wanders around the place like a kid on his first visit to F.A.O. Schwartz. Since taking the reins almost three years ago, London (a one-time director and literary manager) has been in the quixotic role of cheerleader for the American playwright. “I can’t help but think that now, at the end of the 20th century, this country has a more diverse and well-trained profession of playwrights than ever before,” he says with an evangelical flourish. “That’s not to say that life doesn’t suck for playwrights—it does and it always has. But we have more new work coming down the pike than at any time in the history of America. We have a working profession.”
Well, maybe. While someone like Arlene Hutton, author of last season’s Off-Off Broadway sleeper Last Train to Nibroc, says that admittance into New Dramatists offers “a kind of validity,” few, if any, of the members are able to earn a livelihood off their theater work. Most end up hightailing it to academia or Hollywood. Son recently took a job on the new NBC series West Wing. “Stop Kiss was a rewarding experience in every way,” she says. “I got a great New York production, great reviews, a publishing deal, the play produced around the country—but it taught me you can have all these things happen and still not be able to make a living.”
All the same, membership is highly competitive—250 writers apply each year, with only five to eight accepted. But because a position lasts seven years, the place has the feel of a fraternal organization—with 47 current members, there are always plenty of writers around pounding on the available computers, giving one another notes, or heading out for beers. Though not really a traditional theater, New Dramatists hosts readings of as many as five new plays and musicals each week, with some of the best talent in the city.
The list of the 500 writers who have passed through the company’s doors is mind-boggling. The alumni roster includes names like August Wilson, Richard Foreman, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, and Suzan-Lori Parks. The current crop is no less impressive: Among the gang who now haunt New Dramatists are Luis Al faro, Kia Corthron, Keith Glover, and Paula Vogel.
The company was founded in 1949, through an impassioned letter from self-described “struggling new dramatist” Michaela O’Harra to veteran Broadway playwright Howard Lindsay, lamenting the problems of “working alone with no adequate or stimulating exchange of craft information possible.” Lindsay took the bait, raised $5000, and offered New Dramatists its original home: a coat room in the Hudson Theatre.
Among the first class were Paddy Chayefsky, William Inge, and Robert Anderson. “The playwrights invited had to have a play on Broadway,” says Anderson, now 82 years old, “or an option from a Broadway producer.” Members got free tickets, hung out at rehearsals, and attended “craft discussions”—essentially sitting at the feet of Broadway luminaries like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Elia Kazan, and Moss Hart. And, in the pre-Xerox era, there was also the issue of making copies of scripts. “I remember running off Paddy’s plays on an old mimeograph machine,” moans Anderson. “One goddamned page after another.”
Fast-forward 50 years and it seems like little has changed. While there are a number of new international exchange programs, the benefits have stayed the same: readings, free tickets, free Xeroxing, and other amenities (“They just gave me a $50 gift certificate for Home Depot!” gushes Hutton). Most important, the attempt to create a community of writers has stayed consistent.
“You have to remember,” says London, “that back in ’49 there was no Off-Broadway, no Off-Off Broad way, no regional theater. There were no M.F.A.s in playwriting. There was only Broadway.” Nowadays, although New Dramatists advertises itself as being ‘a few steps from Broadway,” most of the work going on within the building’s peeling walls is light years from the Great White Way. Indeed—and this is hardly surprising, considering what passes for commercial fare—not a single current member has been produced on Broadway.
“You occasionally hear grumblings from the board and patrons,” says the decidedly noncommercial Ruth Margraff, a current member. “They ask, ‘Where are the Tonys, the Pulitzers?’ There’s not a lot of under standing of Off- or Off-Off Broadway. [To be fair, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned To Drive won a Pulitzer in 1998.]
“But,” she continues, “maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s better those people don’t know what’s going on at New Dramatists. If they did,” she laughs, “they might try to stop it.”
For his part, Anderson doesn’t believe that things are really that much different these days. “It’s difficult to get a play done now, and it was just as difficult then,” he says. And while he laments the gradual death of the “well-made play” (Anderson’s specialty was seminal Broad way dramas like Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father), he has nothing but respect for New Dramatists’ more recent graduates. “Look at this,” he says, leafing through a list of alumni and throwing out names like Eduardo Machado, Mac Wellman, and Maria Irene Fornes. “These are the best Off-Broadway playwrights. They’re all doing extremely well. Hell,” he adds grudgingly, “they’re getting a lot more productions than me these days.”