Sarah Benson Reps Soho Rep

02/01/2012 6:00 AM |

At Soho Rep, do you take it as an assumption that you need to have a designer who is different than the playwright, for instance? When you're building the team for each show do you have a structure in mind?
Absolutely not. In Uncle Vanya, Annie Baker, the playwright, is actually designing the clothes. Or I'm working on this long-range project with the designer Louisa Thompson, who is instigating the whole project, and now we're thinking about bringing in writers. Or someone like John Jesurun does everything—he's the writer and the designer and also the director and he very much has a very holistic vision. And I even think about Young Jean Lee like that—she has a design team, but she sort of art directs her shows, I would say. She has incredible designers who realize that with her, but I feel like she really approaches it [as a kind of art director]. But I also consider her a playwright.

I look at the Soho Rep and the Foundry Theatre, for instance, as places that let a project have its own terms and I see that as providing a more successful platform for innovation than many other theaters that are clinging to a more traditional model.
I think what you just said about each project having its own terms is huge. It's almost like we reinvent the company around each show. We're producing in a 22 foot by 40 foot by 14 foot space, but within that room, the goal is to try and let the needs of the artist drive how we build the process.

I wanted to talk again for a second about fair pay for artists. I don't know if you read that book Outrageous Fortune, but it made it painfully clear that playwrights are among the least paid for their work in the theater world.
They are, totally. But I would also say, and this is something that my colleague Caleb [Hammons, Producer at Soho Rep] and I talk about all the time, that there's no commissioning and development money put into ensemble and performance-driven work. It's just expected to materialize and be production-ready. People kind of understand commissioning a playwright, but there's not very much understanding of commissioning an ensemble or a director or another lead artist.

So they're even less paid than playwrights!
Yeah. I mean, I would say there's often, unfortunately, a lot of the new-hot-person that everyone chases with their money, but I would say there are at least funding pools out there for playwrights.

I think that's actually a great point, in terms of expanding an understanding of what performance really is. As it gets back to the core question of who can be the generative artist and the ways we consistently undervalue generative artists.
I definitely feel like American theater is playwright-driven, it's text-driven, it's obsessed with story, which isn't a bad thing, but it's a fact. So it's hard for them to get a handle on what commissioning [an ensemble or a non-playwright] would mean or what development would mean. Whereas with commissioning a playwright, of course each writer has a very distinctive process, there's a product at the end, in theory. And I think more and more playwrights, at least the writers we're working with, are wanting a process closer to that you provide for an ensemble. They want time and space in a room with their team. We're working with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Sylvan Oswald this spring on their studio projects and both of those are evolving and what these writers need is time and space, the same as an ensemble would. I mean, there are still writers for whom time and space alone with their laptop is what they need, but I think that is not always the case anymore.