The Real Reasons Playwrights Fail
There is a widespread defeatist attitude among “emerging” playwrights that the system is broken. It’s impossible to make a living. We don’t have enough time to write after making rent. Sexism, racism, commercialism, stupidism runs rampant in established theaters (i.e., theaters we can actually make money at). Development opportunities are imperfect, too short, too finite. Theaters just need to do our plays already. We’ll do all the work we need to do on the script in rehearsal, trust us; your audience will come, trust us; you won’t take a bath on my play, just do it already—no really, the theater will die if you don’t support new work, assholes. Dear Artistic Director of a Major Regional Theater That Will Only Do New Plays by Playwrights Who Have Won Pulitzers: Fuck you. Sincerely, The Future of Theater That You Are Killing. On a bad day, that is what we “emerging” playwrights will say.
I am not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights, but this is often how I feel and what I hear over coffee or whiskey or the internet. I am not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights because I am a straight, white male, and I don’t have a trust fund. I live on the $19,000 to $31,000 I make per year from a combination of playwriting royalties, commissions, fellowships, teaching, and working part-time at a real estate company.
I am not qualified to speak for all “emerging” playwrights because I like to write linear plays with dramatic action and a climax where the protagonist makes a decision that changes him or her irrevocably. The diversity of we—the “emerging” playwright—is vast and necessary and I am unable to speak for all of us. However, this is what I believe, with all due respect to my peers: our general laziness, inability to commit, defeatist attitude, lack of talent, and unwillingness to truly listen and change are the real reasons we—the “emerging” playwright—fail.
It’s Not Enough
We—the “emerging” playwrights—are fucking lazy. This is what we don’t want you to know, Dear Artistic Director. Most of us don’t really know how to keep working on a play. Not what it really takes. To get a play where it needs to be—to get a theater to pull the trigger on a new script—you have to be relentless, indefatigable. You have to love the actual working on the thing—the actual writing—so much that there is an inevitability about it all. Every day you spend six hours writing, eight hours temping, three hours sending business emails and you know it’s not enough. You’ve had a ton of workshops at fancy places where you’ve stayed up all night writing for weeks on end. You’ve finally integrated that big note. It is not enough. Writing a play, revising it, really working on it, staying open to the good and bad criticism, really reworking it, getting it out there, seeing it through to production, dealing with poor casting, weathering pans or rave reviews, reworking it, getting it done again, reworking it, repeat for the next script, repeat— all this is an act of love. It has to be.
In the end, our approach to our own work is the only thing we can control—and I believe that you have to love the doing. You also have to love the chase, love the absence of any resemblance of fairness, justice, or due course. And as long as it doesn’t make you too desperate or crazy—there is a nobility in this endurance, in this brand of foolishness. There must be a sense that “I am going down with the ship.” And frankly, it is a commitment that I don’t see many emerging playwrights make.
So all together, how about we “emerging” playwrights stay away from the defeatist attitude? It’s bad for business.
The Good Life
I believe the life of a playwright is fucking great. We make up shit and if we ask big, messy questions in a compelling, theatrical way—if we’re good at getting scripts, projects out there and constantly improving—people will pay us to do it. People will fly us around the country for it, around the world. Parts of the system suck, but there is a lot that is working about it. There are a lot of places that do new plays, know how to nurture them, and will pay a playwright real money. Sure, it’s hard to make money writing plays, but try making money writing poetry. Granted every dollar you don’t make writing, you have to make doing something else—and that can add up to not many hours writing. But I still think there’s enough time in the day, if you are driven, to be a playwright.
So all together, how about we “emerging” playwrights stay away from the defeatist attitude? It’s bad for business. Let’s stay away from it by thinking about companies like 13P and Workhaus Collective—theaters like Playwrights Horizons and City Theatre in Pittsburgh—organizations like New Dramatists and the Playwrights’ Center. Defeat defeatism by opening up your laptop at the beginning or end of the day—no matter how much other shit you have to do. We can all take matters into our own hands. It does us no good to sit around and complain about having our hands tied, even if Dear Artistic Director is already on the third knot. You know what? I take back the fuck you, Dear Artistic Director. Just do your thing. And I’ll do mine.
All Playwrights Are Not Created Equal
One thing we “emerging” playwrights don’t like to talk about is talent. There is a sense that the wealth should be spread around—that prizes, fellowships, and productions shouldn’t keep going to the same playwrights. But the reality is that some writers are flat-out better than others. Yes, art is subjective and there is a vast gray area. Yes, plays that are deserving of production get overlooked for a wide variety of good and bad reasons. However, as you get to know a playwright’s body of work, it becomes very clear who was born to do this and who wasn’t. Even if that playwright is “emerging” and still developing his or her voice—the pulse is there or it isn’t—and if it is there, the only way a playwright can truly fail is by quitting.
Emerging or Languishing?
Lastly, I think most of us “emerging” playwrights are dinosaurs. We don’t change, we don’t adapt, we don’t truly know how to truly listen to criticism and rewrite in an effective way. I am involved with various development programs, as a playwright and in other capacities, and I see this time and time again. Plays often get a bit stronger, stay about the same, or get ruined—but rarely does a play blossom from a good play into a great play. Rarely does a mess of an act two turn into anything else. Rarely does an act two truly further the dramatic questions/situation of act one in a rigorous, meaningful way. We need to better learn when to hold to our guns and when to imagine things anew. Sometimes ego should be taken out of it. Let the play go wherever it needs to go. Sometimes that’s the worst thing to do.
It’s widely discussed that many plays languish in a constant state of development, but I also think playwrights—especially “emerging” playwrights—languish in this same state. Between workshops, between the seventh and eighth draft of a play, between productions—how do we keep growing and changing? But even new plays that receive productions are often half-baked. Perhaps the answer is that it’s hard to write a great play and hard to produce a great show, but then what can we do to get better at what we do? The system may be broken, but there’s also a lot that’s broke-down about us “emerging” playwrights along with it.
Too often we use the same process, make the same mistakes, and expect a different result. If we look inward to ourselves, not outward at the system, what can we do? I think it has to do with listening—to each other, to our collaborators, to our audience and primarily, to our hearts and guts. We “emerging” playwrights need to kick each other’s asses more, challenge each other more, invest in one another more, and be more honest with one another. I expect this rant will piss some of my peers off, but it comes from the place of hoping we can lift each other up. We can do our part to fix the system. Can we shed the “emerging” label? Can we figure out how to arrive?