The NEC: A Writer’s Theatre
Doug always maintained that the NEC was a “writer’s theatre”. And that was only natural since he had come to the theatre as a writer and despite accolades for his acting and direction his major artistic ambitions still revolved around his literary endeavors. So when the company was started Ward as Artistic Director set out to discover and nurture African American playwrights of talent whichever way they could. It was for this reason that the Playwright’s Workshop continued to be a part of the NEC’s operational program long after the Acting classes, Design classes, Public Relations classes etc had to be discontinued due to a lack of funds.
“When I set out, I set out to do text plays because it was transferable. It can be duplicated; it can be entered into, revived and re-experienced. We were lacking a body of work that could disseminate itself into the environment. A start had to be made somewhere and this was the place as far as I was concerned…One of the things that was important for me to explore and confirm in an experimental way was something that I felt theoretically. This had to do with the variety of black material I felt was out there. I also knew that Black theatre and Black artistry was considerably more varied than most people suspected. In fact it is more varied than it is alike. We have all sorts of stories that we tell and an infinite number of ways of telling them. But unfortunately many people, white critics in particular, have tried to stereotype black writers by throwing them all into the naturalistic bag. The “Family play…Family drama” nonsense. But if you look closely even the term “family drama” is a misnomer because if they ever bothered or were even capable of looking at the works closely they would see that the so called “family drama” were more metaphoric than naturalistic.
What you had were black writers who during that time were beginning to express themselves in a wide variety of ways and styles… They were broad and diverse using whatever modes they needed to communicate whatever it is they had to say. They were eclectic and like black musicians they were using whatever raw material was on hand to fit their purpose. So when you look across the spectrum of the type of plays we produced you will find everything from realistic and naturalistic dramas to farce, satire, poetic plays symbolic comedies, musicals, science fiction, gothic horror, and history plays. It’s all there all one has to do is look. And it wasn’t accidental. This was something I set out to discover and prove right from the beginning.”
The virtue of the NEC being in the NEC’s writer’s workshop was that you could develop yourself regardless of whether the NEC produced you or not. You have to remember we were only able to do four plays a season and sometimes even less when money was a problem. So that there was no way we could produce the works of every good or potentially good writer who came through the door. That was never the idea. The idea was to help writers develop their work so that they might have a chance of getting them produced elsewhere perhaps .And that was the idea of our “Season within a Season”. We had a 75 seat theatre space upstairs of the St. Marks Theatre and I thought “Why the hell not use it?” Lonne Elder was the first writing workshop director and then Steve Carter took it over. Steve basically ran it as a workshop theatre in the sense that plays were selected and they were given at least a staged reading and sometimes close to a full but skeletal production in that space.. So we were trying to give those writers every chance we had available to us.
Doug Ward (tape interview 6-6-95)
If one is interested in looking at a cross section of the plays produced by the NEC under Doug’s tenure as Artistic Director take a look at the book Classic Plays from the Negro Ensemble Company edited by Gus Edwards and Paul Carter Harrison with an insightful introduction by Douglas Turner Ward. The book was published in 1995 by The University of Pittsburg Press.