“It's Not You, It’s Us”
About two years ago, I began workshopping an amazing new play by a really killer young playwright. Then, last summer, after a bunch of readings, at least three script overhauls and even a staged workshop, the play was selected to be workshopped at a prominent development house. I was genuinely happy for this writer. I think the play is amazing and fresh and fun and smart. So, of course, I immediately knew I’d be bidding it good-bye. You see, I’ve never worked at this development house and I know how these things go. The playwright assured me that they would press to have me continue on with the piece. And a week or so later, the artistic director of the theatre wrote me a three-sentence email asking if I was free for the dates of the workshop, and to get back to her right away, because she was asking other directors. She implied that if all of them didn’t work out, I could be considered. I wrote back immediately, of course, telling her that yes, I was free, and if she needed any information or would like to chat about my work, or chat with the playwright and I together, I’d love to, because I loved the play and the writer and wanted to continue our relationship. The artistic director wrote back, “I’ll have an answer for you this week.” I waited, hoping all the other older, more talented, more important directors with MFAs would be busy. Turns out at least one of them was not. And I never heard from the artistic director again. It was clear she merely contacted me to appease the playwright (assuming that the writer did, in fact, actually advocate for me, which of course I can’t know for sure). But I suspect the artistic director never had any intention of even considering me. I found out on Facebook that I didn’t get the gig.For all this artistic director knows, I never found out at all.
Can you imagine if you were an actor and you did all the rehearsals, but when the show opened, some other actor took your place? Or a designer who only got to create the light plot and then had to hand it off to another designer? When you put so much work into something, you want to see it through to production. And the next production and the next one. As a director, my artistry isn’t in readings or coffee meetings or phone chats or music stands or talkbacks. My art, and the art of my colleagues, is creating a 3-D theatrical event from the script, which starts out as an initial blueprint. And because, even though it says “by [insert name of playwright],” you feel, in a sense, that it is “by” you as well. You cast that weird actor the writer never would have thought of that revolutionized the play. You sat in Starbuck’s with index cards, shifting them around to uncover the particular code that would unlock the dramaturgy in the most satisfying way. You spent hours picking apart that critical beat where the main character makes a decision that changes the course of the play. But ultimately, we all know the play belongs to the writer, of course, not to us. And I would never begrudge a writer I work with an opportunity to have their work produced, with or without me. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful. As directors, we must accept that we own nothing, no matter how much we care, no matter how much we invest.
My art, and the art of my colleagues, is creating a 3-D theatrical event from the script, which starts out as an initial blueprint. And because, even though it says “by (insert name of playwright),” you feel, in a sense, that it is “by” you as well.
When I began to write the article, still stinging from the obvious dismissal of, and frankly, disrespect for the work I did to support that playwright in creating a play that apparently that artistic director liked enough to choose out of hundreds of submissions, I thought I was going to write about how in the new play world, directors are wronged. They are cast aside! They are underappreciated! They are victims in a senseless game of theatre chess! But then I got over myself and my ego (mostly) and thought—I don’t actually think playwrights or artistic directors are monsters. I know they are well meaning artists, committed, as I am, to enriching the fabric of American theatre. So what’s at the core of this issue?
After mulling it over on my own, I updated my Facebook status and wrote: “Playwrights and directors: help me out...what do you think is the greatest contribution(s) directors make in a new play development process?” I sat and waited smugly for the glowing reports of how that one director saved the show with her keen dramaturgical insight and how one time, that other director solved the last moment of the play with his brilliant staging idea. I planned on turning these responses into a defense of the relevance of the American theatre director and proof that directors are essential partners for playwrights everywhere. But I am not too proud to tell you, that is absolutely not the feedback I received. I was privately messaged by about a dozen playwrights and a few more wrote on my wall. The consensus was shocking to me. Some direct quotes:
Directors are spread too thin.
They never give their full attention.
My play is never their number one priority.
They are constantly trading up.
I’m afraid I’ll lose my director to some better projects.
Directors take six months to a year to get back to me.
As mean as it is, I hate it when directors I work with start to gather speed in their career, because I know it means I’ll never see them again.
There are only two directors I work with. I don’t like working with anyone else. There’s this look in a director’s eye: that “I’d rather be looking at my BlackBerry” look.
…and on and on.
I was floored, but at the same time, I knew it was true. I have committed all those director sins, and likely more (this is a public apology to all playwrights I’ve wronged with my deep desire to check my phone constantly. Please forgive me…it’s not you, it’s me). I should also note that not a single director responded. Which is surprising, since most BlackBerrys have a Facebook app.
After digesting these responses, I realized the core of the problem. P. Carl talks about it in his April 2011 HowlRound essay “Notes on Generosity.” At the end of the day, it comes back to this scarcity narrative he describes:
Certain stories that we tell ourselves over and over rely on the idea that there isn’t enough. These are some scarcity narratives in the theatre: The story that plays are developed to death rather than produced. The story that artists are at odds with institutions. The story that nonprofit theatre is beginning to merge with commercial theatre. The story that pits playwrights against directors and directors against dramaturgs and everyone against artistic directors. These are all narratives driven by a feeling of lack—lack of respect, lack of understanding, lack of appreciation.
