The Path

I am a professional playwright. I make a living writing plays. But I haven't had a professional production in seven years. I write plays for the school market and student performers. For many years I avoided saying the above out loud, in public. “I write for the school market.” I didn't want to admit to the kind of plays I write because I felt there was the stigma to writing for youth. For kids. It's not real writing. It's not writing “real” plays. It's kiddie. It's cute. I was embarrassed to admit that the only place I could get produced was in schools. In every social situation I dreaded the question “What do you do?” and the inevitable follow up question “Have you written anything I've seen?” The answer was always no. And that seemed to make me less of a playwright. It meant I wasn't living up to the expectations of what a writer does, or who a playwright is. I wasn't following the traditional path to success. What is the traditional path to success for a playwright?  My observations of the theatre scene in Toronto led me to believe there was one way:

a path through the woods
Photo by Ed Schipul,  from Houston, TX.
  • Move to a big city.
  • Get a show into a number of the smaller festivals in town.
  • Get the attention of the midsized theatres.
  • Get an agent.
  • Land a traditional three-week production.
  • Move this successful production into one of the bigger theatres.

And then I would be commissioned to write plays. My work would be sought out by theatres across Canada, across the United States and the world. I would move into writing for TV, maybe a brief sojourn into movies—for the experience you know? But mainly I would stay in the theatre, create theatre, love theatre. And then, really, could Broadway be that far behind?

In my mind, that was the path to success for a playwright. One step after another. That's the way it seemed to work for a number of playwrights directly within my circle,  and that's what I told myself must be happening to every other playwright. Move your way from small to big. Have the success of one production garner you access to another production. A collaboration. Someone searching you out instead of the other way around. I was consumed by taking these steps and no other. And in the thick of it, I think the biggest problem for me was that for a fleeting second I traveled that path with some success. I did have some luck with smaller festivals. I was invited into a playwrights group with a great reputation. I had access to a dramaturg at a well-known theatre. I did some writing for a television show.

I had a number of artistic directors tell me they didn't produce my kind of play. Or, that my work was such that it would be better if I never sent them another one.

And then? Everything stopped. The path became gnarled, rocky and infested with rattlesnakes. No move up to mid-sized theatre. No interest from producers. No great successes. The television show gave me a glimpse of what working in a sweatshop might be like. I had a number of artistic directors tell me they didn't produce my kind of play. Or, that my work was such that it would be better if I never sent them another one. And as I revolved in a little bit of hell—never moving forward, never finding another path—time slipped away. All of the sudden I was thirty. I had nothing. No career, no productions, no open doors. No one was interested in what I had to say, in what I had to write or how I wrote it. I was a failure. I had come to a dead stop on that path to success I held so dear.

It's amazing what idealized notions of success can do to artists. Why do we think there is only one way to create and be satisfied by that creation? Why is it hard to comprehend that following someone else’s idea of success can move us away from the kind of artist we were meant to be—away from exploring art in a meaningful way. Because through all of this I was finding success down a different path—I was being produced in the school market. I was able to write plays that had impact with students. And yet, I continued to want access to a world that just was not open to me—where other playwrights seemed to be succeeding with ease.

If I had been honest with myself at the time, it was a world I actually didn't want—that I actually didn't care for deep down inside. There's a reason my work wasn't being welcomed with open arms in Toronto—I didn't connect to the work that was being lauded and I didn't connect to those playwrights. The plays that were popular at the time focused on theatricalizing concepts, abstract ideas, where as I was always a character driven writer. Thus I didn't like a lot of the work that I saw. I felt out of place when a play that I loathed received showers of accolades. I found the playwrights around me intensely production driven, always networking, always trying to connect with someone who could get them further. There's nothing wrong with that, but it wasn't my drive. It made me miserable.

As it turns out, I'm much more experience driven. I get a lot out of the experiences students (both as actors and audience) have with my work. The productions are lovely but it’s the process that I find most rewarding.  Is it any wonder that just as I didn't connect to the work or the playwrights that I came in contact with and that the reverse was also true? That perhaps those who saw my plays weren't connecting to it or me? My life changed and my career changed when I forced myself to focus on what it meant to be a playwright. I was only thirty, and I saw myself as a failure. What did I have to lose? I started to ask myself what I wanted. Did I want Broadway? Did I want collaborations? Did I want to be produced at Canstage? What did I want for my work? What is my specific path?

