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Bardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Scenario 1:

Lets say your life dream is to become the artistic director of a LORT theater company.

And in this hypothetical scenario, you’re lucky enough to be financially able to intern for your dream company. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, you’re not that financially lucky—in fact, if you don’t turn this internship into a paid gig pronto, your shot at future theater-related employment period is in serious jeopardy.

But don’t worry. It’s cool. You’re also a very (hypothetically) industrious worker in this scenario, and everybody likes you in the office, because you come in early, stay late, have good taste, and aren’t a jerk.

So when the fates throw you a bone, you’re in a perfect position to take it.

Unfortunately, in this hypothetical scenario, it’s a literal bone. Bone cancer actually. A thing that Sheila, the company manager, apparently suffered from until she passed away over the weekend. She was an exceptionally sweet woman. Devoted her entire life (which was at least twice as long as your entire life at this point) to the dream theater you hope to one day artistically direct. No matter how stressful things got or how monotonous the administrative work was, she always happily suffered through it with a smile because she believed that theater was her higher calling. Which is why she continued to come in regularly up until her final days.

And I know this probably isn’t the time to say anything about this, but the theater just opened an audacious, not to mention incredibly expensive, production of Romeo and Juliet that takes place in Iraq in the year 2035 or some shit, and realistically, if the theater is going to make it through the play’s run efficiently, they need a company manager in place.

But, again, don’t worry. Maria, the artistic director pulled you into her office a few weeks ago and briefed you on all of this. And when she asked—lord only knows why—that in the event that Sheila can no longer perform her job, if you would be willing to take over her duties until a replacement could be found, you obviously said yes.

And guess what? You’re fuckin’ awesome at company management. And you get a salary. And you get medical benefits. And the futuristic Iraqi Romeo and Juliet just broke attendance records (for reasons that are inexplicable) and netted the theater mad cash. (Especially since Billy Shakespeare still works for free even when you change the context and meaning of his script!)

Even better than that: You’re so fuckin’ awesome at company management that they don’t need to find a replacement. It’s your job. And you work that job for years and years and years, and get significantly better at it for doing so.

But somewhere during that time the shine starts to wear off a little bit, and you remember that little kid with a dream who wanted to be an artistic director, because like Sheila, theater is your higher calling. And company management is cool and everything, but if this were a corporate management job, your pay would be a lot higher and your medical benefits would be a lot better (the hours would probably be about the same), and since you’ve aged a bit, that type of stuff is starting to matter more to you, even though you know the corporate job ultimately wouldn’t make you feel fulfilled the way toiling for your dream theater would. But some days it’s a nice pipe dream.

And then one day it happens.

A tragic car accident. And suddenly Maria’s tenure as artistic director is cut short (though perhaps not short enough for your taste).

Suddenly other employees and board members start turning to you for advice on how to pull out of this tragedy. Fear is readily apparent in their eyes. And this is the part where you shine—far brighter than when Sheila passed. You shine in a way that make previous attempts at shining look like a wet matchbook compared to a super nova. You shine because you’ve attained your life’s goal of finally becoming The Artistic Director of Your Dream Theater. And you get a significant raise in pay! You win at life! Congratulations!

Scenario 2:

Now let’s change the hypothetical scenario a little bit. Instead of being an artistic director, your life dream is playwriting.

You’ve got a good start with a handful of storefront productions under your belt, but it does start to occur to you that if you don’t turn this writing stuff into a paid gig pronto, your shot at future writing-related employment period is in serious jeopardy.

But that’s cool, because that forces you to get better as a writer. They say the best drama comes out of high stakes, and this is life or death for you, so you write a play that is unfucking believably awesome and finally indicative of all the blood and time and talent that you’ve put into playwriting.

And after you send a ten-page sample of the thirteenth draft to your dream theater, instead of receiving a rejection form email like you’ve gotten for every other ten-page sample of a thirteenth draft you’ve sent to your dream theater, you get a handwritten letter in the mail from the literary manager, who really, genuinely enjoyed your play, but unfortunately, thinks that it will not fit in with their current season.

And you understand, you’re a new playwright after all, you don’t really have a “name” for yourself yet, despite your past storefront successes.

But what did they mean by that last thing about “not fitting in” with the season?

You scurry to the theater’s website and read their current season: Gem Of The Ocean, The Bald Soprano, 4.48 Psychosis, Rent, The Children’s Hour,  and an audacious—not to mention incredibly expensive—production of Romeo and Juliet set on Wall Street during the height of the Reagan era or some shit.

At first you’re confused. That’s a pretty diverse season! A good mix of classical and contemporary plays. There’s a musical, an absurdist play, a reimagining of a classic text. There’s even a play by a writer of color, and another by a woman, and a few by some Europeans! How could your play not “fit in” with a season like that?

And then it hits you like a tragic car accident: every single playwright with a play in the current season is dead.

