January 30, 2003 


ASK Not Playing Around

Theatre funding org's new programs to develop artists and companies rather than new plays.


by Rob Kendt


After six months of often skeptical rumors about its future and the death of its namesake, West L.A.-based Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater Projects has unveiled a streamlined set of new funding programs aimed, in its words, at supporting "great work, great people, great companies." Programs for commissioning and developing new plays have been trimmed (along with A.S.K.'s literary department), replaced by an emphasis on largely unrestricted cash grants for artists and companies who've done work that, in the words of executive director Kym Eisner, "meets our mission: It challenges conventions and values the collaborative process."


In other words: same message, different medium.


"The program areas are all either rethought or new," said Eisner last week. "All the decisions we've made are to enable us to put more money directly in the hands of people who create art. Artists are always going to be in a better position to determine their needs than organizations; and what's driving all these programs is the urge to give artists their power back."


The most promising program for individual artists is the new "TIME grant" program: Standing for "Time for Inspiration, Motivation, and Exploration," TIME will award four to six artists annually with $45,000 grants each to "pursue their artistic development." The program, which will not accept applications but will evaluate nominations from an invited panel, is intended for experienced but under-recognized theatre professionals--actors, playwrights, designers, composers, directors, choreographers, producers/presenters--and requires of them merely some occasional reporting on their progress and a few retreats with fellow honorees to "hang out and talk about art," as Eisner put it.


Also brand new, and heartening for local theatre makers who feared that A.S.K. may be setting its sights outside its backyard, is the Los Angeles Initiative, an annual program giving "season support" to L.A.-area theatre companies who have demonstrated a commitment to producing challenging new work over a period of at least three years; eligible companies must have budgets ranging from $75,000 to $1.5 million. The program has a total $75,000 purse, which Eisner estimated will be channeled into six to eight grants per year. A.S.K. will accept applications to this program by "invitation only."


The other brand-new program, the Audrey Award, is an intriguing national initiative designed to recognize "the original non-commercial American theatrical production that best advances the art form." In its first year of consideration--which, like all the new programs, begins in fall 2003--a total of 36 new productions in L.A., New York, and Chicago will be seen by an anonymous jury of five. Their votes will hand a $25,000 first prize to the production team responsible for the year's top show (and $5,000 to three runners-up). As with the first two programs, no applications are accepted; instead, A.S.K. will seek nominations from a selected panel.


The new focus on grants for artists and organizations, as opposed to mainly playwrights, is not entirely new, said Eisner. "Over the last four or five years, we weren't so literary anymore. We've been trying since 1997 to focus on new theatre, not just new plays and playwrights." Last year's tumultuous reorganization, in which longtime literary director Mead Hunter and others were let go, was part of a complete overhaul in the same direction. While Eisner said that last year's negative rumors and speculation about the organization did not influence the new programming decisions, a national advisory committee that convened last summer did have a lot of input. The TIME grants, for instance, came directly out of advisory committee members, such as playwrights Naomi Iizuka and Erik Ehn, saying, according to Eisner, "Give us back the power." Eisner said she'd felt that a slew of $10,000 play commissions weren't "really making a difference; we were spread too thin." Last week, upon hearing about the new programs, one member of the advisory committee reportedly told her, "Those TIME grants could change someone's life."


Two programs that remain--Hot Properties, a three-play season of new work co-produced with L.A. County at the Ford Amphitheatre, and New Plays/New Ways, which funds established theatres' new play development programs--remain open to applications from individuals and companies. For information about these, and all of A.S.K.'s programs, visit