Age-ism, Classism, and the Future of New Play Development or “Watch The Throne”
My grandfather used to say, “Change is the only constant.”
With that in mind, I’m gonna completely shift gears in sentence two of this article and talk about something else entirely (but don’t worry, I’ll get back to change and the elderly very soon).
A year or two ago I was lucky enough to hear one of my playwriting heroes give a talk on playwrights rights in relation to copyright law. I won’t name names, but this particular playwright has had an incredibly long career, full of plays that are amazingly written, well-known, and produced often. Just for fun, let’s henceforth refer to him as “Jay-Z.”
“Jay-Z” started his talk by telling us a story about how a successful network cop show stole a very famous line of dialogue from one of his scripts. “Jay,” not one to take things lying down, took legal action. His lawyer thought there was a case... but oops—CSI or NBC or CBS had more expensive lawyers and thus, “Jay” wasn’t gonna win this case, cuz as The Wu Tang says: Cash Rules Everything Around Me. Thus, there was no recourse and “Jay” had to accept theft from a big bad corporation, aka “the establishment.”
He then told a different story about artistic theft.
He mentioned a case wherein famous musical theatre composer “Kanye West” had some of his unreleased musical notation uploaded to the Internet, without his consent, by a fan, who obtained it via however you obtain those sorts of things over the Internet (and trust me, there are ways).
In the music industry, this is what’s called a “leak.” And “Jay-Z”’s concern seemed to be that this leak would hurt “Kanye’s” bottom line (i.e., his wallet). Which, sure, it might. “Jay-Z” then told us— a room full of early career playwrights, who were easily twenty to thirty years “Jay’s” junior—in no uncertain terms, that piracy is a big bad boogey man, and that we all have to fight it, cuz itz gonna take all of mah moneyz.
And to his credit “Jay” is partially right here. But otherwise, he mostly sounds like this cartoon version of Lars Ulrich from Metallica talking about music piracy from thirteen years ago.
Being that I’m a music super fan and that this very discussion regarding piracy has been going on in the music world (in a very heated way) since 1999 if not before—I raised my hand and told “Jay,” despite my absolute reverence for his work: “Um. The music industry tried destroying piracy about thirteen years ago, and not only failed to do so uncategorically, but also lost all of its profitability as an industry in the process. And this fact is widely documented. So, isn’t it time to start accepting piracy—and the fact that the public is clearly disinterested in paying for art—as a pseudo-normal phenomenon (aka fact), instead of fighting it?” (or something like that).
“Jay-Z” looked at me as if I had three heads, because he very obviously hadn’t even the foggiest concept of what the fuck I was talking about, and continued his Metallica-esque rant about the evils of Internet piracy. Which frankly, I found really disturbing as a young artist meeting one of my heroes.
Cuz here’s the thing about Internet piracy that “Jay-Z” doesn’t get: no one steals an album from the Internet (or posts demos of a famous composer’s unreleased work) because they are interested in hurting the artist.
They’re doing it for the opposite reason: because they love an artist, or because they want to learn more about an artist.
I’ve stolen literally tons of music from the Internet, as has everyone my age and younger. Why? Because I’m a broke-as-shit artist who loves music and I want to be a part of the conversation. And in order to be a part of the conversation, people have to have access to the art. And there is already a lot of stuff in this world that is distracting people from being a part of any artistic conversation whatsoever, (but that’s a much bigger conversation, isn’t it?), thus, why make people feel like criminals when they just wanna see what your deal is?
Now, how has the hip-hop world combated this? Well, rappers have released tons of music for free via the Inter webs. This is known as a mixtape. It has launched the careers of basically every major new rapper of the past decade—from mainstream sensations like A$AP Rocky and Drake, to underground phenoms like Action Bronson and Danny Brown.
OK, maybe they’ll see your live show, or talk you up to their friends, or post about you on social media (cough) or write about you in pseudo-scholarly articles that are supposed to be about playwriting (cough), and eventually the word of mouth will spread to a point that you as an artist have notoriety and eventually, maybe, someday, money.
The theory is: release one album (sometimes more) for free to the Internet, hopefully gain a fan base and some press. From there, release another one and charge money for it, and if someone steals that anyway, OK, maybe they’ll see your live show, or talk you up to their friends, or post about you on social media (cough) or write about you in pseudo-scholarly articles that are supposed to be about playwriting (cough), and eventually the word of mouth will spread to a point that you as an artist have notoriety and eventually, maybe, someday, money.
Don’t believe me? How do you think Lil Wayne got to be as famous as he currently is?
The ironic reality of this conversation is that, as an early career playwright, this is literally already common practice! Fuck man, I wouldn’t have three-fourths of my résumé if I didn’t work for free! Except unlike hip-hop, theatre can’t be accessed on the Internet. Our product is the live show.