There are only so many productions to go around. There is only so much room for so many artists to make so much work because there are only so many donors and foundations to fund said work. Which puts producers and artistic directors in a tricky position because they feel they cannot afford to take artistic risks. I think we know that in the work we often see. But it is also reflected in the lack of diversity—of gender, race, background, and age of the artists who work on professional productions in New York and regionally. So, playwrights get frustrated with directors who don’t invest, but directors don’t invest because they will get cut because producers don’t program new directors because it’s too scary to take risks in this supposedly deathly economic climate. The scarcity narrative rears its ugly head.
Understandably, the only risks artistic directors and producers are willing to take (if any) are risks on the actual play itself. So, you can program this wacky play (possibly written by a famous writer) as long as that hot director can direct it because he never churns out a dud. This leads to the same group of six to ten directors directing 90 percent of the new plays that premiere in the New York season (not actual statistics, just perceived). The rest of the thousands of directors in New York spend their time directing copious readings and hoping to break into that elite circle. But we don’t. Like my experience last month, we end up getting cut as soon as the play we’ve worked on sees any sort of culminating moment or future life.
Understandably, the only risks artistic directors and producers are willing to take (if any) are risks on the actual play itself.
So, what happens? This mistrust bleeds into artistic relationships. As a director, I have been burned by “play poaching” so many times, I have to operate in ways that are destructive to creating trust and deepening artistic marriages between myself and the playwright. Ways that are completely at odds with my artistic collaborative philosophy. Emerging (oh god, that word!) directors all over the place are in the same boat. Here’s how it manifests:
1) Directors have to assume they will be cut from the production, so they are wary of investing too much time and energy into developmental phases or “giving away ideas” when they know they won’t get to execute those ideas. When I work with a playwright on a production, I make an image binder and a plot chart and a structure map, and I score it and I research—I do intense preparation. But, in the developmental life of a play, sadly, I’ve learned it’s not worth it. Why spend hours and hours of time on something that will never be mine? Why work so hard for a play or playwright I’ll never see again? I used to take the gamble and really dive in. But it has literally never paid off. Not once.
I am praised and thanked (sometimes over the course of years) and told I’ve unlocked the play, or helped the structure, or changed the trajectory, or clarified the dramatic arc…only to have the play “picked up” and the playwright paired with another director. So I grit my teeth and go to support the writer, only to get to see the fruits of my labor in someone else’s production. Whether it’s an ego issue or what have you, it’s a very frustrating feeling. And it’s even more frustrating to me to watch myself become less and less willing to give all of myself to playwrights I’m developing scripts with because I know it will be too painful later if I do. I don’t like not applying my whole being. I cried when I got a B+ on a fourth grade history test. It’s not in my nature to do less than 110 percent (and I think the same is true for most directors).
2) We have to constantly be on the look out for the next project, always balancing as many balls as we can, so when we get dumped from one project we have lots of back ups (hence the “I’d rather be looking at my BlackBerry” look). Once you dump me, I’ll need to have another iron in the fire—and it’s causing me to live in the next job, the next rehearsal, the next reading. Rather than in the moment we are in together.
3) We are forced to attach ourselves to institutions, not to playwrights, because there might be more potential for future work there. The writer may move on to somewhere or someone else. But if the institution likes me, I may get more gigs with some other writer (who will also leave me, but it’s OK, because I’m also directing six other readings this week, which is why I can’t meet with you in advance to talk about casting and why I’m not going to have time to read your draft before the reading, etc.).
Then I will repeat steps 1 and 2.
Now, let me be clear. This is not an indictment of producers, or artistic directors, or development departments. I’m keenly aware that there are, in fact, limited resources to produce new American plays unless you self-produce with a Kickstarter campaign and a dream. I understand the quandary. It is really terrifying to program something or someone new and risk your subscriber/donor audience’s displeasure—and then fear that their annual donation will go to cancer research or worse—to some other theatre. So, when you do take risks—if you take them—it stands to reason that you take risks on the work. But though you may have taken an aesthetic chance in a certain way, unless you’re mixing up the artists (not just writers!), you aren’t really mixing up the art.
It’s also not an indictment of writers. I love you guys. You’re brilliant. You’re funny. You’re daring. And you’re in the same boat as me. You’re just trying to get your work out there on whatever terms the world will let you. You feel powerless. You feel insignificant. You feel outside. So do I. I totally get it.
So what do we do? First, we recognize that we are all on the same team. Obviously, artistic directors are in this business to make artists happy: to serve their needs, to deepen the work, to enrich audiences with fresh and vibrant theatre. Otherwise, they would have gone off to run corporations and make more money. And obviously, directors are in it to support the work of writers; to get in there and get messy with collaborating. Otherwise, they’d go to Norway where they throw money at crazy auteurs who make puppet shows. And writers would move to the countryside and become novelists and only e-mail their publishers. So that’s good. All of us want the same thing. To make plays together as collaborators. So, how can we continue to nurture an environment of trust and mutual respect for artists at all levels?