They may seem obvious and simple but I had never done any serious thinking about who I was as a writer. I just plowed headfirst and hoped for the best. All I really wanted was to make a living as a playwright. To write plays I was proud of. That's it. Make a living, write plays, be proud. I didn't have to live in Toronto to do that. I didn't have to write adult plays to do that. I could accomplish everything I wanted by writing for the school market. I could forge a new path, my path. Once I let go of my fixed set of expectations, I actually became successful. Once I knew what I wanted to achieve, I was able to take steps to achieve it. Once I was able to accept my work, I was able to answer the question “What do you do?” with pride: “I am a playwright.” And when the follow up question came “Have you written something I've seen?” I answer again with pride: “Nope. Everything I do is for schools and student performers.”

And funnily enough once I tell people what I do, the reaction is often amazement. It was my own perceived notion of embarrassment that people thought less of me for writing for youth. I am a professional playwright. I make a living as a playwright. That's not “seventeen side jobs” make a living, I write plays for a living. I average over three-hundred productions a year in schools, but that is really just the tip of the iceberg. In my dreams of what it meant to be a professional playwright, in the traditional sense, the focus was always on the production. Getting the production, getting the next production, getting the review that will make people want to come to the production and the next and the next and the next. It was all about the product.

Being in a play, rehearsing a play can have a huge impact on a student. Reading a play can have impact. For youth, experiencing a play, in whatever fashion they choose, has the potential to change lives.

In the school market the end product is only part of the equation. The process is just as important. Being in a play, rehearsing a play can have a huge impact on a student. Reading a play can have impact. For youth, experiencing a play, in whatever fashion they choose, has the potential to change lives. In the twenty-first century, adult theatre is no longer a life changing experience. It is rare that an adult goes to a play and has their mind changed, their life altered by what they see. This is not the case at the school level. I am bombarded by stories of life changing experiences that students have had through my plays:

  • The boy who read a monologue from one of my plays and confessed to his teacher that the monologue made him realize he wasn't alone in his suicidal feelings and that he needed help.
  • The girl who told me after living through two hurricanes and living in her car that being in my play was the only thing that gave her hope.
  • The cast of the The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note who stood up to their parents when some of them tried to shut down the production because they said it was making their children depressed. No, the students said, “we're not depressed. We're actually talking about depression.”
  • The girl who wanted to be part of a production, but didn't want to go out on stage. For the entire rehearsal period she sat in the wings and sang her part in the chorus. Until the last show when she finally found the courage to stand on stage.

I had no idea when I decided to give up the traditional path, shove those plays in a drawer, that I would find a career so much more fulfilling. Why would I wish for Broadway when my plays might change lives? And this doesn't mean I'm relegated to writing heavy intense dramas. I have learned over the years that the act of being in a play, any play, for a youth can encourage self confidence, communication skills, team building skills—everything we need as human beings to survive in the world. And I'm a part of that.

Writing for youth inspires me, fills me with pride, gives me a sense of responsibility that I fully accept. The stigma of “not a real play” or “not a real playwright” does still come up. I can't apply for most grants because the definition of a professional playwright is usually proven with a professional production and a review. I've tried to use my mortgage payment to show that playwriting pays my bills but it never quite flies. And in the end, that notion of being “unreal” is all in my head. Overcoming this stigma, realizing there's nothing to be embarrassed about is the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I know who I am, and what I write. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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Thanks for the eye opener. A refreshing look back at my own "come to reality moments" but mine came a lot later. And I too, was, and am a successful playwright and novelist.

Having literally walked on rocky paths filled with rattlesnakes (it's not a metaphor out here in LA, it's how we roll), I can say that success is when the rattlesnake doesn't bite you.

Meanwhile, I continue to work very hard to be an unsuccessful playwright. It's much more fun, and you still get invited to parties.

