I have been making my way through Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play. On April 15, Tax Day, I received notice that my play, Ain't Ethiopia, a semi-finalist at the O'Neill, would not become a finalist. The two are not unrelated.
Outrageous Fortune might well be subtitled "anyone who wants to become a playwright should have his or her head examined." Throughout its compiled commentary from playwrights, literary managers, artistic directors, and others runs a long thread of complaint, primarily from the playwrights, about how one can have a life in the theatre but not make a real living. Some of the complaint is legitimate, such as with theatres' obsession about producing only premieres and reluctance, if not outright refusal, to do a second production of a work produced somewhere else. Some is just plain whining about the struggles of writing plays and getting them produced. After all, no one asked us to become playwrights, and no one owes us anything for having made the choice.
Things could be bettered, of course. One suggestion I would have, if anyone asked me for one, would be to have pitch sessions with artistic directors, as screenwriters can do with production companies at writing expos in Los Angeles. Gather a hundred artistic directors into a hotel ballroom and let playwrights buy 5-minute sessions at, say, $10 a pop, each session at a particular appointed time, and give the playwrights a chance to pitch scripts directly rather than through the serpentine process of sending in 10 pages and waiting six months for the inevitable "no."
One advantage of pitch sessions like this is that they undermine a self-congratulation in theatre that we're in theatre because of the art of it all. When a screenwriter sits down with a producer, the unspoken, and sometimes spoken, agenda is, "What can we do to make us some money?", "money" being both literal lucre and the proxy for doing what we can do to keep ourselves doing what we love to do rather than stock shelves at Walmart.
Playwrights have the same expectation when they send scripts out to theatres: do my work so that I can continue to have a reason to do my work, and money is a part of the reward for that effort. The economics of theatre are so screwed-around that, as Outrageous Fortune points out, money for playwrights will never appear in quantities large enough to sustain them, but that doesn't negate the fact that the writers want something more substantial as payback than recognition and another entry on the rĂ©sumĂ©.
But playwrights are not going to get this, ever (though some anointed individual playwrights, the Sarah Ruhls of the world, or those who can forge relationships with theatres might make it). This is due to several factors: too many plays and playwrights chasing too few theatres; theatre (except for musical theatre) as a minor entertainment choice on the modern media menu; shrinking (and aging) audiences; ticket prices; the irrelevance of theatre's voice in modern political and cultural debate.
And perhaps the most important element: despite the respect that theatre professionals pay to the text and the writer, the real king of this realm is the theatre — or, more loosely, the money-guys that produce the work and keep the doors open and the seats filled. Playwrights are the independent contractors brought in to make that happen — and dispensed with when services are no longer needed. (Again, there are always exceptions, but they don't much change the overall picture.)
And if that's the case, then the place for playwrights to go to make the money they say they want is television and movies because there, the money-guys will pay for narrative (especially once small screens — phones, iPads, etc. — become primary venues for viewing). By contrast, theatre is guild-ish, with our Oliver-playwrights asking for more gruel from the institution-keepers and being pissed off when they do and don't get what they ask for.
These thoughts, in an indeterminate quantum state as I read through the book, had their wave collapse when I received the verdict about Ain't Ethiopia. Disappointed at first, of course — I have been rejected many times from the O'Neill, and the acceptance of Ain't Ethiopia as a semi-finalist (I think one of my best scripts) felt like a sign that I had arrived as a playwright, that I was now going to have a chance to get out of the minor leagues. Then a pang of self-doubt: if Ain't Ethiopia, my best work, can't get me past the palace gates, then what is the point? (Ah, that piquant aroma of self-pity!) Then the collapse of the wave function: why have I let myself get myself into a situation where I bring my work on bended knee to certain royalty and expect dispensation to happen? Where is the dignity in that?
The singlemost sharpest point that kept jabbing me intellectually as I read through the surreal scenarios parlayed in Outrageous Fortune was this built-in subservience for the playwright. Of course I should feel disappointed at the O'Neill's decision — a natural human response to loss. But as the inevitable self-doubt crept in, I also began to feel a parallel anger at the in-creeping self-doubt, which signaled to me another wave collapse — why am I not doing for myself what I have been asking others to do for me? Have I built a body of work only to have it deliquesce because I can't convince the guild masters to present it? If production is the point of writing a play, then it makes no sense to depend upon the kindness of strangers to give the play life — the kindness of the playwright should be doing that work.
What, exactly, does that mean?
I suppose self-producing and self-publishing — self-promotion to the max.
Is that what I want to do?
I don't know. It sounds exhausting.
What is the alternative? Take another decade to work on becoming the overnight sensation? Isn't that equally exhausting?
So I suppose it is self-production — at least that has the virtue of being under my control. Though, to be honest, I don't know if I have any talent for it since, as my work-life shows, I have no bent for making decisions that make me money, and money will be needed to make the self-production work.
And for what purpose all this self-production? Garner critical opinion? Simply to do it so that on my death-bed I can say I had done it and not given in, given up? Or do it just for the love of doing it?
Obviously, there are many indeterminate quantum states still in flux.
Yet something has shifted, even if I can't yet measure the tectonics of it, and it's clear that what "is" cannot remain the "is."
Let the waves begin to collapse.