Here are some ideas:
Producers, try not to split functional teams. Listen to the writer. If the writer requests a director, at least seriously investigate. Take just twenty minutes and see if perhaps that director might be the best person for the job. Try calling or meeting with the director and hearing his or her thoughts on and approach to the play. At some point all directors who are famous now were in the early stages of their careers and someone took a chance on them. That director may be the next Mike Nichols. And listen, I’m no fool. I get that if Michael Greif is available, you’re not going to say, “Well, but this emerging director has done ten readings of this play!” But can you engage us in some way? Can you invite us into your community? We played a role in making the play that you want to produce or program. And, if you dare, commit to taking just one chance per season.
At some point all directors who are famous now were in the early stages of their careers and someone took a chance on them.
For one show in your season, pick a director who is new to the scene. Make a commitment to foster a new talent. Playwrights deserve different perspectives on their work. You and your audiences deserve different aesthetics on your stage. Different directors will help to create these varied flavors just as much as different writers will. Playwrights: fight for your collaborators even when you feel powerless. I have fought for you. I have given out your script when you asked me to. I have brought you up to agents when I’ve met with them. I have directed and cast that reading you wanted with ten actors who weren’t being paid; I called in favors because I wanted you to hear the best version of your play. If you believe in my talent as I have believed in yours, dare to push for me. I don’t expect you to give any producer any sort of ultimatum or jeopardize your chance for a beautiful production, but mention my name.
Also, when we do get cut (which we will, it happens, we know it’s not always in your control) please thank us for our work. Call us and acknowledge what happened and make it possible for us to work with you again. Send us your next script. It smarts less to know you still respect and love us. And as for directors, I can’t speak for all of us. But, in return, artistic directors: I promise to not give up. I promise to continue to support and develop scripts that you are ultimately going to produce in your theatre. I will work hard so that they will leap out from the stacks in your office. I promise to work on readings and workshops of new American plays so that your audiences will come and love them and this art form can persist onward as it always has.
Playwrights: I personally promise to give you my attention. I promise to invest. I promise to read your script (and there are eight playwrights out there who have given me their scripts and I have not read them… some over a year ago. I am reading them this month and you will hear from me!). I promise to not build our relationship on a scarcity narrative of distrust and bitterness. I will even turn my iPhone off when we’re in the room together. I will dive in and start fresh and give you all the creativity, humor, artistry, joy, enthusiasm, and directorial skills I can muster.
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Interesting article. Your writer friends seem to feel about directors the way that I (as a director, and sometimes as a writer) tend to feel about many actors. I sometimes wonder if maybe everyone, in every facet of this business, struggles with the same core issues of loyalty, integrity, commitment and "why the hell are we (I/they/you) here in the first place?" I don't believe that building a community is contradictory to advancing a career, just as I don't believe that artistic goals have to be at odds with commercial ones, but it can sometimes feel that way, and you capture that frustration well.
Morgan, I am only now seeing this, but I want to thank you for writing it. One thing that I think would be useful to consider in your thinking about this is that many directors do a real number on a new play by trying to put their stamp on it, when actually all the playwright needs is for the director to stage the play. Follow the stage directions, do what's written, and let the playwright see what s/he has written. I don't want to rob the director of her or his creative input, and I recognize that directors and dramaturgs do amazing "midwifery" to help a new play come to life. However, a recent experience taught me that a director with an agenda to leave her stamp on a play can suffocate the play. There's a difference between developing a new play and directing the US or regional premiere of a new play, and I'm not sure that all directors are aware of that distinction. Mine was not, and it ultimately was a disaster. The actors were told not to listen to me prior to the first reading, and I was also told that I should be able to make revisions without hearing the play out loud. So while I want to be sympathetic to your plight, I also need to say that many of your colleagues are insensitive and plain awful about working on new plays. Maybe the many MFA programs in directing should consider creating courses that deal specifically with the development of new work, as it is nuanced and delicate. Again, thank you for writing this piece. I appreciate your candor and your honesty.
I see it has been mentioned before but it is worth noting again: this DOES happen to actors (and designers, and stitchers, and stage crew, and dramaturges and, interns, and volunteers, and, and) all the time. Just look, for example, at the original cast list of Angels in America before it transferred. There are some names on there that you might not recognize. And so on. And blah blah blah. The truth is--and it is a hard one--when you work on theater you are not working on a COMMODITY, even though, because we live in a capitalist society, we are forced to pretend it is one. Your work is done and then it disappears. It is ephemera. That's an economic problem as well as a creative one. We feel pain when that work is done, when it is over. We think: that can't be it! There has to be more to it than just THAT! Where are my higher stakes? Where is my pay check? But those are masks. It always feels empty it always hurts just a little. Because you work on it, pour your heart into it, and then--it just disappears.
Most of us will not become "an elite" of any type and most often it has nothing to do with ability or talent or even passion and grace. As a writer or a director (or any type of theater artist) we have to accept, ACCEPT, that every Pulitzer Prize/Tony Award/Drama Desk/Obie winner crossed the river Styx stepping on the corpses of thousands upon thousands of dead plays that you and I have never heard of nor will we ever hear of in the future. All of them were just as important to someone as your work is to you. All of them.
So yeah, we can work on changing the system from within, and on developing artists (I actually think we should put more energy into developing AUDIENCES but that's another story). But at some level you have to realize: this is the nature of our particular beast.
