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The Lark I Know and Love

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Joh Clinton Eisner standing in the middle of the room in front of an audience
John Clinton Eisner Welcoming the Audience, 2007

A year ago, I announced plans to step aside as artistic director of The Lark to make space for a new generation of leaders at the organization I co-founded in 1994.  Helping artists find their voices and share their stories is at the core of why I created the organization, and the time seemed right to pass the torch.  The Lark had earned a global reputation as a creative incubator and a place where playwrights follow their own idiosyncratic lights, write courageously about what matters to them, take risks, form lasting collaborations built on respect and trust, and establish influential careers in theater and media.  We were poised to leverage the moment by assembling a new leadership team primed and ready to take The Lark to the next level as a cultural institution while deepening our commitment in the struggle towards equity, accessibility, inclusivity, and anti-racism.  In early March 2020, the board named Stacy Waring, a gifted manager and visionary strategist with a long history at The Lark, to the newly minted role of executive director.  Together, we began to plan the search process for the artistic director who would succeed me.  I was eager to turn my attention to personal projects I had sidelined for many years and confident in our transition plan.  Then the pandemic hit.

In a certain way, the timing of the pandemic is well synchronized with our shift in leadership.  The public health lockdowns and their economic repercussions, along with rekindled conversations about public accountability for systemic racism and cultural gatekeeping spurred by the recent murders of George Floyd and others, are requiring the whole of society to assess next steps.  This is a critical moment of inflection, both inside and outside The Lark, and we’ve used this time during the pandemic to hold space for our affiliated artists and to align our mission and values with our plans for the future.  Throughout, our resilient staff has kept programs going strong at a time when many artists are isolated and in economic distress.  Stacy and the board, led by New World Foundation president Colin Greer, guided us through the initial months of the pandemic while setting bold but achievable goals for programs and ensuring that critical finances were in place.  By summer, with the help of the BIPOC-led search firm ALJP Consulting, we returned to our artistic director search.  The search committee, composed of board members, staff, and artists, completed the process in January 2021 and I am delighted and energized by their choice, which the board recently approved and will be announced publicly in a matter of days.  What we imagined in soft focus a year ago has become tangible through the collaborative action of stakeholders who care deeply about The Lark and its community.  This is a consequential moment of passage for the organization and those we serve.  It is also a big transition for me as a founder passing the torch to a wonderful leadership team that I trust and am excited to support during this transition and beyond.

The Lark has been my creative home for 27 years.  Many of my most significant professional relationships are rooted in this community, which has formed my artistic vision and worldview.  The Lark was created to hold space where people can be who they are, write what they know, and support one another fully and rigorously as part of a process defined by each individual for themself.  When these conditions align for me personally, I experience what I would describe as a sense of wholeness, joy, and grace.  

This community, in turn, has been forged by many remarkable individuals who infused it with new and often groundbreaking ideas.  I am especially grateful to the various incarnations of our Board of Trustees for being a thought partner to me every step of this extraordinary journey.  Our board made possible the impact we have had on the lives of artists and positioned us for the important work yet to come.  

The Lark has been at the center of my personal life as well, as it has for my wife, actor Jennifer Dorr White, who was there from the start, when our office consisted of a memory typewriter at our dining room table.  Our children, Hannah and Jake, are also closely bound to the company.  They have often called The Lark their “elder sibling”; the company came into being a little over a year before Hannah was born, and both she and Jake grew up in its embrace.  It was as formative of their values as it has been of Jennifer’s and mine.  We’ve broken bread and shared stories with some of the most extraordinary playwrights of our time, whom our children thought of as aunts and uncles.  Hannah and Jake’s minds were cracked open at late-night potlucks featuring Sam Hunter’s spaghetti sauce, Migdalia Cruz’ empanadillas, Katori Hall’s sweet potato pie, and lots more food—and thought—shared by writers, actors, directors, producers, and friends who’d found a home at The Lark.  Sometimes the kids joined me at out-of-town writing retreats, where they’d perform the children’s parts in early drafts of some of those plays.  Once they helped cast a friend as a troubled 11-year-old in a frighteningly dark exploration of internet violence by convincing the girl’s parents of the play’s underlying moral purpose.  How many teenagers can claim, as Jake could, that he’d practiced his Arabic language skills during a translation residency in Abu Dhabi with Mona Mansour, or that Rajiv Joseph treated him to his first whiskey after a rehearsal in Transylvania?  

