There is a way of being a Professional Playwright (TM) that I have been taught. It goes like this: Write a play, submit it to various institutions (theatres, festivals, development labs, etc.), and wait for someone to read it and like it and say yes, and if you do that enough times, you can leverage those successes into a career. A “career” is defined here as a way of organizing your time and activities in such a way that results in your plays paying for your utility bill.
Other truisms that are attached to this approach: When You’re Ready, An Agent Will Find You. Register Your Plays with the Copyright People in Case of Grand Larceny. Live in New York, Or Have a Good Reason Why You Don’t. Always Be Networking. Etcetera.
We go about our days, writing cover letters and artistic statements and bios, collecting little bits of critical praise dished out by the guy who’s writing the theatre review column this week because the cooking column was discontinued, feathering our nest with phrases like “Not horrible!” and “An evening in the theatre!” like so many bits of string, thinking if we do that enough times we’ll create an illusion of momentum, and people who didn’t like our plays before will take a second glance because The Muncie Free Press has dubbed it “entertaining.”
And so we go on and on and on.
We do this – I do this – because we have been told that this way lies money. We all want money. We want money for our projects, and we want money for our self-esteem, and we want money for our utility bill. Most of us are humble about it; we don’t want a lot of money (Lie: of course we do), we just want enough to justify spending our time in this way. We have confused money with legitimacy.
We have bought into the notion that the money-makers are the “professionals” and the non-money-makers are the “amateurs.” I can think of no worse insult than to be called an amateur. How can I be an amateur? Have you seen my student loans?
But now, true confession: If my job is to wring money out of my art, then I am very bad at my job. I can’t seem to do it well. When I have managed the miraculous, it’s never for very long and it’s never for very much. No agent has magically appeared to me out of the mists – a couple have sniffed around, but nobody’s proposed marriage or even offered to read my plays. I have a couple of short pieces published; Dramatic Publishing currently owes me $11.43 and has for seven years. They won’t cut me a check until the amount reaches $25, so I expect to get paid never.
I see my colleagues working the machine, racking up the publications and schmoozing with the artistic directors and burrowing their way into various institutions, and it seems wondrous to me. Is it because they live in a more exciting town? Is it because they went to the Fancy School? Did they learn some secret, some alchemy that I never learned? Was I truant the day they taught Money-Getting?
For the past fifteen or so years, I have attempted to do all the things I was taught, hoofing for dollars on the margins, trying to break into the big room, and growing increasingly anxious at my failure to do so. Is the answer to make a different kind of theatre, one that is more populist, or weirder, or broader or narrower? Do I need to start my own version of the Setting Up Folding Chairs in the Church Basement Theatre Company? Do I gird my loins and “write for television” (as if that option is as easy as booking a plane ticket and hanging out a shingle)? I find myself spiraling down a rabbit hole, each dubious solution leading to a distorted outcome.
When I get lost in a play revision, it helps me to remember why I wanted to write the play in the first place. What was the initial impulse that motivated me? That impulse, be it an image or a gut feeling, becomes my North Star, and I can find my way out of the thicket of what-ifs and could-bes to get to my essential truth.
Why did I go into the theatre? I mean, I’m not dumb. I’ve got a brain and two hands and could make money doing any number of things. And there are lots of jobs out there that are not soul-sucking endeavors, but nourishing, useful work. If I wanted money, going into the theatre has proven, at best, deeply irrational.
So what was my initial impulse?
I believe a play is not a script but an event, that as a playwright my job is to plan a haunted house, and then get my friends together and put it on for the people to experience, and along the way if I can slip in some commentary on feminism or the plight of humanity, well and good. My mission statement is to Amuse and/or Tell the Truth. One or the other is fine; both is best.
I note here that nowhere in my pithy mission statement is any thought given to money. My mission is not to Amuse and/or Tell the Truth for Money; simply saying that aloud rings false. I must conclude (to my privileged chagrin) that I am not now, nor have I ever been, in it for the money. Yet I devote so many of my scant resources toward that very thing.
A radical thought: What if I stopped chasing the money? What if I separated my need to pay my utility bill with my need to amuse and/or tell the truth? What if I took all my urgent submitting and wheedling, and chalked it up as a bad job? A certain amount of money is necessary to make my work, but what if I treated it as an ingredient, rather than the hoped-for outcome? What happens then?
What happens is a complete rethinking of the conventional wisdom of career-making.
Now having a professional career does not mean using my art to pay my bills. Now “career” is redefined to mean the fulfillment of my mission statement by means of the most rigorous application of my skills and abilities, and “professional” means conforming to the highest possible aesthetic standards, in conversation and in collaboration with other like-minded peers. It speaks to a degree of artistic competence, rather than a given percentage of earned income.
To fulfill my mission, I must connect with my audience as often and as fruitfully as possible. If I focus my energy where it rightly belongs – making that connection for the much-needed amusing and/or truth-telling – then my first order of business becomes to reduce the barriers between my work and my audience. I should make it as easy as possible for people to see my work. The two most valuable things we can ask from strangers is their money and their attention. Their money would be nice, but their attention is integral. Eric Bentley defines theatre as A performs B for C. If there is no C, there is no theatre.
So how do I do that? Specifically, how do I do that with little or no money?
Well, for starters, I put all my scripts online for free.
I floated this idea on Facebook, and all my well-meaning and concerned friends freaked the fuck out. “You’re devaluing your art! You’re saying your art is worthless! Your plays are your property!”
I point to Charles Mee – he’s done this for years.
“Yeah, but Chuck Mee is different,” say my friends. “He’s doing an experimental post-modern thing, and anyway he’s old and he already has all the money. But you are young and fresh and nobody knows who the hell you are! ‘Tis madness!”