Before you wrote this, it would have been useful to speak with the writer in question. What is clear to me here is that you have no idea what the discussion was between the writer and the artistic director and based on your assumptions as opposed to facts you've made many accusations. I bet you were one of many directors who did a reading or workshop of this play. And I also bet the play existed and was workshopped long before you entered into the picture. You don't make thy distinction here and it is a big one.
Hey Oskar,You're totally right, and I think that is a huge distinction. To be clear, I was the the only director who ever worked on the script with workshops and readings and I believe I was the first and only director to ever read the script (though that, admittedly I'm not 100% sure on). I am sure it wasn't workshopped long before I was in the picture. And, I have no idea what the discussion was between the artistic director and writer was precisely, but I do believe that no matter what it was, the artistic director could have taken the time to email me back as the person who served as the primary director on the piece for over a year and half. Even if the writer actually didn't want to work with me again (which I don't think was the case, since the AD did write me and wouldn't have even know to do that if the writer hadn't given my name), I think a response email would have been good. But, all that being said, that wasn't really what I was trying to convey in the article. I'm not sure if you read to the end or didn't, but really, it was merely the catalyst to get me thinking about the larger systemic issue of how artists work with other artists and institutions--and in that case, I feel like I weighed each segment of the population--directors, writers and ADS--and their various catch 22s pretty evenly. It isn't meant to be an accusatory post. It's meant to delve in and explore the issue from all sides. The first story was just my way into the discussion. Because the reality is that I very MUCH understand and empathize with the plight of the AD, as I expressed in the article. I myself am the Associate Artistic Director of a very active theater company, and am keenly aware that there is a lot at stake when you are making decisions for a company that needs to survive artistically and fiscally in a sustainable way. So I'm sorry if your take on my piece was that I was implying that ADs are the enemy. That's not how I feel at all.
Dear Ms. Gould,
What you describe, I suspect, has been true in the theatre probably since Shakespeare and much earlier. There has always been at lest some preference for established, or even just hot, talent over taking an additional risk with someone not known. I am very new at this. I've only had one sketch on stage and a couple of readings. I can say that, I hope, I could say to the artistic director that you like what you saw and what you saw is the product of a very productive collaboration.
Something you all could learn from the commercial theatre -- CONTRACTS! If you're going to help develop a script, get a contract as a dramaturg. Get first refusal and participation in future royalties. You may be getting paid dirt, but you can still have a contract. If you can't protect your contribution, don't whine when it takes a walk on the wild side and "abandons" you. As a playwright, make sure there's no doubt as to who owns your script -- you, not the director.
Hey John,Actually, I think what I'm trying to address in the article is that BECAUSE playwrights (and rightfully so) own their scripts exclusively, how exactly DO we protect the contribution of other collaborators? So, if fact, what you're expressing was the entire question I was posing in the article--so I wholeheartedly agree with your notion. I don't think contracts are the single answer, and often it's hard to put down in exact language exactly how much the contribution of fellow artists is worth. Especially because it's not about money sometimes (often when I get a play "poached" even the new director doesn't make anything off of it). It's about artistic respect and mutual trust. I've actually tried to get first refusal before, and have even been "bought out" by a large theater at one point. But, for me it's not about getting the money, it's about getting producers to invest in new talent. Contracts will prevent me personally from getting screwed over, perhaps, but I'm trying to speak on a more systemic issue.
Actually, I did do some weird puppet plays - 3 together! - in Norway - it was great time! New directors, years-long process, audiences, fjords. People came who liked the work and hated it on the basis of what they were seeing, rather than the work's alignment with front-loaded esthetic agenda. 7-11 hot dogs unfortunately cost about six bucks, but otherwise, Norway's great! Vis-a-vis your important post, you're so right to push for solidarity across disciplines; as a playwright, mostly my work isn't done, or is done on a timeline that takes the impulse of the play away from me (enough time separates the drafts that I see the world differently; the world of the play and the whole world - am speaking to/from/with different communities), or is done with so many accommodations to irrelevant conventions (black box, 99 seats, 3 week run, two day tech, audience of strangers), or is done so interstitially (as a gig between gigs, as a show to see between dinner and drinks, as a show to see while waiting for other shows to happen) that the coffee's cold, that the script sounds like half-a-lie, that it's difficult to watch the stage, that the whole thing feels more like a play than a community's urgent self-expression. Revising: who on earth would want to do plays? It's like factory work where you're building cars on an assembly line for a nation that doesn't drive - generating labor-intensive (though increasingly robot-ized) luxury items with no function. For me a play is already an historical artifact at first draft, the ashes of an impulse (I think this is Yves Klein) to build uninterrupted and self-determined social solidarity (I think this is Bakunin but I don't really know the guy). So it comes back to Carl's idea - that we take our strength from slowness, fidelity, and open-ended questioning. We need to slow the system down, remove the industrial objectives, and establish home in wide-reaching and intersecting communities... paying rent will come up out of this - but it's a real restructuring. I don't want to go down like the Mad-men: selling concepts to customers. To move out of selling, let's depend on each other. To move out of concepts, let's embody practice - be in the room, feed each other. To divorce customers, let's be strangers-in-need and actually give over/become less on behalf of the other (the play is a stranger, the collaborators are strangers, the audience is made up of strangers - all equally strange; the audience is that circle of people who have grown as strange, over time, as the original impulse and are indistinguishable from, say, the script). There are all kinds of ways to put on a show; my scripts may not be good for certain ways, may not be good enough... but I stick with it because it's my life and it's an axiom for me to assume that each life is shaped to fit with life overall, and my plays fit with playing, work with working... so I'm not talking about how to improve the system (as if there were one system), but about the system that works for me, which is basically: say yes to every Norway, every puppet - every place or thing that will treat you like a proper stranger.