I had been an actor, director, producer, and theater manager before we started The Lark, but I didn’t have a very clear sense of what it meant to be a playwright.  I had to learn about their experiences from the playwrights who came to work with us.  I observed the roles people played in the rehearsal room, and how their relationships evolved, or devolved.  While there were no rules, I noticed that many directors took control of things right away, from casting to organizing the space, while many writers sat back and observed, possibly looking for solutions to challenges with which they had been grappling for months.  I saw a problem in this pattern, as it put a director in the position of making concrete decisions about a story that was brand new to them, and it removed the writer from taking responsibility for early-development decisions.  There had to be a way to soften the boundaries of these roles so that they could form-fit to the circumstances of each project.  

I was struck early on by bitter accounts from writers who traveled to theaters around the country to participate in readings of their plays in the slim hope of landing a production.  Essentially, these visits were how playwrights auditioned for a theater’s artistic decision makers, and a production was often predicated on whether the writer was willing or able to take the theater’s notes and make changes to their plays as specified by the producers, directors, and dramaturgs who were the gatekeepers.  Sometimes, it should be said, these creative suggestions were helpful, and writers welcomed them.  Sometimes the writer and theater clicked, and everyone was happy.  But even the most well-meaning gatekeepers had strong opinions about what they liked and disliked, what “worked” or “didn’t work,” or whether something might put off donors and subscribers.  Many dramaturgical conversations quickly became transactional and one-sided negotiations about politics, the acceptable level of obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity in language and action, the appropriate depiction of race and sexuality, the order of the scenes, and even the play’s length and where the intermissions should be inserted.

My playwright friends frequently returned home disheartened from these test drives: “If I do what they want, it won’t be my play anymore.” They were stuck.  The theater held the power to decide whether or not to produce a play.  Writers who wanted to have a legitimate public platform felt they needed to negotiate with that power, which usually meant acquiescence.  They could either make the changes the theater demanded or refuse and go home.  Even the writer’s agent, when there was one, didn’t hold a lot of sway in these situations; in fact, it was often in the agent’s interest to position their client for future productions or television opportunities by accepting the gig at whatever cost.  Often, the result of this power struggle was the erosion of the playwright’s confidence.  They’d begin to doubt their play and, far worse, themselves.  They’d make a few modifications here and there so there wouldn’t be so much criticism the next time.  They’d make it neater, clarify the action a bit, but it would usually be far less interesting, less spontaneous, less mysterious.  This slippery decline was the extreme opposite of the trust I had observed in other creative rooms, and I suspected I knew why.  Over the years, I’ve become convinced that creativity doesn’t thrive where power dynamics are unequal.  Positive and sustainable outcomes are more likely to spring from a calm, process-oriented mindset than from threats and ultimatums.  

Sitting in rooms with playwrights has taught me a great deal about how creativity works, and especially about what gets in its way.  Entering a creative space is as much a psychological and spiritual act as a physical one.  We are largely the product of how we were nurtured, and it takes a great deal of consciousness to function independently of cultural myths and belief systems embedded in our laws, family dynamics, education, religion, history, and most everything else upon which we rely to get through the day.  In this sense, “creating” isn’t the first order of business in our pursuit of creativity.  First we need to make a space that is as free as possible from assumptions, pressures, the disproportionate exercise of power, and distorted rules about “right” and “wrong.” Let’s not call it a neutral space—nothing is neutral—but how about a “seedbed,” an open patch of soft and fertile earth with access to the sun and sky?   

