The Other 9 Percent

Locally Grown Festival Image (2)Theatre J hosted a town hall meeting for playwrights on Tuesday night (June 25) and the room was bursting with amazing stories of a D.C. theatre scene that is about to break out as a worthy rival to Chicago, Minneapolis and even—yes, they said it—New York.

 

Among the most interesting reports from the field – to borrow a term from Theatre J Artistic Director Ari Roth – was a preview by Gwydion Suilebhan of his annual analysis of the D.C. season, in which he logs the number of new works going up, the percentage of plays by D.C. playwrights, the percentage by women and writers of color and so forth. He’ll have a lot more to say about it when he blogs about it next week—but here are two numbers to chew on until then: 31 and  9.

 

The first is the percentage of productions slotted for the 2013-14  season that can be considered  new plays—that is, experiencing a first, second, or third production.

 

The second is the percentage of plays by local writers, and according to Gwydion, it’s significantly less than the current season – in fact, nearly half. This year the figure was 16 percent. And these numbers, by the way, don’t include that crazy, hazy, mazy zone of self production known as the Capital Fringe.

 

What happened? I imagine Gwydion will have some things to say about that—he described it as a discouraging development, as it would have to be for anyone who has dedicated himself as tirelessly as he has to the cause of promoting local writers to local theatres. It remains to be seen whether that’s a statistical blip or the beginning of a trend—I suspect the former–but that 9 percent is a good number to keep in our heads because it gives us a strong sense of where the landscape is currently. Maybe it’s the dark Irish in my genes,  but sometimes I find a discouraging word weirdly motivating: we have work to do and one single statistic makes the case more clearly than anything else.

 

For any theatre community to make its mark outside its own small circle of  fans and friends requires that it dedicate itself to new plays. Otherwise it has nothing to offer to a new generation of theatergoers—and such theatre ultimately ensures its own demise. If you have nothing new to say, then eventually you have nothing at all to say, and no one has any reason to listen.

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Is There Room for an Introvert in Theatre?

Consider this an open letter to any writer who ever struggled with the concept of “self-promotion,” a term many of us find distasteful on its face.

 

I have been thinking about this for a long time, because for me, putting myself front and center has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do—so hard that there have been times when I’ve thought about giving up on theatre altogether, because I did not believe that there was a place in it for someone like me—a naturally shy individual for whom social events are frequently the occasion of anxiety, rather than celebration. For years I went into a crowded room with a pounding heart, panicked over my awkwardness, marking myself unworthy of anyone’s interest. It took many years and studied practice to overcome that attitude, but even now, given the choice—and I recently was given the choice—of attending say, the White House Correspondents Dinner, or hanging out with my spouse in my own dining room, I took the beer and pretzels option.

Lone_female

Among writers, shyness and self-doubt are fairly common traits, and among women writers, even more so, because we have been socialized—at least, my generation has been socialized—to defer to the men in our lives, to defer to the men in authority, and to discount our own perceptions. (That is, in fact, the topic of my most produced play, RADIUM GIRLS.) And when we find ourselves in a position of challenging a man in authority, it is a deeply uncomfortable place, even now, for many women, well into the 21stcentury.

 

But lately I found myself exactly in that position and it has given me an opportunity to reflect on this concept of self-promotion and why it is so hard for women to get past the guilt that goes along with making an honest effort to put themselves forward. This is more than an academic question for me. I recently got into a confrontation with the moderator of a Facebook group intended as an open forum for D.C. Playwrights. And I am told this forum is “not for self-promotion” and therefore, member writers cannot talk about their own productions or readings; we cannot announce our triumphs—if we win a grant, place in a competition, land a fellowship, make it or nearly make into the O’Neill or PlayPenn or Seven Devils—this is all forbidden, by the rules of the group. Although, apparently it is all right if someone else announces these developments for you, then that is not self-promotion.

 

Set aside for a moment how easily that loophole can be exploited by an enterprising writer with a lot of friends. And set aside the inconsistency with which the rule is enforced—apparently self promotion is forbidden in a post, but forgiveable in a comments thread? For someone who has been a longtime member of the Playwrights Center, the Dramatist’s Guild, the Philadelphia Dramatists, the International Centre for Women Playwrights (and a former member of the D.C. Playwrights Forum and Chicago Dramatists), I want to say that this is one of the most bizarre restrictions I have ever come across in any organization that presents itself as existing for the benefit of playwrights. Every one of these organizations provides some opportunity for members to announce their activities. I don’t know of a single playwrights’ service organization that penalizes its members for seeking to promote a reading or a production; many seek to encourage it, offering a blog or a newsletter or some other means for members to announce their productions and other events. Since this DC group communicates primarily through Facebook, it seems perfectly reasonable that posting an invitation to a reading or production on the front page itself ought to be encouraged, rather than penalized.

 

But my opinion counts for naught, and this strange restriction persists.