(I don’t know Chuck Mee personally, but I’m willing to wager he made more money from productions of Big Love last year than I’ve made in the last three years from all my plays combined. And that’s with the entirety of all his scripts released online for free. Our university did Big Love last year, and we paid him.)
But leaving Mee aside, let’s explore this idea that “giving away” my scripts devalues them. My plays are valueless, as long as they sit in a drawer. If a play is an event and the script is the blueprint, then what good is a bunch of blueprints taking up space on my hard drive? I didn’t write my plays to be hidden from the world by a team of hypothetical lawyers. Making my script a thing that is difficult to find and read, making the reading of my script a privileged experience, is an obstacle between my work and my audience. Currently, if I can’t convince a theatre to produce my haunted house, and for whatever reason I can’t produce the haunted house myself, then all that work that went into planning the haunted house is a waste of time.
“But someone can take your work and steal it!” Okay: First, nobody’s going to steal my work without me knowing it. If somebody plagiarizes me, I’ll find out. Remember the big stink when Glee allegedly ripped off Jonathan Coulton’s arrangement of Baby Got Back? Patrolling for plagiarism is a task ideally suited to crowdsourcing.
Secondly, nobody’s going to produce my play without me knowing about it. Remember that $11.43 Dramatic Publishing owes me? That’s for a ten-minute play I wrote called Rumple Schmumple. In theory, people are supposed to pay Dramatic a royalty to produce it.
But my Google Alert tells me that Rumple Schmumple gets done all the stinking time, and if Allenwood Middle School and its compatriots were actually paying the royalties they’re supposed to, I would have surpassed the twenty-five-dollar mark long ago. In theory, I could demand Allenwood Middle School coughs up the chump change they owe me, but I never do. Why? Because the reality is, if Allenwood had to pay to do the play, they probably wouldn’t do it. And with arts education being what it is, I’m thrilled that anybody’s doing any play at all. That particular play happens to have some pretty subversive feminist messages stitched into its seemingly-innocuous fractured-fairytale fabric, and it tickles me to smuggle those ideas into a bunch of seventh graders’ subconsciousness. Knowing that is happening is worth way more than the measly ten dollars or whatever that I would get from those schools, poor souls.
I teach, and sometimes my students feed me a story about their dead grandmother to get out of class. Even when I suspect they’re lying to me, I usually excuse them because I know if they’re the kind of student who has to lie about a death in the family to get out of class, they’re the kind of student who’s probably not going to get an A in the first place. They don’t need me to be hyper-vigilant about how many surviving grandmothers they actually have; that stuff takes care of itself. And if they do it enough times to warrant my attention – for example, their third grandmother in a semester kicks it – then I take appropriate disciplinary measures. But I don’t stress about it until that time.
If a theatre finds my work online and wants to produce it, and they’re a legitimate theatre full of right-thinking people, they will pay me. And if a company steals it from me and doesn’t pay me, then they’re probably not a very good company, and it’s a good bet they’re not going to profit in the end. And if they do profit, I’ll know about it. You can’t produce a play in secret. And if a no-good thievin’ company steals my work and profits from it enough to warrant my attention, then I’ll take all the appropriate disciplinary measures.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to live my life. Because what are we really talking about here? A bunch of – let’s face it – people who are probably not malicious and are fans of my work and are probably ignorant of the ways in which they’re ripping me off, or else justifying their theft out of a lack of intellectual rigor, putting on my play for their friends and their moms? That’s kind of amazing.
Listen: Of course I want to get paid. Of course I should get paid. But the fact is not only am I not getting paid now, but my work is languishing in the dark. Right now, people are paying me neither money nor attention. I’d like both, but I’d rather have the attention (an ingredient, let’s remember, that is absolutely essential to the making of my work) than nothing at all.
It is fear that keeps me clutching at my scripts, shielding them from prying eyes like I’m in math class, guarding against copiers. Enough. Be free, scripts! Find admirers!
Theatre, playwriting, joke telling, haiku: these are economic forms. Concision, precision, and truth are requirements. Let’s get elemental and essential. My favorite thing to do on this earth is to stand in front of an audience and participate with them in a shared experience of my own design. Anything I can do to encourage that, I embrace; anything that hinders that, I reject.
And if I do this, if I refocus my efforts toward the making of the work and rushing headlong into the arms of the audience rather than crabbing for dollars on the sidelines, then I imagine the work will get better. I will create from a place of empowered freedom, of delightful experimentation. Work made from an anxious place is tentative and small. Work made from an emancipated place is daring and joyous.
And – irony of ironies! – if the work is better, it will warrant people’s attention. And then the money will follow.
And if it doesn’t, well, so what? What have I lost? It bears repeating: the old system isn’t working for me. It’s like the car has broken down, so I suggest walking to our destination. “But then you’ll have to walk all that way!” scream my friends. “It’s better to drive!” Maybe it is. But that car is in a ditch. It’s moot. I don’t need a stinking agent to tell me that.
Patton Oswalt has said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that when aspiring comedians ask him how to get their foot in the door, he responds that there is no door. Just make your work, and the good will out.
What if we just made our work?
“That’s easy for you to say, Megan,” some friends might say. “You already have a glamorous and lucrative job as an adjunct professor in the theatrical hotbed known as the state of Iowa. But me, I’m struggling!”
Yes, I hear you: Rehearsal space is expensive. Good actors and designers are expensive. Folding chairs are expensive. Yes, yes, yes. You know what else is expensive? Not making our art. Playwriting is the art of problem solving. Solve these problems. Quit saying no. Institutions are crumbling. No: Institutions are illusory. Institutions do not exist. There is no institution that can grant us careers like fairies. Playwrights Horizons is not coming to rescue us.
Now is the time for revolution, friends. Now is the time for revelation. Let’s rethink everything.
And if you’d like to read a play, I have some available.