The Lark’s creative methodology is the result of trial and error.  Over the years, I have gathered a few guiding principles and encouraged them in our programs.  Perhaps the most important condition for creative collaboration is a mindset of mutual respect, without which trust is not possible.  Mutual respect seldom happens by chance and requires us to make a choice to participate in that relationship.  Sometimes this means checking your own opinions and your power at the door and looking at the world through the eyes of the creator, without judgment.  Even the very best feedback techniques are useless without mutual respect; I have often seen them used by wily facilitators to manipulate artists as easily as to help them.  Another principle that is important to me is that it is not the respondent's job to “fix” the play, no matter how much we love the writer or want the play to “succeed.” First of all, the play isn’t “broken,” and, second, if it were, it is not the job of the respondent to fix it: it is the responsibility of the writer.  Accepting this truth is the primal act of respect.  Finally, what I’ve learned during 40 years of working on new plays is to focus on the most beautiful aspects of the story rather than its problems.  If you take care of what is beautiful, it will thrive; if you ignore it, it usually fades.  When you give a problem too much attention, it often grows bigger.  In fact, some of what we initially experience as “problems” are not really problems at all.  

In The Lark’s dramaturgy, appreciative inquiry takes the form of positive feedback that focuses on what is already working in a script.  I will reiterate what I have already said above about the value of reinforcing—and by reinforcing, I mean naming—that which is most powerful and emotionally evocative in a work of art, rather than negotiating its problems.  When we describe what we have witnessed in positive and honest terms, we are more likely to agree upon why it has value and how it has stimulated our imaginations.  Since feedback sessions are often delicate, and authors are easily put on the defensive especially when they are concerned about being respected and understood, appreciative inquiry supports a framework for establishing trust and moving more quickly and safely into high-level creative thinking and critical analysis.  It is always our hope to engage in rich, critical discussions about complex works of art and, at the same time, it is important not to rush the process.    

Over the years, I have observed that many writers and directors find it difficult to present their work simply, without dressing it up.  My suspicion is that they are often afraid that what they have to share isn’t good enough by itself, so they find ways to hide behind decor and make up little tricks to distract from what is really going on.  I believe this is a problem with how we establish power dynamics in creative spaces like rehearsals, where people are so afraid to fail in front of other people that they avoid honest discussions.  

Once, I remember visiting our studio a few days before the first public performance of a BareBones® workshop to find a stage manager on a ladder inserting blue-tinted gel to several lighting instruments while the writer and director watched.  Adding color to the lights was not something we typically permitted for the reasons I’ve described above. I asked why they were doing it, and the director replied that they wanted a particular scene in the play to have a “chillier” effect.  As our conversation progressed, I began to suspect that what was really going on was that the director had avoided a conversation with the writer about the dramatic stakes of the  scene in question  and, instead, was planning to throw chilly light on the actors as a workaround.  We opened up the script and talked about the scene, and an hour later we threw away the blue gel.    

The Lark began, as many theaters do, as a circle of friends trying to create opportunities for one another.  We’d spend endless hours together composing fundraising letters, stamping envelopes, sending invitations, and painting scenery for the chance to put up a show for a few short weeks in a dusty theater where the audience bathroom was backstage.  I don’t think we would have survived for more than a year if we hadn’t booked a space at New Dramatists to host our first Playwrights’ Week Festival and published a call for play submissions.  When the scripts came pouring in, we knew we’d tapped into a real need.  

At that time, there were not many theaters that welcomed scripts without an agent’s imprimatur.  One of the few that did was the National Playwrights Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center, which had offices in New York and a rambling retreat center on the Long Island Sound.  I had worked there as an assistant to Marsue Cumming and Lloyd Richards, and later as a production assistant for the O’Neill Center’s playwriting, musical theater, and television programs, so I saw their process for choosing plays and how they established a creative environment for writers and composers, much of which we would eventually adapt for Playwrights’ Week and other Lark programs.  Up until the 1960’s, many playwrights had developed their voices at community theaters: Eugene O’Neill with the Provincetown Players on Cape Cod, Tennessee Williams at The Mummers in St. Louis, and August Wilson at Black Horizon Theater in Pittsburgh, to name a few.  Television and the suburbs were killing community theater, yet there was still an appetite for new plays, so script development laboratories like the O’Neill—along with New York’s New Dramatists and Minneapolis’  Playwrights Center—had begun to fill that gap.  

We produced a number of the plays that came to us through Playwrights’ Week, but soon shifted completely away from productions and made it a priority to support authors in developing a body of work.  We became what I like to call a "rehearsal company."  We began to think of our role differently.  We were a play laboratory, a think tank for the theater, and a research and development space.  Really, our passion and purpose never changed, but our sights narrowed to focus on the key decision-making role of writers as leaders and visionaries.