 

It occurs to me, however, that such a restriction is far more punitive for many women than it is for men. Not that there are no shy or deferential men out there; they surely exist. But it’s my observation that many men are far more comfortable and adept at muscling their way into the center of the room, and the center of attention, than many women are, and I think it has a great deal to do with differences in gender socialization in this culture. For men, attention and favor is a birthright, for women it is perceived as a privilege—that is, a reward that is earned on the basis of merit—and that is no minor distinction.

 

I know several young women of considerable talent who confide that they recoil from blatant self-promotion on the grounds that they don’t quite deserve the attention. “I know my work isn’t all that good,” one tells me. For the record, I disagree. But such is her perception, and as admirable as that humility is—it won’t get her very far.

 

And yet I am a bit hard-pressed to tell her that muscling her way into the room is really the answer either, because I am not entirely convinced that the rules that apply to ambitious young men also apply to the women. I sense—though I have little concrete evidence to support it—that even now, a young woman who attempts to promote herself as forthrightly as any young man will somehow be seen the lesser for it. I fear she will be punished for it.

 

Which is why this strange prohibition against self-promotion among the D.C. playwrights galls me so. Because it plays right into the worst stereotypes we all share of self-promotion—that it is somehow distasteful and vulgar and inappropriate for any of us—particularly the women among us—to brag on ourselves. Surely the merits of our work should rise to the top like so much cream and be scooped up by the makers of theatre around us, who will see the beauty of our efforts and reward us, both for our modesty and our artistry.

 

How lovely if the world were so just.

 

The bitter truth we all have to face—and figure out how to overcome—is that when it comes to plays, the work is not selected on merit alone. Very often it is not aesthetics, but economics, that drives the choices. As well as convenience. Let’s face it. This is an exhausting undertaking, to produce a new play. And sometimes you simply cave to the choice that is close at hand. So if an enterprising writer can put himself on the radar screen of an overworked artistic director, so much better are his chances that his play will receive consideration.

 

We all know this. So why should we hesitate when it comes to self-promotion? Why should we feel any sense of shame that we do what we can to put ourselves forward?

 

Do you think that Katori Hall hesitates to put herself forward? Does Mike Daisey choke up shyly and decline to work every angle he can think to get his name across? Did a young David Mamet come to fame by modestly decrying his worth to anyone close enough to hear? You already know the answer.

 

Rather than a prohibition against self-promotion, what we really need is an invitation to do it more—and do it better. Rather than forbid us from talking about our work, demonstrate to us exactly how we should talk about that work. How can we advance ourselves without making ourselves an object of disdain? How do we put ourselves forward without also irritating the very people whose interest we seek to attract? If you want to be a service organization for playwrights, think about providing that service.

 

For the fact is, for many women, the question is not whether we have the right to talk about ourselves, but whether we can overcome decades of conditioning to become comfortable doing it. Many of us need encouragement and help in learning how to navigate these unfamiliar waters. What we don’t need are more roadblocks to our own advancement, put in our way by a group whose stated purpose is to celebrate and develop D.C. writers. Why refuse us a forum to talk about our work? What we need is to celebrate the triumphs, large and small, that propel us to keep on working.

If you want to be of service to us, then make that happen.

 

[UPDATE: Yes, I know that the page provides a Word doc file where writers can post their events–but that’s the equivalent of putting up a concert poster on the back wall of a shop, rather than the front window. You have to know it is there, and you have to remember to look at it, so its usefulness is dubious on its face.]

The Metaphor of the Gun

Something happened last night. It got me so fired up I was ready to let fly with both barrels.

Illustration by Mike Diehm

 

So you know it was big.

 

And that is why I had to step back and think about my choice of words.  How ironic that the first thing to come to me was the metaphor of the gun.

 

I’ve been volunteering now for a couple weeks to help bring about a March on Washington for Gun Control. This is an effort by some D.C. theatre artists to call attention to the need for a more sensible gun policy in this country — one that could have prevented the carnage at Sandy Hook. So when an apparent coordinated effort by opponents of the march shut down our Facebook page for several hours last night, I was outraged.

 

I guess when you don’t have an argument, you resort to dirty tricks. And no question it is easier to shut down  the argument you cannot refute than to actually refute it—and that is another irony, that such vocal proponents of the Second Amendment seem to forget that there is also a First Amendment.

 

But there I was, firing off emails (oh yes I know) invoking the metaphor of the gun.

 

Both barrels, loaded for bear.  And it occurred to me how trapped we all are within a language and culture so besotted with weaponry.

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27 Dead in Connecticut: A Call to Action

27 Dead in Connecticut

 

The headline is too familiar, and yet, despite a culture saturated by gun violence in fiction and fact, we feel absolute revulsion at the senselessness of it all.

 

Twenty-seven dead in Connecticut, 20 of them children. They were kindergartners, five or first-grade students, six and seven years old. In the world of innocence, these were absolute innocents–and they are dead because this nation and its political leaders lack the nerve to stand up to a well-funded and wrong-headed gun lobby.