This article touch's my life very personally right now. I'm an Artistic Director...I think I've played fair with playwrights and actors...I think I'm one of the FEW directors that actually likes actors, as a matter of fact. I recently went through the crap with a playwright...someone I thought was a "friend"...someone I encouraged to write her play...in some cases BULLIED her into writing. I workshopped the script...I put money intothe project. Then she pulled the script,saying she was tired of dealing with it. Next thing I know...this play is being done by ANOTHER company! And of course I'm angry...and hurt.... and ready to say HELL, NO! to the next writer that comes to me with a script.I want my company to be one that is known for welcoming new scripts...just as I want my company to be known for discovering new actor and director talent. But this situation has really soured me. If they can't be loyal to ME...why should I be loyal to them? Why should I waste MY time with them? Sorry...I'm still very bitter...and I'll tell you the truth...I'm thinking of suing the damned playwright for breach-of-contract.
Really great and interesting points, but it doesn't seem fair to assume that your writers haven't fought for you. They probably have, especially if the collaborations have been as fruitful and meaningful as you describe. I know that I would fight for a director who sounds as impressive and passionate as you do, and plan to do so if ever given that sort of opportunity-- but also fully expect to be ignored. But give your writers the benefit of the doubt!
Hey HB,I actually do think most writers fight, but feel powerless, as I do, to actually get the collaborators they're asking for. I just meant that in the case of that story (though I do believe that writer fought for me or the AD wouldn't have even emailed me at all) there is actually no way for me to know for sure. But generally, I do believe writers fight, but expect to be ignored. That expectation doesn't mean they shouldn't try, and it is part of the solution I outlined, but I don't necessarily think they aren't doing that. They should just continue to, because it matters both in actual results (if an AD hears a name enough) and morally (to create trust between collaborators). And I suggest that ADs "listen to the writer", because I believe that most writers DO voice the desire to keep their collaborators.
Unfortunately, I got the same impression that Hb had, that you doubted that your writers advocated for you, despite the evidence that they had. Writers often do feel powerless, so I find it hard to believe that a writer wouldn't want to maintain a working relationship with every artist with whom he or she has had a fruitful collaboration.
This is a fascinating post and I appreciate your perspective. I'm wondering, though, if it doesn't do a playwright a bit of a disservice to have the same director working him or her through 3 workshops, 4 readings and 1 production of a play, or even collaborate on this process with several different plays. I'm all for developing relationships, but I find it very helpful to work with a variety of artists throughout a play's development. It gives me the opportunity to hear different perspectives, which only helps me make the play stronger.
Hey Jenny,Yeah, I totally think you have a point. But, what I'm speaking about is something slightly different. I don't walk into every little reading and workshop thinking I am going to be brought on board for every production or future iteration. Nor do I think writers need to use me each time just because I directed a reading. The relationship between the writer and me doesn't progress to that stage until we are talking outside the room about future productions together, applying for grants and residencies together (and doing them and getting them), talking about it as "our" play, making budgets together, talking about what theaters can produce it--things that very much make me believe I am a part of the future life of that play. When we cruise into that zone, I'm investing more than just giving my perspective to you in the rehearsal room. So that's when I think what I'm talking about in the article kicks in, which to me is a later stage in development.
That makes sense - if you're actually putting your own resources behind it, beyond just contributing to a specific reading or workshop; if your unspoken understanding is that its your play along with the playwright's, then I can see where you would feel put-out or hurt if that turns out not to be the case. I'm guess open and continued communication is the best and most fair way to go. That and possibly developing contracts with your collaborators.
wonderful article. i feel you. the same 15 actors are the one's doing roles over and over again too. i've created roles with great success only to have them taken over by another actor who had a tony award nomination sometime in the 70's. they don't even care if these people are any good (though according to any artistic director they must be if they were nominated for a Tony-doesn't matter how long ago or if they if they happened to have been in a television series) i'm sure i don't have to remind you the world of theatre is not a meritocracy.
A very interesting blog post. I wonder if you could speak to your contractual relationship with the writer and if, at some point, you discuss any copyright issues with the writer.
Hey Dan,I've never done that. I think there's a theory in the theater community that formalizing partnerships runs counter to trust and freedom in a collaboration. I don't think that's true necessarily, but the fear is "if I ask them for a contract I'll seem like a stingy business person and not and artist and that writer won't want to work with me." Also, as Adrienne commented above, something about that It feels weird and sometimes strangely formal. I do think if there's ever a moment I'm actually writing text, that's a totally different thing. But how to you copyright staging? And should you? I don't know if I want to work in a business where that's necessary--I'd rather just be able to trust my collaborators to do right by me. But then we end up in the boat we're in! I'd be curious if other artists HAVE had collaborative contracts/ agreements drawn up...? What did they say? Were they helpful? What were the terms?
