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Theatre DIY Don’ts

Don’t Write Checks You Can’t Cash

It's so tempting for playwrights to want to self-produce in this day and age. This series seeks to show people how to run a theatre company into the ground so that they can learn from my mistakes.

I sometimes think back to my Tae Kwon Do classes that I took as a kid. I learned like any white or yellow belt how to break a board and do the certain groups blocks and punches. I broke my first board and walked around like I was King Kong. I knew how to break a board! Nothing can stop me now! Until I tried to break a big stick in my backyard. And when you get in a real fight in the real world that pretty block you learned in the dojo doesn't keep the guy from trying to hit you again or make the punch hurt any less. That's knowledge without wisdom. When you become a black belt you learn that breaking a board is the best way to break a bone in your hand, and the best way to win a fight is to never get into one in the first place. You learn how to apply that knowledge to achieve the true desired effect, no pain.

I often mistook vast knowledge with being a professional. Even when I started my own theatre, I made this mistake. But what a professional really needs that knowledge to do is turn into two things: wisdom and respect.

My small town was in what I call a new play desert. If you were a playwright, the closest market for your new play was a few workshop opportunities forty-five minutes away in the next city. There was a regional theatre, a theatre department at the local university, and a community theatre, but none of them were very open to producing or even reading new plays. After taking two playwriting classes at my alma mater, I found myself surrounded by ten or so students that had caught the writing bug with no outlet left to develop their plays once the semester was over. So I took it upon myself to provide that outlet for them and myself. I stepped out of the theatre “dojo” to provide an oasis in the middle of this desert.

The degree is the start of a new journey not a destination. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Knowledge helps you to start the quagmire of the new theatre world, but experience will help keep you in the game long enough to shape the next theatre atmosphere.


I thought at the time that being a professional was having a degree and a head full of knowledge from all of the classes I took. I knew all about theatre history and theory, and thought I knew exactly what to do. My head knowledge helped me put up one or two productions, but I was never able to do them with the same amount of quality each time. My head knowledge and schooling didn't assume that problems would arise, or that a certain infrastructure wouldn't be available to me.

Only through experience did I learn that a lot of textbooks assume a basic level of infrastructure that most professionals had in regional theatres ten years ago when the book was written. You may not live in a theatre town and don't have that infrastructure. Besides that, you live in a completely different theatre atmosphere than the one in the book. You have different challenges, tech, and audiences than what any textbook writer is used to. Knowledge helps you to start the quagmire of the new theatre world, but experience will help keep you in the game long enough to shape the next theatre atmosphere. Education assumes a perfect world. Experience is what you gain in the real world.

I also liked to run my mouth. I didn’t have respect for the other theatre people in my town or the wisdom to know when to leave well enough alone. In press releases, I liked to mouth off that we were the only new works group in the area and that we only worked with local people. This led to having some tension with local regional theatre because even if I never named them, they could see a jab no matter how veiled it was.

That bravado didn't last long in the real world. I kept on bragging that I was fixing the local theatre system and that I would never work with outside artists, but I found myself posting my first nationwide open submissions within eighteen months. I put out a lot of ideals disguised as promises that I had no idea if I could keep or not. Soon experience had taught me that the easiest promise to keep is the one you never made. I started to look at what other companies had done in the same theatre atmosphere I had, and it looks even more like magic than when I started. I realized that they had to fight to get where they are just like I did, and they were doing it longer than me. That awe and amazement turned into real respect. And I learned to keep my mouth shut.

I think the best sign that I’m now a theatre professional is that I don’t really think I am. I’m aware of the big pond that new play development is nowadays, and I’ve learned that there’s always a bigger fish and a greater danger than the one I’ve experienced. I’ve learned that all the success I’ve had was a gift and the product of so many people’s hard work. I know that I couldn’t take full credit for all of that.

Through the long process that got me to where I am, I wear my past mistakes as battle scars that help me remember where I came from and remind me of what the fight really is. I still fight the battle to do more new works and have a passion for eliminating theatre deserts, but I know that there is a completely different enemy. The enemy is empty seats and barren stages in any theatre on earth. I now know that a career is following your passion on a journey as far it will go, until you look up one day and see the whole new world you made. Wisdom and consistency will get you there.

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Thoughts from the curator

In this series, Ricky Young-Howze shares his experience of starting his own not-for-profit theatre company and offers advice.

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