 

Why? Is the cry that goes out, again and again, when we see these headlines. Why, why, why?

 

 

Why? Because a troubled boy of 20 had access to a Glock and Sig Sauer pistols—two magazine-fed semi-automatic weapons capable of firing off more than 100 rounds within minutes, as well as a .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle – a military style assault rifle similar to the one used by the serial killers that stalked the D.C. metro 10 years ago.  This is the weapon, authorities say, that Lanza used to gun down his victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14.

 

Why? Because, even though gun ownership in this nation is concentrated in the hands of only a third of its population—our political leaders lack the moral courage to fight for a sensible gun policy.

 

The National Rifle Association’s slippery slope argument is that if the U.S. government curtails the use of any firearm—no matter how lethal—that is the beginning of the end for our constitutionally guaranteed right to gun ownership in the United States. And by their logic, an assault rifle is the equivalent of the shotgun my brother-in-law keeps on hand at his farmhouse in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where bears have regularly crossed into his property. A Glock is the equivalent of the rifle my brother once used to hunt deer.

 

According to the NRA, weapons designed for military use belong in the hands of ordinary citizens like Nancy Lanza. She apparently thought so, too. The shooter’s mother is dead by her son’s own hand, murdered with a weapon she had bought herself. According to news reports, Nancy Lanza was the legal owner of the guns her son used to commit mass murder.

 

This a crime so horrific that some of us wonder if it is not, at last, at very long last, the final straw.

 

And as often happens at times like these, we wonder what we, as theatre artists, can possibly say or do about it.

 

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block Part 3

Last week I wrote about an exercise from Michael Dixon to help raise the stakes in a scene. And here it is again:

 

1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. Write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.

 

Working on my play about the man with the phenomenal memory, (working title: A Hero of the Revolution) I have decided that because the  patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes, there is more mileage to be gained from another, less expected scenario. What I come up with is a scene between an interrogator and his prisoner–in this case, the psychiatrist who is treating our guy. For the sake of the exercise (if not the play), the doctor is a woman, Natalia; the patient is Alexei, and the interrogator a tough character named Kreplev.  What Natalia and Kreplev share is a seething hatred for this man:

 

"Tsar Nicholas II"

The wrong guy at the wrong time

 

Tsar Nicholas II, an inept and bloodthirsty ruler of a nation struggling to emerge from feudalism at the end of the 19th century.

 

If ever there were a nation in need of a revolution it was Russia in 1917 — but ultimately what emerged was a government even more oppressive and bloody than the monarchy it replaced. In the Birth of the Modern, World Society 1815-1830, Historian Paul Johnson explains why, in a nation in which the concept of individual rights did not exist,  Russia’s fate could have been no different.

 

All of that is by way of prologue. For our purposes, we fast forward to the 1930s, when Stalin’s paranoia has kicked into high gear, and here we open our scene:

 

 

 

A HERO OF THE REVOLUTION, SCENE ONE

Lights rise on a drab office with sick green walls and a window overlooking a brick wall that sports an enormous banner picture of Stalin. Only a quarter of Stalin’s face is visible, an eternally staring eye. Kreplev, a government official, sits at a desk and Natalia leans against the wall opposite.

 

Kreplev has several files, which he taps on the tabletop. Each time he taps the files, the sound is like a rifleshot. Tap — tap — tap. Tap — and last tap, a light flashes outside the window — as if a gun has been fired, and the report of the rifle report echoing, echoing, echoing, gone. Natalia reacts to this by moving away from the window, but Kreplev does not respond to the sound. It is as if he so accustomed to the sound of gunfire that he can no longer react.

 

KREPLEV: Now then. I have very little time today, comrade doctor. And I imagine you too have pressing business.

 

Beat

 

KREPLEV: I do my best to keep things cordial. Please never let it be said that I have no respect for your profession.

 

NATALIA: Of all the things on my mind this morning, comrade, that … that is not something I have been troubled by …

 

KREPLEV: I will consider that a humorous rejoinder comrade doctor and not make a record of it.

 

NATALIA: Does it matter? Surely someone is taking notes.

 

KREPLEV: It is always possible. But if we have nothing to hide—then we have nothing to fear.

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Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Me and Jackie

The wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton has included me in her series on women playwrights in D.C.

My newest best friend

You can check out the interview here.

Thank you Jackie for thinking of me and including me in such illustrious company as  Laura Zam, Karen Zacarias, Renee Calarco, and Jennifer Nelson.

And you can check out Jackie  here.

And do check her out because she is one cool cat. She would be cool even if she didn’t write about me.

I Get Letters

Tempting as it is to believe my labors are all for naught, I am occasionally confronted with a different reality. This time it is a note card from the exhausted but grateful and excited cast and crew of RADIUM GIRLS at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Director  Robert Freedman kindly forwarded  a review from the local press (quite positive), a copy of the program, a DVD of production photos, and a card full of love. Witness:

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