Firstly, great article. As a young playwright currently about to embark on a new play development process with a fellow MFA director, this article was so pertinent and relevant to me.
I also recently just finished working on a musical with a composer, having rewritten the entire book for and with him... and then got dropped from the project. Throughout the writing process, our producer kept pushing to get contracts signed and formally designate percentages and rights, and we both kept putting him off because of the exact things you're saying -- it feels strangely formal, business-like and not artistically friendly. We wanted to write from a collaborative, generative place and deciding "percentages" and copyright felt stifling. Now I wonder if I shouldn't have done that; as nice as "story credit on future productions" is, it's unavoidable to feel hurt when you get dropped from a project. It is also a thing where I wonder if I'm letting my ego get in the way of what's best, as you referenced in your article as well, but that's a separate point.
I think in the case of director-playwright, it is really tricky. However, I know (and hope) that I would work very hard to champion the directors I want to work with, or who have put time into my plays. One of the most exciting things to me as a young artist is finding others who "speak the same language," share an aesthetic, or get excited about things I'm excited in. I know I will go out of my way to work hard to fight for these people and to work with them.
Morgan Gould. I love you, and, without doubt, you are one of the most incredible directors I have had the honor of working with. Thank you for all your hard work.
Excellent post, Morgan, balanced, accurate.
(re-posted from my facebook comment on a link to this article)
This is a very very good article. The comparison you make re: other collaborators ("Can you imagine if you were an actor and you did all the rehearsals, but when the show opened, some other actor took your place?") is actually not at all unimaginable and in fact exactly how the "process" of new play development works. I'm still so fucking bitter about what a certain playwright and director (both of whom shall go unnamed - being friends and all - the director, though, being a current one-percenter) did to an actress - who is, well, very close to me - upon reaching "that moment," basically chicken-shitting out on everything that had made the play what it was, dumping all the people who had built this play over years through readings and residencies and guts-in-the-game artistic commitments to true friends' work. Upon "receiving" a major premiere from The Big Off-Broadway Premierer of new plays (let's call it TBOP), everyone got all seduced by what I think is part of a much nastier and more imbedded narrative than the scarcity one, which is the UPWARD life-narrative. The show ended up being a flop (yes, I bathed in the warm schadenfreude), I believe because it gutted itself in an attempt to ascend to "the there up there." If I've learned one thing, become wiser and more successful by understanding one truth, it is that there is no there up there. The upward narrative is the deadly one for us play-makers, the deadliest one of all.
Oh! The upward narrative! I love that...good way to characterize and name the difference between career aspirations and artistic goals.
I've been ruminating on your post, Morgan, since yesterday. I want to add one thing to my previous comments, prompted in part by Erin Washington's thoughts in the comment thread. The situation you describe can begin to be addressed by more intense use of the New Play Map (of which the nice folks at the Theater Commons have just released a new version). One of the goals of the map is to make more transparent the vast web of collaborative intersections new work travels along. The "story" of a play's development can include every person and organization that impacted its growth, because each one of those people or organizations can add themselves and a description to the profile of a play on the map. It's one of the ways to share credit and debunk the notion that it's only the folks with big name recognition who merit notice.
SUCH a great idea. I love that. Thank you!
Morgan is one of the most gifted directors I've encountered in my life. In a few years, she's gonna be one of those 6-10 directors who gets 90% of the gigs, and I can't wait to see what she does to shake things up.
Gracias! Same happens in Buenos AiresWww.puppetsonstage.com
I've known you a long time, and have always respected what you have to say. I'm proud of you for writing this essay with such accuracy. This may be one of the most clear and most important pictures of what our "emerging" director community often experiences logistically and emotionally. On repeat. Speaking for myself: in the last 5 years, 3 plays that I have collaborated on with playwrights have gone onto production at major institutions without so much as getting the half-hearted email that you did. Two of those writers I still have great relationships with, one I do not. Each situation was as heartbreaking as it was understandable. Still, the feeling of inadequacy was hard to shake, when one can't see the light at the end of the tunnel for a career as a director. Some of us go on to other things. While I can't complain about my career right now with OMPF happening everywhere, part of me still just wants to be a director.
What I want from your offering here is to unpack the "what if?" a little bit deeper. What would it look like for institutions to support and develop directors? What ways can they invite us in, if they are not going to offer us the job on the work we invested in? What would be more useful/proactive approaches that are not assistant directing opportunities, or director "fellowships" that turns a career in directing into a prolonged application and essay writing process? What would it mean for them to create the conditions for helping to develop the next great American director?
How can meaningful "play development" exist if we are not also taking the time developing the rest of the collaborators (directors, designers, actors, etc) with the same care, access, and respect? What will we be left with if we don't?
I hope this posts sparks a "what if?" response. I hope we can brainstorm, and maybe identify some types of things that we can offer to those making the decisions.
Thanks for this.
