Honest Livin’ in the City of Brotherly Love
Honest Livin’ in the City of Brotherly Love
FACEBOOK STATUS 7.10.13
“A theater company whose mission is to support new and emerging voices just announced their season – it includes a play by a Pulitzer Prize winner. After reading the announcement, I laughed so loud that I woke the kids.”
I thought it was just another funny-cum-tragic status update. Instead it unleashed a firestorm of debate. Playwrights virtually bitch slapping producers. Producers typing shade at playwrights. Actors and directors chiming in with sighs and sympathies. In fact, some of the responses got so vicious that I deleted the post.
The reaction to my status update emphasized the need for an open and honest discussion about the reality of the new business of theatre – the post-recession, post-on-demand business of theatre and how these realities influence play selection. It is time to “come to Jesus,” as we say in the South, and openly admit that we face limitations in terms of what many of us can develop and produce. And that we need to share those limitations in order to best support the work that we can create.
Many of our conversations about play development and production selection feel like the uncomfortable break-up of a comfortable couple. You know what I mean. Neither party wants to hurt the other so you end up bickering over who gets the single copy of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” when you really should be discussing your unfulfilling sex life. You know. That conversation. However, how much better would life be in the long run, if we could just have the hard conversation and be honest with one another.
Because we know what the dishonest conversation leads to:
Playwrights are frustrated with producers because producers’ stated interests (as codified by mission statements, development guidelines, etc.) and the actual work that they select to produce or develop are not in sync. For example, the McCarter’s 2013 Lab Festival program with a goal to “build a bridge to emerging theater creators” gave a Lab slot this year to Steven Dietz, whom they touted as “one of America’s most widely-produced and published contemporary playwrights.” Now, I love the McCarter’s work and Dietz absolutely should have his work supported, but emerging playwrights were upset and disappointed that a slot went to such a well-established playwright.
Producers are frustrated with playwrights because they feel that playwrights are not honest about how their work fits into a larger aesthetic and, therefore, are submitting their work to every opportunity instead of to every opportunity that’s appropriate for their work. As a literary manager at a regional theater, over half the work that I received was completely at odds with our aesthetic, and this included work submitted by agents. Not only did it lead to frustration; it meant that I had less time to concentrate on the work that actually fit our needs, shortchanging everyone in the process.
However, we could relieve some of the anger, stress, and frustration while strengthening our community by simply being honest with one another. Here are a few discussion questions to get the conversation started:
-What if producers let a playwright know within a shorter amount of time whether or not they will be producing the play? Instead of asking for constant rewrites or putting off production, season after season, maybe it would just be best to admit that a play is not a good fit and it’s time to move on.
-What if playwrights and their collaborators going through development hell of a new piece stopped submitting it for a season, to take the opportunity to step back and reevaluate whether it’s worth pushing forward?
–What if the selection guidelines for submission opportunities that producers and developers release were more specific – for example, including information like maximum cast size?
-What if there are more festival showcases without a development component so that developmental resources are saved for works that artists are actually interested in developing? Many playwrights submit to development organizations even when they are not interested in continuing development on a piece simply because they want the work to be seen by industry professionals, but the playwright doesn’t have the connections to get the industry leaders to attend a self-produced reading.
-What if producers’ submission guidelines more accurately reflect their final selections, and playwrights stop script-bombing every opportunity that arises but instead submit to the select few that actually fit their script?
-What if playwrights – and it is incredibly hard to see your own work objectively – but what if we do a bit more research about the organizations that we submit to and are a bit more honest with ourselves about where our plays are in the arc of their development?
One of the reasons that I enjoy living and working in Philly is the “no bullshit” approach to life. Philadelphians speak their minds, for better or worse, whether or not you’re interested. They’ll speak their mind at home, on the subway, or at two a.m. at Quig’s Pub wearing a hairnet, high tops, and little else.
As a working playwright this honesty (“we like your voice but we’re not gonna produce your play due to X, Y, and Z, however, Such-and-Such over at So-and-So theater does this kind of thing”) is difficult to hear but, ultimately, helped me figure out where my voice fit within the theatre community. Then I could connect with collaborators who share my sensibilities when creating new work, and tailor my submissions to appropriate companies. As a result, I am more satisfied with the work I’m creating, and also feel that I’m refining and strengthening that voice. I’ve had three world premiere productions at three different professional theaters in Philadelphia within five years. Finding the right fit, quickly and honestly, was crucial to the success of all of those productions.
There are many reasons to make theatre in Philadelphia, from the thriving theatre scene with groups working in all types of theatre (university, fringe, LORT, etc.) in a variety of styles and aesthetics, to the relatively low cost of living which allows artists to buy homes and begin families. Of course, we have a few areas that we need to improve, especially when it comes to supporting emerging artists. However, I think that one of the keys to our success is that producers are pretty honest about what they’re interested in producing and theatre creators are generally honest about the type of work they are interested in making. This enables artists in the community to form strong, long lasting collaborations that yield exciting, innovative work.
Unfortunately, there will probably always be some writers who submit to every submission opportunity no matter how appropriate, and there will always be some producers who misrepresent what they are looking for. However, after working in theaters around the country for over a decade and settling in Philly for the past five years, for me the hard, honest conversation has lead to a more productive creative life than I could have ever imagined.
The First Philadelphia One-Minute Play Festival in Partnership with InterAct Theatre Company runs July 29-31st. Proceeds to benefit the Philadelphia New Play Initiave-a program dedicated to supporting and uplifting the voices of local Philadelphia Playwrights. Tickets are $20 and available here.