The Viable Route For Playwrights
When I graduated in 2011 with an MFA in playwriting that included a scholarship and teaching fellowship at Boston University, I just assumed I would be jubilantly welcomed by the Boston theatre community with shouts of, “Where have you been all of our lives?” Instead, all I heard were crickets.
Then the reality of the situation hit me. Theatres always have been reluctant to produce unknown playwrights, and now a volatile economy makes them even more so. MFA programs are glutting the market with playwrights and new plays, and digital submissions are stacking the deck against discovery.
I also noticed that playwrights occupied a rather impotent position in the theatre. Our art was treated like a commodity, and it seemed as if it was assumed playwrights knew nothing at all about the basic fundamentals of a theatre production like casting, scenic design, and especially directing. Whenever I had a piece accepted for production, if I was allowed any input at all, it was merely cursory, and it seemed to come more out of politeness than from a real interest in my artistic opinion. While there were times when the play was produced wonderfully, there were occasions when I wanted to hide from embarrassment.
It took about a year for it to sink in that if I was going to see my plays not only produced, but produced in the way I envisioned them, I needed to take a more active approach to my artistic career. So, in 2013, Kevin Mullins, another Boston playwright, and I founded Boston Public Works Theater Company, a company composed of playwrights who would loosely follow the lead of 13P. We would circumvent the traditional route to a production—having an established theatre company produce our scripts—and self-produce one play by each playwright. Most importantly, the producing playwright would serve as the artistic director during their production (working within guidelines and a budget approved by the entire company), allowing them control of the artistic merit of their art.
I have twenty-five years of experience in corporate marketing communications, but when it comes to self-production, I am still very much a beginner. But even so, there are two important things I’ve already learned.
The first is that self-production is not to be entered lightly: self-producing is one of the hardest things I’ve attempted in my business career. The foundation for producing encompasses basic functions like marketing, fundraising and budgeting, and project management, all of which remind me of backgammon: easy to learn, but hard to master.
The second thing I’ve learned expands on the first: producing is the business side of theatre and it isn’t for everyone. I would guess that a minority of playwrights is suited for it. I know I am not only an artist with business experience, but perhaps more importantly, I’m an artist with an entrepreneurial bent. Now, with the fiduciary responsibility of Boston Public Works squarely on my shoulders, I worry about things like insurance and financial liability, but already we’ve successfully produced two full-length plays and we’re working on our third. I love thinking about the art and the business, and unless you’re wired similarly, I might strongly urge you to think twice about self-producing.
But let’s say you are wired that way, or you still want to try producing one of your own plays anyway—that’s great. Go for it. You’re making theatre, not attempting brain surgery; no one is going to die if you screw up. And given that, I think self-producing is one of the smartest things a playwright could do at this point in time.
I know it’s hard for a lot of people to mesh art with business. It’s an issue I struggle with, too. But, for willing playwrights, the DIY producing tools exist for you to take control of your artistic work. If you’re willing to do a lot of hard work, you can easily bypass the traditional route to production and, at the same time, score some incredible intellectual gains and artistic experience.
For all of the sleepless nights and upset stomachs caused by typos in the program, the lack of reviews, and a computer crash that made us go on one night without projections, self-producing has gotten me as close to theatrical heaven as I’ve ever reached. Acting as the artistic director, I was able to build a diverse theatre where all of the artists were equal collaborators—not segregated like in the traditional model—and our rehearsal room was a veritable hotbed of creativity. My sincere wish is that every playwright in the world could experience what I can only describe as the empowerment that comes from seeing a script go to fruition on stage—and pretty much the way I envisioned it would.
Of course, playwrights have been self-producing before the advent of Weebly and Indiegogo, and there are other companies following in 13P’s footsteps. In Boston, Boston Public Works is far from being the leader in self-production, with the Gold Dust Orphans, New Exhibition Room, Vaquero Playground, Sleeping Weazel, Office of War Information, and Stickball Productions all self-producing. Now, more than ever, it’s easier for playwrights to take control of their artistic lives. I’m hoping that through the work done by Boston Public Works and other companies like us around the country that like-minded playwrights can see that self-production is something that is easily within their grasp.