Hey Dom,Yes, I love what you're sayin'. I would love to interview some Artistic Directors and see how far they would REALLY go. What they would really risk and why or why not...honestly, though, I even think talking to us and actually, really considering us--beyond the BS courtesy email they send because the playwright asks--would be a start. Actually inquiring about my body of work, my artistic ethics, my aesthetic principles. What if they did those things? Then I would be less of a stranger, more of a known quantity. What if they let me direct workshops and then actually CAME to them? What if they watched me in rehearsal at that reading they threw me and saw that I'm competent, clicked in, and know how to run a room? What if they invited me to watch plays at their theater alongside them and then talked about them afterwards--what resonated, what didn't, what worked, what didn't? I think it's naive to suggest that some huge artistic director will (or should) hand me a production. I really understand why they would be reluctant to do that, and I believe in "paying dues"... but I think they should respect and investigate artists who have supported works they intend to program at their theater. Not just for that artist, but to help cultivate the next generation of people who will work in their theaters once the directors they use now move on to bigger gigs or retire.
What a wonderfully honest and thus useful piece, Morgan.
I think what I've also taken away is that it's important to articulate your expectations when you sign on to another's project. There are some that are much more deeply personal, where a split means a much deeper sense of rejection.
There are times I've been happy to come into a room, share some perspective and then walk away. There are others where I've felt like I was an integral piece, in some cases an equal creator, and that's a really different story.If you can define, best case scenario put in writing, what kind of partnership you're creating, I think it helps to define boundaries. Perhaps rather than equally splitting time across six readings, maybe you teach each other, just like a romantic relationship, that you build trust together over time. And that in the same way its foolish to throw your heart into a strangers arms, it's important to get to know your fellow artist before giving them all of yourself. Hopefully, that means that when you do find "the one" they might be willing to turn down an opportunity if it means splitting up the partnership you've forged. And perhaps that helps teach everyone that when an artistic bond is formed, it really matters.
Great point. I certainly don't get my heart broken over a single reading or even a few. It's fun and invigorating to walk into a play, occupy it's world for a day or two and then move on. But when you do a few it's so hard to decide where the line is between "I'm doing a reading or two or three for this cool writer" and "I feel attached to this play "--so I think you're spot on that once the stakes start to drift toward the latter, that both parties need to be honest and create boundaries that manage expectations. For me, the tipping point often comes when we start working on the play together OUTSIDE the reading setting. When we talk about submitting for residencies and programs as a team. When we talk about where it could be produced. When we plan for the future life as the play as though it's ours. That's when it drifts into a partnership for me. And admittedly, it's SO hard to find the courage to draw those lines in the sand when you WANT to keep working on the piece--I know there's that fear that if I ask for boundaries or express a need for definition (even after a year or more!) that I'll spook the writer. And truly, I don't know when my boundaries have been crossed sometimes until it's too late. But I think you're so right to encourage early communication about expectations and honesty about what the stakes of a project mean to each partner.
Still Adrienne here. I agree. It feels weird and sometimes strangely formal to have to be defining boundaries for each new collaboration, often in early nascent stages. And it's a constant negotiation to know when you need to do it. But i think even having that layer on the mental radar means that it's an active question: Where am I with this project? How much of my creative mental space does this occupy? How much time, money, and effort have I invested? Do I feel like I am an author in some capacity? I totally know that feeling of being afraid of spooking the collaborator have just had to resign myself to "If they spook, perhaps it wasn't meant to be." I also think there's worth in considering deeper in your passing comment about self producing. Having gone this route for many of my works, I know it's certainly not easy. And it's up to each creator whether the difficulties of being a producer are greater than the challenges you define above by being a part of the of the current system that can favor status over depth of artistic collaboration. Do we solve the problems of the system by creating a new system that models better behavior? For me the hope is that by creating an alternate route, I can define how I believe work should be made. And perhaps eventually the exposure/experience of these works might circuit me back into the traditional ladder but with the conviction of having been a leader that models the kind of behavior you ask for in your article. Both ways are tough and each person has to decide if the pain of the lack of control or the difficulty of holding back your best (I too remember my life's only C in penmanship from 4th grade) is greater than the pain in the ass of admin and self-producing. Best of luck getting there! - Adrienne (www.swimpony.org, www.swimponypa.wordpress.com)
I think keeping those active questions running is really important. An artist's intention and aim is the root of creation! So yes! And, as for self-producing v relying on systems/ theaters that are already created for us, I think both have pros and cons (at least in my experience). I work for a theater artist who just said "f this I'm gonna make my own stuff and self-produce" and it's worked out beautifully. Other times, it can just be an exercise in frustration and futility. The same is true with working up the ladder at established theaters. Through it all we need honesty--with ourselves and our collaborators, just as you suggest! Right on!
I know this sounds horrible...but maybe you aren't as good of a director as you think you are, and that's why you don't end up following projects through to fruition. Yes it's easy to say that all the big name directors are getting the work you should be getting, but there are lesser-known directors working all over NYC. Not intended to be mean or critical...I've never seen your work. There are always the well known directors who are going to be getting a lot of high profile projects, but there are always people moving up within the industry.
Donny, by saying this, are you saying that what she describes doesn't happen? Because I believe it happens in both directions of the playwright-director relationship. While you're theorizing about her possible lack of talent, can we also consider that maybe she's a fantastic director, but that she gets passed over for any number of reasons, possibly including things like perceived status?
