Arts Desk

Arena Stage Loses Key Staffers, Partially Relocates New Play Institute

So much for that slow arts news week after Christmas.

Arena Stage announced today that David Dower, right-hand man to artistic director Molly Smith, will leave the theater in April for Emerson College. Also departing for cold academic climes: the American Voices New Play Institute director Polly Carl, and several key elements of the institute. Exactly what remains in Washington and what’s headed for Boston isn’t clear, but a quick comparison of daily newspaper headlines makes plain who’s losing out:

From The Washington Post: "Arena Stage modifies research role as major players depart"

And, from the Boston Globe: "Emerson to launch theater center with program snagged from Arena Stage"

The New Play Institute was founded at Arena in 2009 with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. According to the Boston Globe’s Geoff Edgers (one of few dedicated arts news reporters left in the country at a major daily, and one of the best) the money follows Dower and Carl, and underwrites their efforts through 2014. It was Dower who approached Emerson and asked to come under the college’s wing, Edgers writes. Dower called his relationship with Arena “awkward.”

Dower arrived in D.C. in 2006 from San Francisco’s Z Space, an experimental arts venue, where he also lead the Western Presenters Commissioning Initiative. Prior to receiving the Mellon grant, Dower oversaw a new play development partnership between Arena and the National Endowment for the Arts. The status and future of that program at Arena is unclear. Carl came more recently, joining the staff in July after a two-year stint at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company. She previously worked in Minneapolis, another Midwestern theater hotbed.

But now she seems to think academia is the place for her, and for theater development, and she took to Twitter to say so: “So impressed w DC theater community/energy–hate to leave but let's conquer divides.” And minutes later, “(It’s important) to note (Emerson) is place for research AND practice/ hope we won't lose steam!”

That last comment seems counter to Arena’s official press release on the shakeup, which indicates it’s the R&D elements of play development—including the HowlRound webzine and the New Play Map—that are heading north, while the “practice” stays in D.C. The institute will remain “in full operation” according to the release. That means five resident playwrights will continue to receive a $40,000 annual salary, health benefits, and production seed money. Two shows—Karen Zacarías' The Book Club Play and Amy Freed’s You, Nero have already made it out the new play pipeline and onto Arena’s stages this season. Assuming the resulting plays are good (City Paper gave both mixed notices) the institute is a boon for Washington theatergoers. But Dower told the Globe the arrangement was a conflict of interest, and suggested new work should be nurtured by an organization that has little to gain from a new show’s ticket sales. An organization like a top-ranked liberal arts college.

Across artistic disciplines, university arts presenters are becoming more and more vital as incubators for new work. Those incubator projects range from long-term funding, such as Harvard University housing Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, to joint commissions, such as the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill underwriting a new work for the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Dower, also using Twitter to have his say in the matter, seemed to agree it was time for new plays to retreat to the Ivory Towers. “This is not about tension and snagging/losing,” he wrote. “It is about growth and the best environment to take the #newplay efforts to scale.”

An Arena Stage spokeswoman said Wednesday afternoon that the theater plans to launch a national search in 2012 for a new "senior level artistic staff member," but the title for the staff member has yet to be determined.

The original version of this post said that Polly Carl came to Arena Stage in August. She actually started the position in July. We regret the error.

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  • David Dower

    I am very sad to read this blog post, since people have taken such care to be both clear and transparent about what is happening relative to my move to Emerson College and the future of the inquiry that is housed in the American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage. We took care with it because it is both nuanced and important, to us personally, to the theater community of DC, and to the part of the field nationally that is engaged in the initiatives of the Institute.

    It’s illustrative of the lack of actual engagement with the form or the community that no effort was made to contact me or anyone else involved in this post. The author reads me on Twitter, has easy access to my e-mail address, and my phone number. So it would not have been hard to do some original reporting.

    For the record: this blog post in no way represents the facts on the ground or the state of my heart around my upcoming move from Arena Stage to Emerson College. I have been honored to be part of an extraordinary evolution at Arena over the past five-plus years. I have fully appreciated the support of Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie as we have built the programs and now, as we transition elements of those programs to a new Center. I have appreciated the support of the local theater community and will miss the many colleagues I have had the pleasure to work alongside here. There is nothing awkward about my relationship to Arena Stage. This is the first place I ever saw a professional play that wasn’t on Broadway, Zelda Fichandler has been a beacon for me throughout my career, Molly Smith has been a sponsor and champion of my work here, and the audience, volunteers, staff, and Board at Arena have all engaged the quixotic journey I’ve been on from the moment I arrived. This blog post has done a disservice to all of them to indicate otherwise.

    For anyone interested in following along a more fact-based line of inquiry around this transition, I have posted a detailed list of what’s staying and what’s going over at the New Play Blog on Arena’s website. ( I will also continue to respond to the questions and ideas that come up around it there.