Now if you’re a playwright like me, who doesn’t have an agent, your production opportunities are very limited. A majority of the theatres that pay money and give commissions openly refuse to accept submissions of your work. Which means, that in order to get a production, you must submit to contests, storefronts, and younger companies—all of which rarely have the resources to pay writers. Or, self-produce (which is expensive, but you know that). Worse, if you somehow get a production, you are in some cases ineligible for second productions due to the fact that your play is no longer a world premier because in many cases, for non-“Jay-Z” level theatres to get money for new play development, they must produce plays with no production history. Wu Tang wasn’t lyin’ about cash were they?
As far as I know, the above phenomena are mostly not the case when you’re working at “Jay-Z”’s level, but obviously, I’m hardly an expert.
So, then how do you work at “Jay-Z”’s level?
Well, if you’re a playwright who comes from a working middle-class family (ya know those things that news-people say have been drastically shrinking as a result of the recession?), you move to a big city and/or get an MFA.
Only—eek! What if you’ve already heaped up student loans?
I certainly did when I exited undergrad. And, being an informed artist with basic math skills, I realized that long-term, debt was gonna kill my playwright dreams.
So, I lived at home for three years and worked as an accountant, paid off my loans, and wrote plays in my spare time. From a financial standpoint? Best decision I could’ve ever made. From an artistic standpoint? Character-building as all get out, and since I want to eventually make my living building characters, that’s another home run decision. From a professional career standpoint? ...it unfortunately seems to have held me back.
Instead of being in a bigger city, making connections, after college I was at home in Baltimore, where the playwriting scene has no inroads to larger professional opportunities and the major regional theatres do not produce local playwrights.
I recently finished my MFA (one wherein I was on scholarship, cuz fuck living at home and being an accountant for another three years…) but, unfortunately getting an MFA in my late twenties as opposed to my early twenties meant that upon graduation, I was too old for the thirty and under writers’ groups who help get the attention of “Jay-Z”-level theatres, and not critically vetted enough for bigger name writers’ groups whose admissions are incredibly competitive.
To be clear, I’m not complaining about my circumstances. I’m beyond fortunate to have supportive parents and college degrees (and even more fortunate that I wasn’t forced to sell cocaine like the REAL Jay-Z did).
However, as an admirer of “Jay-Z,” I found it really disturbing that a fellow playwright was so totally ignorant to the current circumstances of what it actually takes to be a new playwright in 2013. Especially considering he was essentially asking me—and a room full of other emerging writers my age—to protest the Internet, even though he is clearly rich enough to hire lawyers who can sue CBS or CSI or NBC (or possibly all three at the same time)?
And if ya ask me, that’s about as politically correct as a 1 percenter soliciting votes to defund food stamps.
If I didn’t post my previously produced plays for free on the Internet, what the hell would I do with them? Despite having worked on them for years, despite their proven success, they’d sit on my hard drive gathering dust. At least if someone pirates them, there’s a possibility of getting produced. And if that’s not the case, at least someone cared enough to want to read them.
Now, if you’ve already balked at this whole discussion, or my casual cursing, or my insider allusions to hip-hop, or, worse, have drawn the conclusion that my points are invalid, I really hate to break this to ya, you’re likely of “Jay-Z”’s ilk, or The Old Guard to put it into terms that are perhaps more familiar to you, or, (I’m sorry for this one)—“the establishment.”
And I’m sorry that that is the case. But, I certainly don’t hate you for it. You obviously can’t help the time or circumstances in which you were born. I’m simply asking for acknowledgment of the basic facts about the world we live in together as artists.
I’m not asking you to change your tastes, or start smoking pot, or listen to Kanye, or read Pitchfork on a daily basis (although, I’m not not asking you to do those things either), I’m simply saying that, Hey! Hi! I’m from a different generation than you! Even if we’re the same age! I do things pretty differently than you! And I exist in your playground too! And I know you’re older, and that age gives you experience and power and stuff, but there are really serious things that you fundamentally don’t understand about the world, or the future of our art form that you should probably know! Cuz I sure know 'em! And things are changing just as constantly as my grandfather said they would!
Because the indisputable fact is, you guys are in charge, and I’m not. You guys work for the organizations and theatres, which are in a position to not only help me and other new artists from my generation, but essentially give us our starts.
And how can you even begin to do that, if you know nothing about all of the stuff that my generation likes and says and does, or worse think those things are not only trivial and stupid, but something to actively fight against?
I certainly don’t know. All I know is that I’m here. And I have important and funny things to say about the world, just like you. And I don’t intend on going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, I am entirely intent on succeeding as a writer by damn-near-literally any means necessary. And I think it’d probably be easier and more pleasant for everyone involved if it was with you than without you.
But this loud-mouthed whippersnapper has yammered on long enough. So… Anybody else wanna talk about their feelings on “Jay-Z”?