What I Learned from Interviewing Ten Successful #PLONY (Playwrights Living Outside New York)
I recently posted the tenth interview to my #PLONY (Playwrights Living Outside New York) Profiles blog series. All ten are active playwrights who get produced regularly, none live within commuting distance of NYC, and, if they ever did live there, it wasn’t where they forged their careers. I explain my reasons for creating this series in my launch post, but, in a nutshell, it’s to change how #PLONY are viewed both by themselves and others—particularly theatremakers who still see the Big Apple as having the perceived lock on theatrical legitimacy.
In interviewing these generous writers—who enthusiastically gave their time to further the cause and demonstrate, as Eric Coble put it, “that there is art and life and happiness between the coasts!”—several themes, bits of advice, and truths emerged. Not everything below applies to every #PLONY interviewed, but everything below applies to a majority of them.
If it’s indeed true that there are fewer women forging successful playwriting careers in New York, is the result that fewer women-authored plays find their way to the big New York and Broadway theatres that regional and smaller theatres look to when planning their seasons?
They’ve got the goods. Talent is the primary ingredient for long-term success, and, with an abundance of it, these #PLONY have risen to the top in their given cities—a place where they’re more apt to get noticed. Still, we all know luck in the form of a jumpstart borne of fortuitous circumstances is also critical, and
Luck and opportunity can happen anywhere, but... For any playwright, this is nearly always defined as the right person seeing the right show at the right time which then leads to a career turning point—getting an agent, an international foothold, a prestigious prize. Because in New York, the “right” person (even critic) can conceivably be in any audience, this is a tougher—but by no means improbable—get for #PLONY. As such, contributing factors become even more important:
Opportunity is aided by fortitude. These #PLONY are prolific, and their focus is on the work, the next play. Perhaps it’s because they have more time to write (a sentiment that came up again and again, i.e. “if I lived in New York, I’d be spending more time trying to make rent than plays”), or because they know they have to be more competitive, or because their go-getter personalities are the very reason for their success. In any case, this much is sure: when asked “what else do you have?” these playwrights are never at a loss, and often have more than one kind of play at the ready, which betters their chances of making matches. But equally important:
Luck is more likely with support. Successful #PLONY have hometown theatres that not only provide development and testing grounds, but also champion the work to places beyond their cities. #PLONY enjoy being part of their local theatre communities, but those local theatres, in turn, support them by regularly commissioning, producing, recommending, nominating, or exporting their work—or simply by being theaters on the national radar. Even then, however:
The opportunity that likely won’t happen is Broadway. As playwrights are all too aware, for non-theatre folks, the perceived pinnacle of achievement is Broadway. And while Broadway is always a notable benchmark, playwrights are unlike actors or dancers in that they aren’t hired or chosen for it—somebody (with money) decides to put them there.
It’s not impossible for #PLONY to get to Broadway (hi, Eric Coble!), but odds are against it because most domestic Broadway plays originate in New York or from New York playwrights, and #PLONY don’t tend to get produced in New York much as they do elsewhere. This is a business of relationships (side observation: theatre school connections figure prominently into #PLONY success stories), and regional bias exists everywhere—even in New York. It stands to reason that #PLONY mostly make connections in the world of theatre that exists outside of Manhattan, which means you probably won’t be seeing a #PLONY with a Tony (and to a lesser degree, a Pulitzer) any time soon. Which leads to:
The definition of success varies. Perhaps not consciously, #PLONY seem to have removed the idea of big New York success from their active goal list. They’re getting produced regularly in small theatres, regionals, and internationally, they’re (mostly) earning a living, they’re loving the quality of their artistic and non-artistic lives, and their goals center more on getting productions that allow them to continue that lifestyle rather than getting produced in any particular location or theatre. Which probably means:
#PLONY names aren’t as well-known. Successful as they are, even regular theatergoers may have never heard of a single #PLONY I interviewed, or their plays, because the names that tend to rise up—especially to the theatergoing population—are the ones that come out of New York, and, for all the reasons previously stated, those names generally aren’t going to be #PLONY. But of course:
All #PLONY would love to be produced in New York. And would celebrate and dance jigs on the Times Square Jumbotron and hope it leads to all the wonderful things that successful New York productions can lead to. It’s just not a big enough goal to make them live there. It is, however, a big enough goal that they will travel there whenever necessary, because:
They don’t ever ignore networking. In fact, #PLONY may work even harder at this because they have a perceived extra obstacle to overcome. They’re active in social media, send a lot of emails, and travel—often—anywhere to meet people, make relationships, and see what happens. And, because so many of their opportunities are not in their hometowns, they’ve made wide ranging connections that, in turn, lead to other opportunities. And they absolutely know:
They and their work must be easy to find. A strong online presence is critical because if, by chance, somebody hears their name, is curious, and wants to know more, that person should not be stalled by the absence of a website or presence on the New Play Exchange. It’s just too easy to move on. And on the subject of moving:
It matters where #PLONY LONY, at least at the start. Minneapolis, Miami, San Francisco, Cleveland, Washington, DC—these are among places where #PLONY can thrive because the theatre communities are part of the greater theatre universe. When an outstanding production of a new play happens in isolation, i.e. a city not connected to the greater new play arena, neither the city nor the playwright gets on the map—and the play can die on the vine.
A good #PLONY destination has a) a playwriting MFA b) at least one regional and/or National New Play Network core member theatre, and/or c) a nationally recognized development program and/or writers’ group—preferably all three. If you’re relocating with hope of furthering your playwriting career, these are the indicators that a city is active in the new play sector, which is what #PLONY ideally need to flourish. (Buffalo, for example, while home to incredible talent capable of stellar theater, has none of these.)
On the flip side, much of this entire list can be negated if a #PLONY moves once s/he has already made strong theatre connections elsewhere. One interesting note: though I practiced gender parity with this series, the overwhelming majority of #PLONY interview suggestions I received were women. I can speculate all kinds of reasons why that might be true—I’m sure you can, too—and can’t help but wonder: if it’s indeed true that there are fewer women forging successful playwriting careers in New York, is the result that fewer women-authored plays find their way to the big New York and Broadway theatres that regional and smaller theatres look to when planning their seasons? Is this a contributing factor to the national parity problem?
I could continue this series indefinitely—indeed, I continue to get suggestions for subjects and if I can ever nail down the elusive ones who are just too busy, I might have to do a few more. After speaking with just ten geographically diverse playwrights, my original contention—that you don’t have to move to New York, that wonderful writers do exist outside New York, that the divide and bias should not persist—has been proven. Is anybody listening?