Playwrights took the lead in designing a toolbox of interrelated programs that would be useful in their various processes.  It became evident that many of the most important stories we wanted to support were from historically marginalized communities, so we began to expand our search for writers and create strategies to be more welcoming and inclusive.  We established evaluation criteria that allowed for different ways of defining good work, encouraged diverse approaches to creativity, and helped writers define and describe their own writing goals and paths to success.

Global programs played a critical role in our mission of seeking diverse voices.  As opportunities proliferated, we thought carefully about our goals in global, diasporic, and intercultural exchange so that we could prioritize them. These goals included opening a dialogue across our border with Mexico, too long suppressed; engaging bilingual artists in the U.S. in new and meaningful ways; comparing approaches to democracy and free speech in the U.S., former Soviet-bloc countries, Chinese-speaking territories, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere; holding space for respectful conversations across religious, racial, gender, cultural, and political identities; and examining the social consequences of historical and present-day global migration patterns stemming from colonialism and refugee crises. 

We organized a broad range of generative writing workshops, on- and offsite, including our Playwrights’ Workshop, led by Arthur Kopit and other esteemed dramatists, who, along with early-career writers, began to use our programs to develop their own new ideas.  We set up writer-centric residencies, like Studio Retreats and BareBones® workshop productions, for the ongoing development of plays through writer-driven rehearsals and un-reviewed public presentations, where directors and actors came to understand and cherish their role in supporting the playwright’s process.  Much of our methodology is based on what we have learned over time by bringing small groups together in circles to focus on the playwright’s goals.  

The economics of playwriting has been a consistent challenge.  Because many of the writers who most excite us cannot afford to take time away from survival jobs to write, we have long been committed to increasing artist compensation.  We took a big leap in 2006, when Lark staff member Daniella Topol collaborated with the playwright and longtime board member Sandi Goff Farkas to pilot the Playwrights of New York ("PoNY") Fellowship.  The PoNY encouraged both creativity and productivity, and, on a national level, helped spark a new wave of larger financial awards given directly to artists rather than to institutions. 

In the wake of the PoNY Fellowship—which lasted 10 years and offered one fellow each year approximately $100,000 of support in the form of stipend, housing, health insurance, creative support and career guidance—we began to build a portfolio of life- and career-sustaining fellowships as part of a strategy to remove even more economic barriers to participation.  These fellowships now include an annual Van Lier New Voices Fellowship for two BIPOC playwrights aged 30 and under, The Apothetae & Lark Playwriting Fellowship, which supports a playwright identifying as Deaf/Disabled for a two-year residency along with a subsidy to incentivize producers to mount one of their plays, and the two-year Venturous Playwriting Fellowship, which supports a cohort of three writers whose work is considered “venturous” in that they are challenging to produce based on size, form, or content, each of whom receives a generous stipend along with a production enhancement subsidy.  The growth of our fellowship programs remains a key strategic priority.

All our programs have come from listening to artists tell us what they need, counting on a dedicated staff to meet those needs, and collaborating with exceptional partners.  I am proud of our contributions to artists’ careers and our influence on contemporary culture rooted in our support of the writer’s process.  During my time as artistic director, I have learned a great deal about myself and the world from the intelligent and generous community that has made this company what it has become.  As I prepare to pass the baton and seek opportunities beyond The Lark, I am certain that everything I do in the future will be informed by Lark values and the relationships that I have formed here.

I am over the moon about what the coming decades hold in store under Lark’s extraordinary new leadership.  This accomplished team will no doubt face steep challenges every day just as we have since the beginning.  But they know where they are going and they are ready to take us into the future.  They will continue to adapt our programs to artists’ needs.  They will connect artists with the world through global exchanges and publishing projects.  They will introduce our creative methodologies to communities all over the country.  They will expand our portfolio of transformational fellowships, and much more.  

Above all, our next generation of leaders will prioritize the health of our community as we come through this strange time of global pandemic, and for years to come.  Community is the foundation of the work we do with artists, including honest conversations in the rehearsal room about art and society.  But we also aspire for our community to be a model for how people can find mutual respect and common cause in the world beyond the theater, by listening better to one another, opening themselves up to wonder, and embracing the thrilling promise of change.

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