Was “dead playwrights” the theme of the season or something? No, the website says the theme of the season is “variety,” which is ironic considering variety is often referred to as the spice of life…

And then you read that story about the current artistic director getting the job after the previous artistic director was killed in an accident, and you think, “There’s a lucky bastard. His competition didn’t continue taking his job after she died!”

These two hypothetical scenarios may seem morbid or absurd. But I feel fairly confident that if some sort of census was to be taken from the last decade of American theatermaking, counting up the total number of productions by playwrights who are dead versus playwrights who are alive, The Zombies would outnumber those of us with pulses by a large margin.

Which sincerely begs to question: Do artistic directors have a bias against playwrights who are alive? Are they “Life-ist?” “Pulse-Phobic?” Do they hate my heartbeat?

Is all that “There are only a small number of production spots per year for new playwrights to compete over” nonsense just conspiratorial doublespeak from our undead theater overlords?

I mean, I get it. Dead people work for cheaper than those of us who breathe air. And they’ve got more name recognition and audience draw. Plus, they won’t show up to rehearsal with script changes or input. There’s no need to spend money “developing” their plays. Their work is finite. Frozen forever in perfection.

Comparatively, every other living writer’s work is a work in progress. I guess all artists remain that way until they shuffle off this mortal coil. But the only way there’ll be a new Shakespeare or Sarah Kane or August Wilson for audiences to enjoy after their untimely passings is by giving new playwrights support in the form of productions, development, publicity, and money while they’re still breathing.

And how can we get those things if Zombies are literally taking hundreds of our potential jobs a year?

So I suggest we living theater artists form an anti-Zombie coalition, where we ask living artistic directors to stop giving preference to corpses over those of us playwrights who still ingest oxygen.

I’m not just saying this for my own self-interest. It cannot be a sign of creative health for our industry that our biggest products are from 400 years ago.

Can you imagine any scenario where scientists decide to operate strictly by principles that are pre-dated Isaac Newton? Or where the automotive industry decides it doesn’t want to use any technology made after 1950?

Or have I just spent my entire life missing the point?

Is theater’s only purpose to be beholden to the past?

Is it naive of me to think otherwise?

Or is that something I won’t find out until after I’m dead?

In which case, should I maybe kill myself?

Because it seems like that would increase my possibility for production and notoriety as a playwright.

But the thing is, I don’t really want to kill myself.

I think right now is a really cool and interesting time.

In fact, I’ve been working on a new play about it.

It’s an audacious reimagining of Romeo and Juliet. After Romeo ends his life, Juliet abstains from suicide and decides instead to start a life with Romeo’s festering corpse, and it’s only then that she realizes she truly and deeply loved him.

...or some shit.


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Ira Gamerman, I love you. You're brilliant. And you make some very good points.

The Horrible thing I keep hearing is that "audiences want this," by this meaning "plays which have proven to bring in audiences over a long period of time." New plays are considered " too risky."

However, theater audiences are said to be diminishing.

Sooooo.... Okay. You're producing the dead playwrights, because you say it's what your audiences want, but your audiences are diminishing, so you have to come up with inventive new ways to market?

Or, maybe the product is the problem, not how it's positioned?

I don't know. When a new movie comes out, it gets marketed and people show up to see it. Why don't we just market new plays like movies? Make flashy trailers, and show what elements the new product has in common with previously successful products. Isn't that basically what movie trailers do?

Just to grab a random example, take a look at Dad's Garage in Atlanta, and how they market some new shows.


It doesn't come right out and say "if you liked X, you'll love Y," but it does tell you "from the guys who brought you (previous show)." They do reference pop culture a lot, but okay, fine. just bring audiences in to see something new!

Excellent essay! (And a breath of fresh air and true insights after that moldy old [and remarkably condescending] "Why Playwrights Fail" diatribe that Howlround has been incessently promoting lately for some unknown reason.)

Maybe if these AD habits are publicized enough they will be motivated to change their ways. As it is, things seem to be heading in the wrong direction. (For instance, many people are shocked that a venerable theater group that has long been known for producing new work is producing Shakespeare this season.)

Of course it all comes down to the public's preference for fame and celebrity, all else being equal. So the solution is to make sure that new plays are outstanding -- even better than those written by the famous dead.

Alas, so many ADs have reasons for choosing (when they do produce new plays) ones that are not the best (thus the lack of blind submissions at virtually all theaters), instead chosing them because of who wrote them or how suited they are to the roles. Which reinforces in the public mind that new plays aren[t as good as those by the famous dead.

"Of course it all comes down to the public's preference for fame and celebrity, all else being equal."
Good point. I think "new play starring Jimmy Smits" is easier to sell than "old play not starring a tv star," or "Barbara's Wedding, written by the guy from Home Alone." But I think if we use the familiar to sell the unfamiliar, we might be onto something.