I’m stunned and tickled at the reaction I’ve gotten from my last blog post, The Great Release. (Sometimes I forget this whole Internet-thingy is really public, and not just me and my four friends.) Your responses have been overwhelmingly positive; it appears many of my fellow playwrights are experiencing similar frustrations.
It’s led to many good conversations, both in the comments section and privately via email, Facebook, etc. I’m hearing several repeating themes I’d like to address. Rather than tackle them one by one, I’m going to summarize the main arguments I’m hearing and respond in one fell swoop. Forgive me if my summaries are pithy and reductive; Pithy and Reductive, in addition to being the names of my future twin parakeets, are kind of where I live naturally.
By putting your work online for free on your website, are you just chucking all copyright law out the window? What if theatres make changes to your work without your permission?
No. All my works are copyrighted and registered with Big Brother. (There’s a movement afoot called Creative Commons that challenges the efficacy of current copyright law, as it often appears to protect major corporations more than lowly artists, but that’s not what I’m proposing. Yet.)
And no, I don’t want theatres to make changes to my work without my permission. But no ethical theatre would do such a thing, and any unethical theatre that would make changes without my permission wouldn’t be stopped if they got hold of my script in the conventional manner.
When I was 23, I was in a production of Steve Martin’s Wasp whose performance rights I would bet my eyeteeth were not, shall we say, secured appropriately. They had trouble finding an actor to play the teenage girl. Their solution to the problem was to cast a boy and radically rewrite the part. Now the character was a football player, etc. It was the playwright’s nightmare come to life. I was appalled, but I was also 23, and they paid me fifty whole dollars for three scenes. If Steve Martin is reading this and crying (Hi, Steve!), he should take solace in the knowledge that the production was poorly attended and everybody lost money. It was also, naturally, abysmal.
When we talk about these hypothetical thieving and illegally-revising producers, I think of those poor, schlubby, ignorant, well-meaning guys who are responsible for that miserable production of Wasp, and it’s hard for me to get too worked up about it.
Why do you want to kill the publishers? (Variation: Yeah! Kill the publishers!)
I don’t want to kill the publishers. Publishing houses serve some useful functions. When those aforementioned unethical producers monkey with a writer’s work, publishers can send scary Cease-And-Desist letters that resolve the problem. (Corporations aren’t just people, they’re really litigious people!)
Publishing houses also serve as handy databases and matchmakers. If a theatre wants to find a play to produce, they’re probably not going to Google and typing in “good play.” But they might flip through an established publisher’s catalogue, find something that looks interesting, and then use the publisher’s royalty apparatus to secure the rights.
I’m not against getting my plays into Samuel French (Call me, Sammy! Have I got a moneymaker for you!). Putting my plays online is not about making an end run around the publishing middlemen. It’s about something else.
Do you honestly think you’re going to get more productions out of this approach?
There are only three ways I’ve ever gotten a production of one of my full-length plays:
- I produced it myself.
- My friends produced it.
- A theatre asked a mutual acquaintance for a recommendation, and they fed ’em one of my plays, and the theatre liked it and did it.
That’s it. In all my years of blind submissions, my only real headway has sprung directly from personal relationships and referrals. Open submissions have netted me a couple of small development opportunities from really targeted searches (“We’re looking to do readings of plays from thirty-something women from Iowa!”), and a giant stack of rejection letters. Some of those rejection letters have been really lovely and personal; you can tell the lit manager actually read the play and responded, which is nice. But nice and fruitless is still fruitless.
So, no. I don’t think releasing my plays online for free will bag me more productions outside of my personal relationships.
Then what, pray tell, is the point?
The point is to reduce the barriers between my work and my audience. The point is to decouple the need to make money from the need to make art. The point is to put my work into the world by any means available. The point is to rethink everything.
Putting a play online for free probably won’t get me any real money or shiny new productions. But somebody – some stranger – might read it. If I get just one person to read one of my plays, that’s a 100% increase from the people reading my it when it lived on my hard drive.
Again: it’s not about the money. It’s not about gaming the system, or cutting out the middleman, or creating a lucrative new business model. I’m all for lucrative business models, but that’s not what this is.
This is about separating the quest for legitimacy from money-getting. This is about rethinking how I spend my finite time and energy as an artist in this world, and stop pursuing a path that is ineffective, demoralizing and distracting.
To put it another way, I’m experimenting with a new approach to my career, one where I make a list of all the things about the standard approach to playwriting that frustrate me, and then stop doing those things. And then I make a second list of all the things that bring me joy and do those things more.
I want to change my approach not because I don’t like writing cover letters, but because I don’t think the cover-letter approach is effective. I don’t think putting my script in the mail and then waiting for the phone to ring is effective. It’s not making me a better artist by any metric.
An artist’s job can be boiled down into two tasks: Make Work, and Put It Out Into the World. (Pithy! Reductive!) I’m trying to take a cold hard look at both halves of that equation and see how I can make it more satisfying and joyful, because I believe if the process is more joyful, the work will improve. Step One is to stop chasing the almighty dollar, to shrink its importance to a mere ingredient rather than the ultimate goal or a symbol of my legitimacy and success.
The Great Release is not just about releasing my plays into the wilderness. It’s about releasing myself from the strictures of conventional career-making that tie my theatre-making to some capitalist enterprise.
If your theatre-making is a capitalist enterprise and that’s working for you, then go with Zeus. I salute you and stand in awe. It does not work for me.
So I’m going to do things differently. This is just the beginning.