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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The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Break-Through Play

Caridad Svich invited me to participate in the Artistic Innovation blog salon that she is curating for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas). The post below is cross-posted from the salon and can be found at the TCG Circle here.

 

Playwright Caridad Svich asks how a path can be made for innovative theatre artists.

 

That’s a question for the ages—because every age has redefined the form and function of theatre. But in our age and in this culture–so driven by commercial considerations that most playwrights cannot rely on their craft for a living—the question is particularly acute.  We all know that the American theatre faces a crisis of poverty—but it is not just a poverty of resources. It is also a poverty of ideas and confidence. And this poverty forces even the non-profit theatre to obsess with finding the next big hit, the next hot writer, and to find refuge in the next Big Name New Play—that one with all the buzz.

 

 

The reason for this can be summed up in a single statistic: 9.7 percent.

 

 

That is the percentage of the U.S. population that attended a live performance by a not-for-profit professional theatre company in 2010, according to the National Arts Index 2012, a survey of arts attendance in 81 markets. Based on TCG estimates, that figure represents some 31 million Americans who attended professional theatre outside of New York City. That’s down from a peak of 34 million in 2003—and for the record, does not include attendance at Broadway tours. Recent figures from the National Endowment for the Arts tell a similar story—that attendance at live professional theatre has eroded in troubling ways. But of course we do not need a survey to tell us what we have witnessed with our own eyes.

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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 Importance of Multiple Productions

Having seen the second production of  Salvation Road—third if you count the original one-act at the Philly Fringe in 2009—I have now received the kind of vindication every playwright craves: I know my script stands up.

 

 

With two different casts in two radically different incarnations—David Montgomery’s production at New York University featured original music, a rich sound design and a modular set, while Alec Volz’s production at Walden Theatre in Louisville was performed in the round with minimal sound and only four barstools as set pieces—the story of a young man in search of a lost sister is the same from one production to another.  Now having worked the play through several readings and workshops, I already knew that the script was fairly well constructed and I had a lot of confidence in it. But seeing it in a second incarnation showed me that the play was really there.  It lived on stage in a different way, but the fundamentals were the same.

 

 

Nan Elpers, Courtney Doyle, and Elese Whiting in Walden Theatre’s production of Salvation Road. Photo by Harlan Taylor.

 

Most playwrights, though, don’t get to this discovery, for the simple reason that most plays never get past the initial production, if they are produced at all. As we know, theatre in the United States has been peculiarly obsessed with world premieres—and this obsession works to the detriment of the form. Not only is it frustrating to labor so over a play that will never see more than a single production, it precludes a playwright from experiencing the essential next step in a play’s development. Because it is only the second production that will make clear to us exactly how well—or how poorly–constructed our play really is.  Simply put, if if what we deem essential to our play falls out of it when a different director and cast takes over—then we know that there are problems with the script.

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Salvation Road Opens Tonight

Salvation Road opens tonight with a cast of thousands ….

 

It has been a long process developing this play, a comic drama about a boy searching for a sister who has disappeared into a fundamentalist cult.

 

Originally a one-act for three actors (hated that version) the play underwent a massive rewrite in the summer/fall of 2008. I got up my nerve to stage the retooled one-act version, but on advice of a high school drama director — the fabulous Jennie Eisenhower — I developed it into this version, a full-length for 15 actors.  Jennie did not think the subject matter would intimidate a lot of schools, but the cast size–five to eight actors–would discourage a lot of high schools. A cast of 15 to 16 would be a much easier sell. With that in mind, I revised the play into a large-cast version. It subsequently received a developmental workshop at The Utah University Youth Theatre in 2011 as part of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s Playwrights in Our Schools Program.  This year the play was accepted for development during NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences workshop at Provincetown Playhouse this summer. Ironically, the Provincetown project focused a full-length with a small cast (six actors doubling into nine parts).  This is the first time I’ve written a play with two versions–one aimed at professional production, and the other aimed at the youth theatre market.

 

 

The  Theatre Department of the Steinhardt School at New York University trains drama teachers — and there could be no better match for this play than a premiere of the full-length youthversion in a departmental production. It is a challenging topic for young actors and for their audiences, but I strongly believe young people have more going on inside than many of their teachers, and sometimes parents, appreciate.  My hope is that schools across the country will not be put off by the subject matter, but will embrace this play as an excellent opportunity for their students to explore issues of faith, spirituality, conformity, and control through the story of two boys caught up in the cult phenomenon.

 

The next stop for Salvation Road is a production at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 8-18. I’ll be going out there for a post-show discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario

Some years ago I came across a funny yet utterly serious book called “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” by Joshua Piven—a guidebook on how to survive a series of unlikely disasters—from an avalanche to a shark attack to the crash of a jumbo jet. So I immediately bought a copy for  an artistic director who has suffered through enough near misses over 25 years of running a not-for-profit theatre to write a guidebook of his own. John is also a risk-taker dedicated to new work and has a keen eye  and a lot of good advice for writers.  Early on, his advice to me was that I needed to “raise the stakes” for my characters, another way of saying I needed to put more pressure on them—because it is only under pressure that character is revealed.

 

It is true in life and true in drama that the way we deal with mess says a great deal about who we really are. The same fire that melts the fat hardens the iron—to borrow a borrowed phrase from some advice columnist I used to read religiously like a fool  (she gave a lot of bad advice). But it is also a no brainer to say that any character in desperate pursuit of something is always more interesting than someone who can wait another week or so and won’t suffer for the delay. What audiences want—savages that we are—is to watch someone suffer–intensely. The more agony for the character, the better for the story and the more interested are we in the outcome.

