Specialization and Its Discontents
Recently I had the opportunity to write and perform a new solo play. I had mixed feelings about taking on the project. After all, I hadn’t created a solo performance in more than five years, and had been focused solely on building a freelance directing career.
But in the midst of performing it, I was struck by how energized I felt, how thrilled I was to be telling a story directly from my heart. After so many projects where my role as a director was more about mediating an idea between a playwright and an audience, it was exhilarating to have my own ass on the line again. Afterwards, I thought, okay, great, done with that, now back to directing other people’s scripted plays.
A few weeks later, though, something happened that caused me to question the larger implications this might have on my career. I casually mentioned my performance to a lit manager friend, who was shocked by my creative moonlighting. He had no idea I had ever written anything, let alone four solo plays and several adaptations and original short scripts. Why did he have no idea? Because I had never told him. I had only ever presented myself to him as a new plays director. In fact, I had barely told anyone in my New York community about this project, or any of my past experiences as a writer. I am constantly inviting folks to come see work I’ve directed by other playwrights, but I found myself being secretive about my own creations. I realized that I was worried that if the word really got out in New York that I was interested in roles besides directing, it would somehow diminish my momentum as a director.
Like farmers who rotate crops to ensure that the soil contains a variety of nutrients, if I only direct, then my only perspective will be the director’s perspective.
Where did this belief come from? Certainly, the field is full of multi-disciplinary artists. Many of the folks whose work I admire most, including many who contribute in HowlRound, consider themselves to be “slash artists”: writer/director/performer/producers. But I know there are others out there like me who have felt pressure to specialize in one thing. Is that pressure internal or external? In other words, are the walls I want to put up between my various creative activities self-perpetuated, or has the field become so segmented that branching out, especially before you’ve reached a certain status, is impossible?
When I was younger, I didn’t worry as much about titles. I always did a lot of directing and assistant directing, but mixed in with that was traveling, teaching, studying, dramaturging, performing, and writing. Eventually, an offer to assistant-direct an Off-Broadway musical brought me to New York, where I chose to stay. Here, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of “emerging” artists in each individual discipline. Each professional track (actor, writer, director, etc.) seemed to have its own set of hoops to jump through (actor training programs, writers’ groups, directing fellowships, etc.). I was reluctant to form a company, feeling that I lacked the necessary network to raise money, so I started down the winding path of a freelancer. I began to think of myself as a product for sale as opposed to an artist with a unique voice. To make myself the most efficient, market-friendly product possible, I decided not to bring my compound artistic identity around with me. (Forgoing Steve Jobs’ example, I stopped presenting myself as capable of making the whole widget.) Directing was the activity that first brought me to New York, and if I had to tick one box, directing definitely felt like the most complete expression of my creative identity. So I stuck with it. Certainly some of that decision to limit myself was specific to my own personal values and fears (and distaste for the word “auteur”). But some of it also was generated by emerging director programs which reward single-minded career focus over a more periscopic approach to making theater. Mentors told me to prepare an “elevator speech” to pitch myself to artistic directors and producers. That elevator speech had to be short, sweet, and to the point, and could therefore only include one handle. Either I was the musicals director, the new plays director, the classics director, the “edgy/experimental” director, etc. And no matter what, I was a director. Maybe two or three folks out there could really claim to have more than one “specialty” and they were decades older than me, more established, and/or had their own companies (the Hollywood parallel would be celebrity actors who try their hand at directing or producing or, recently, playwriting). Presenting myself as a director/writer, a director/monologist, or a director/adapter would only muddle the conversation and make me less hireable. After all, I only had those ten elevator seconds to make a solid, clear impression, or I’d be out of luck.
Now, several years after moving to New York, I’m well on my way to building a respectable freelance career as an “emerging new plays director.” I’ve leapt through some (but not all) of those requisite hoops, and I am building a solid community of actors, playwrights, producers, and theaters who are excited about me. Then, that tricky thing happened with the solo show. It felt good to make it, even though it was completely off my established path. It reminded me that I could be a generative artist, as well as an interpretive one (to use grantspeak). What if ... freelance directing alone is not going to satisfy me in the long haul? What if all those latent pursuits, especially creating my own work or running a company, have stopped waiting patiently on the sidelines and are demanding my attention? As I started sending out the solo play (on the advice of that lit manager friend), I thought, here I go, risking a hard-earned identity as a “one-hat” artist and slowly expanding my professional identity in the field.
I decided to use this moment as an opportunity to make a few overall changes in my professional life. To make room for new creative activities, something else would have to go. To create change, I would have to start saying “no” to some things. Polly Carl wrote very honestly about “no” often being a failure of imagination. While I believe that to be true in many cases, there are also occasions where “yes” represents the failure of the imagination. In this case, my overuse of “yes,”, especially to projects that didn’t especially excite or challenge me, led to a long postponement of a serious self-reflection about my career activities. Saying “yes” as an emerging artist in New York often means believing really hard that mediocre opportunities today will lead to better ones tomorrow. I don’t want to sound unappreciative for the many fun, small-scale projects I’ve been asked to do, but the fact is, some of those “yeses” could have been “nos.” However, turning them down often felt like career suicide, because, after all, “Who knows where it might lead?” Busyness is sometimes considered a measurement of success around here, so I completely filled my dance card to the point that I never stopped to examine how satisfying each experience was, or how I was growing as an artist on the whole. The solo show and several other deviations from the path (such as running a summer theater apprenticeship program for college students) have given me the courage and, frankly, the income, needed to press pause on what I had been doing and take stock of the bigger picture.
Even if I do continue primarily directing, my occasional creative forays elsewhere would be invaluable. My interpretive abilities as an artist are only as rich as my life experience. And if my sole creative activity is directing other people’s work, as challenging and exciting as that often is, my personal well may soon run dry. Like farmers who rotate crops to ensure that the soil contains a variety of nutrients, if I only direct, then my only perspective will be the director’s perspective. On a very basic level, by putting myself up onstage and performing something I had written, I reconnected with the risks that the actors and playwrights I collaborate with take every day. On a deeper level, making work about something that I cared about personally, and being solely responsible for both its creation and its execution, was an invaluable reminder that I too have something to offer to the conversation. I have experiences that audiences are interested in learning about, and perspectives that can influence or alter people’s ideas. I know that may sound obvious, but to me it was very profound.
My overuse of “yes,”, especially to projects that didn’t especially excite or challenge me, led to a long postponement of a serious self-reflection about my career activities.
From now on, I will dispense with elevator speeches. I will stop reducing myself to a sound bite or tagline. I will resist labeling myself as the go-to guy for a certain “kind” of theater or directing. Instead of leading with my director-self and asking what existing theater projects might require my directing services, I will lead with my artist-self, and create work by initiating conversations, by exploring topics that interest me or questions that challenge me, and then subsequently ask if I should frame that question as a director, playwright, actor, or producer.
Part of my motive for writing this post is to actively overcome some of my fear about introducing myself to the field as a “more than director.” The professional hit I may take by pursuing interests other than directing matters less to me than my desire to have a full and multifaceted life making theater. Yes, while I will still take freelance directing opportunities (I’m available!), I know now that is not the whole story, and that from now on I will no longer try to limit my creative contribution to the theater.