After all, people have used your argument to say the same thing about blacks or women who are passed over--"maybe you just aren't good enough"--when we know racism and sexism, both overt and internalized, are sometimes at play.
Judging by the comments on this thread that echo the post, I'd say she's speaking a truth that resonates for many. I don't see how your theory moves the conversation forward.
Donny, with all due respect, your comment misses the entire point of the piece. If a director isn't talented then they shouldn't be involved in the piece at any stage of development, or at the very least should be released to their dark, talent-free lives after they've botched the first go-around. Certainly one can't decide the director is talented ENOUGH for 10 developmental readings and workshops and then ditch them when it comes time to do the play on a larger scale. At that point, is it fair to say to a director, as you have in your comment, perhaps you're not as good as you think you are.
Many producers do not trust new directors. But there is also often a lack of trust in the writer's point of view as well. There is this feeling that, well, he's good enough to write a play (though everyone thinks they know better here too) but what does he know about directing? And sure, he's been working with that director through all those drafts, drafts that finally made the play good enough to be produced on a large scale, but what does he know about what's best for his piece. What does that director know?Another issue I have with your remark is that it places an inordinate amount of trust on the "market" than it does the wisdom of artists to find good collaborators. I do think there are times when a director might be released if they're not doing well, but as Morgan points out in this article, she is rarely given the chance to demonstrate that. So she's right to feel a bit jilted. She's not asking to step onto Broadway with a play she's never seen before. She's asking to not be dismissed, disrespected, or made to feel invaluable after she's devoted so much heart and soul to a writer's vision.
Just so we are clear: Morgan, is in fact, quite a gifted director. Yes, she's "young" (whatever that means), but she's the real deal. Take the word of Peter, Young Jean, and myself who have all worked with her a lot.
It would be great if we could take this opportunity to pick apart the flaws in the system at play that Morgan has so eloquently drawn here, and not move into the realm of character assassination. 'Cause that's just unfair.
Yes, Morgan is amazing!!!!!
There's that upward narrative I'm talking about. What if we saw ourselves as moving "into," "through" the industry, or landing down, or growing with, or appearing in, or arriving to shape, or joining forces with, or any number of other ways of describing what is in the end simply *being* an artist and/or professional. Do we describe the career path of a novelist in this way? Not typically. The novelist's writing is presumed to be the path to the novelist's success, not the publishing industry's ladder, no matter the cold fact that the ladder exists, far taller than the live theater industry's meager footstool.
I don't think you sound mean or horrible. And I didn't take it as a personal attack because I work pretty regularly considering my age in certain sects (especially the development world) of NYC. I just think what you're describing is a different issue than what I'm trying to address in this particular piece. Of course, there are tons of directors (or, I should say, people who CALL themselves directors) who are actually incompetent and often ruinous to a process. Those people are not collaborators and of course should not be considered in the future life of a project. I'm speaking though, as Peter says, of collaborators who have been working on a piece for some time (years in some cases) and are cut at the culminating moment in favor of a more established or well known artist simply because that artist is well known, with no consideration for the director who nurtured the piece from its nascent stages. If an artistic director fairly takes into account my skills, my relationship with the writer, my longevity with the project and takes the time to investigate me and THEN decides (not based on my gender, age, or lack of "name") I am not a good fit, that's a different story. But I'm talking about access to that moment. Which is hard to come by, and a different thing from not being hired because I'm not good enough. I would actually prefer that. It would be an easier pill to swallow in a way.
Very well put. I have so been in this blender (from the playwright side) and it has not ended well.
"And listen, I’m no fool. I get that if Michael Greif is available, you’re not going to say, “Well, but this emerging director has done ten readings of this play!” <------ Why not believe that this can be the norm? Don't let Producers of any level off the hook by not expecting that they pay attention to people that have been involved with the process of a piece from inception. That is powerful! Who cares what big shot director you have, his/her knowledge will not be as deep as the young director that has been working from idea to play.
I TOTALLY agree!! I only meant that I understand why artistic directors of huge theaters aren't just tossing me productions--why would they, they don't know me. But I DO expect them to pay attention, as you say, to the people that have been involved with the piece and to take the time to investigate and get to know me and my work and engage with me in some serious way. And I agree that often I do have a deeper understanding (and certainly a deeper history) with the play and writer, and that is huge. But I know that for Artistic Directors, there's a lot at stake and they need to ease into relationships with directors in small ways. I respect that process. If they ACTUALLY commit to doing that. Thanks for reading!
Thanks Morgan. Well captured- the heartbreak of building a play with a writer for years - being that play and that writer's tireless advocate- only to succeed so well that you get to see it snatched away by a (typically middle-aged, male, more well known) director never quite heals. And you do build up walls so you won't get broken that way again.. It doesn't stop me from loving new plays and playwrights but it keeps me wary, rather than idealistic, about all of the new play processes to come- thanks for sharing, Sherri
Great, great article, Morgan!
Your experiences will be familiar to most new play dramaturgs as well.
Sad story Morgan, but a great article. I've definitely experienced some of the emotions you write about.