 

James Stewart’s manically lovesick detective in Vertigo comes to mind—it is part of what makes that improbable (and creaky) ghost story so watchable 60 years later. Nobody suffers better than James Stewart, but most of us are not going to get a Jimmy Stewart to play our leading man, so what we lack in spectacular acting talent we have to make up in a riveting script.  (Not that Vertigo isn’t riveting, but you have to admit it does defy logic. Why, for example, would anyone cook up such a convoluted murder plot that hangs on such an unpredictable element—the detective’s inability to overcome his fear of heights? Scotty conveniently falters on the bell tower stairs, but he could just as easily have closed his eyes and charged ahead, at which point the whole plot would unravel. And then there is the murderer’s great good luck in escaping the bell tower undetected—apparently because no one without vertigo bothered to go up the tower steps to investigate what actually caused the victim to fall.)

 

But plot weaknesses aside, Vertigo is a terrific example of a character under extreme pressure. The woman Scotty thinks he adores is actually someone else, hired to use him as a pawn in a plot to fake a suicide as a cover for murder.  And once the real Madelyn dies, clueless Scotty is skinned alive during the inquest that follows, as an investigator coldly concludes that his cowardice was a greater cause of Madelyn’s demise than the mysterious emotional upset that sent her up the tower. Who wouldn’t end up catatonic in a nursing home after that?

 

We have to admit—when it comes to scenarios for losing your sweetheart, this has to be one of the worst case scenarios of all time—as well as one of the more original.

 

This, then is a useful question to keep in mind when sketching out the scenario for your play. Aside from the obvious–have we ever seen this before?–we need to ask ourselves how we can crank up the pressure on our characters.

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Salvation Road at NYU

Salvation Road opens at New York University’s Black Box Theatre on Oct. 26. Tickets are now on sale and can be obtained online at www.nyu.edu/ticketcentral/calendar, or by calling 212-352-3101. Admission is $15 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors.

The show runs from Oct. 26 through the following weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

 

More details can be found here.

So Produce a Different Play Already!

In the annals of theatrical chutzpah, this latest missive has to rank fairly high.

 

A theatre that shall remain nameless booked several performances of Radium Girls for the coming fall. Okay, cool. I’m excited, because this one looks to be a professional company, even though it’s only a single weekend run. Then comes this request, sent to me via my publisher: Would I approve some cuts to the script? Attached is a file containing a heart-stopping number of red scratch-outs.

 

Now, I’m accustomed to approving cuttings for competition. Radium Girls has been presented in a truncated form multiple times and won awards for the schools involved. I don’t mind; it’s clear in the context that the students are presenting excerpts from a larger work, and that’s fine. In fact, a lot of those competitions have generated subsequent full productions by other schools.

 

In this case, though, the theatre would be presenting a radically pared down version of my play for paying audiences. When I asked for the reasoning behind these cuts, what I got back was a doozy:

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Unexpected Impacts

Trolling through Google with coffee in hand is a favored Saturday morning time-waster, but this morning I came across a stunning discovery — Google images, more than 100, of various productions of Radium Girls.

To wit:

Radium Girls, Boston University

This visually arresting production, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue at Boston University, was one I had the privilege to see.

But there are many others, some obviously more successful in the design and execution. The play has not made a big impression in professional theatre — but in universities, high schools, and now community productions, the story is told and retold. Fascinating to see how different and yet how consistent the interpretations seem to be.

 

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Membership in a Lie

In the summer of 1974, over the objections of my parents, my sister G. and her friend D. set off on a long bicycle trip to New England.  Their ambition was adventure and a much needed change of scenery from the dead-end job she had been working in central Pennsylvania.

 

My parents feared for two 19-year-old girls out on the road alone, and with more reason than any of us could imagine at the time. Of course the obvious danger for any young women traveling alone was to encounter a man with ill intentions; this was probably what my father feared most. He could not have imagined the real dangers that waited for them at a festival in a park in Amherst, Mass., one sunny summer day.

 

The Celebration of Life seemed like a hippie fest—free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. D., the worldly skeptic, had no great attraction to the raggedy kids who preached the gospel of love and peace that day; G. was a different story.

 

“They all seemed so happy,” G. told me later. “I had to find out why.”

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The Long Shadow, Part One

Late in September 1920, a notice appeared in the Springfield, Ohio, newspaper that the young wife of Bill Collins had died. The cause was edema, a complication of pregnancy that she might have survived had her caregivers not put her to bed—and thus ensured the onset of the pneumonia that took her life. The fluid that swelled her legs also filled her lungs. Feverish and weak, she passed away within a month of giving birth to her only son, my uncle Jack.

 

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Doors & Windows

Let us consider a simple mystery.

 

A man at a party lights a cigarette; from ten feet away, at the end of a narrow hallway, a woman observes him. The next room buzzes with talk and laughter, the rattle of glasses over a Patsy Cline record in full croon. But she sees only him.  For months he has been the focus of her fascination, moving at the edge of her circle of friends, chatty and charming, always clever, usually evasive, never alone.

 

And now there he is: by himself, striking a match with one determinedly casual stroke, a movement so sleek that she wonders if he had practiced it before a mirror. She smiles at this idea, and as she does, she catches his eye. This time, she holds his gaze. Continue reading

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