Absolutely, Lindsay -- you climb the mountain in front of you, not other peoples' mountains. I know what you mean about disillusionment with what's popular. It can be a very lonely feeling. But it's a signpost toward the things that matter to you and where you can make a difference. And BTW, I wouldn't be here if I hadn't had my life changed as a youth by theater. So there ya go.

Lovely. I too have seen the impact on teens of their participating in theatre. It's VERY important work.

I relate to so much of this. I could say very similar things about my career as an actress and, less obviously perhaps, as a mom. I have gotten locked into one way of seeing things and discounted every thing else as "not as good." I am, happily, almost on the other side of that now. It's a relief. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for writing this. I'm just starting out as a playwright, and writing for kids is something I've always wanted to do. But I've been hesitant to even look into how one gets into that market because of the stigma of "oh, she couldn't make it in 'real theater' so she had to start writing for kids." Your essay is an inspiration to just go for it and write a youth play if that's what I'm feeling at the time.

Thanks for writing this.

In my MFA dramaturgy program at Big Name Grad School, I was told I couldn't pursue Theatre for Young Audiences as a topic for my Masters' comps, because it "wasn't important enough." After I threw up in my mouth a little, and suppressed the urge to throw furniture, I acquiesced. I wish I'd had your essay then, so I could have papered the department with it.

This was an inspiring read. I particularly liked this bit: "Why is it hard to comprehend that following someone else’s idea of success can move us away from the kind of artist we were meant to be—away from exploring art in a meaningful way." It's an insightful observation. Imagine how much progress could be made if all artists lived by this motto.

God bless you and the work you do. I have taught kids for 25+ years, the most honest and relevant is what the experience; great fodder for a playwright. Would like to talk with you further, or Dusty Walsh on Facebook

Having just written a TYA play for my Master's Project, which ended up being one of the most serious endeavors of my life, reading your words is incredibly heartening. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I cannot wait to read your work!

As a current college student of theatre, this is extremely inspiring. So often I find myself aspiring to such great heights that I can already predict the misery coming on post-graduation. The heart of what we do as artists is to build a community of human beings in a different kind of conversation with each other. I found that lacking in my experience as a public school student. Conversation was all academic, all competitive, product-oriented. I cannot think of a more important place to start human conversation than in schools.

You are one of the most respected talent among my peers and students around the world. Gai Jones, an admirer

We produced your plays at my former school, and they are powerful. So much of what I read for students is not complex or interesting enough for them. Your plays are excellent and they do change lives. Thank you!

Thank you for this. So well reasoned and articulated. You help remind me, yet again, that our true paths can only come from inside us, not some outward sense of what seems successful. Hard enough to figure out -- over a lifetime -- what one really needs to be happy. Maybe even harder -- obvious as it seems -- to learn how to simply swim in one's own lane.

You have mirrored my thoughts and feelings. You have validated all that is right with working with young performers. I have winced when an audience member approached and said "cute play." And then I doubled-down and asked myself if it was cute and sometimes (confession) it was. So double-downed more to write "not cute." Even though my "cute" ones sell! I worked with young performers in 3 different productions this year and it made me soar. What's wrong with touching young people "one play at a time?" Nothing. You touch many lives. That's not taking up breathing space.

This is so beautiful and moving and honest. Thank you. It is tremendously hard to shake free from notions of success placed upon us. I know exactly what you mean about a feeling I call invisibility or not mattering. This piece spoke to my own experience and made me ask again, what exactly do you want your life to look like? And why?

Thank you for this. So beautifully said. That "mortgage payment" says a lot. But the quotes from the students who've experienced your plays says it all. Really, what are we doing this for? It's a question every playwright needs to ask herself.

Fantastic post. As a director and choreographer for a children's theater, I struggle with much of the same stigmas, and find many of the same rewards. Thank you for a great start to my day!

Funny how you can click on something you just "need" to read. That just happened to me. I would like to say that I read everything on Howl Round, but it's not true. Days get busy. I save things in my inbox for a while and then finally delete without reading. I am so happy I did not do that with this article. As a long-time regional theater actor (by choice) I have lots of contact with young theater artists who are trying to forge a path in the theatre and do exactly what you describe.follow someone else's path instead of searching inwardly for their own. So happy you have found yours. I will also seek out your work after reading this.