So we’ve separated out our quest for making great art from our grubbing for money. Good for us.
We’re left with the pursuit of making theatre that adheres to the highest aesthetic standards of which we’re capable.
Great. How do we do that?
Well, we know, of course: we have to practice. We have to write, and produce, and reflect, and then write another thing, and produce it, and reflect again.
There was about ten minutes in the 1990s when I considered pursuing acting professionally. I had booked a couple small-time gigs and wondered what might happen if I threw myself in whole hog. (This is not a reference to my weight. Although my agent would’ve said different! Hey-oh!) Ultimately, I passed because I didn’t like the idea of having to wait for somebody to give me permission to do my work. Actors have to get cast; they have to find words to say; they have to fit into other people’s ideas of them.
The great thing about playwriting, I told myself then and now, is even if everybody hates my play, I can always just write another play.
Which is true. But it’s not enough.
Plays aren’t written; plays are made. The suffix -wright means in Some Language Or Other, “to make or to fashion.” A boatwright makes boats. A wheelwright makes wheels. A playwright makes plays.
A play is not a script. A script is a blueprint for an experience.
Writing a play is like planning a haunted house. When you plan a haunted house, there are all sorts of decisions you make reflexively: Where will we do the thing? Who’s my audience? How will my audience know when the thing’s started, or finished? What will surprise them? What will move them from one thing to the other? How do I want my audience to feel afterwards? And who can I convince to help me pull it off?
Now imagine coming up with a kick-ass haunted house idea, and writing all the notes down, and then sending them somewhere, and then somebody agrees to put it on, and then they send you pictures of the thing and stories from people who went through it, and whether they had a good time or not.
It’s nice. But it’s not exactly satisfying. And it doesn’t really teach you how to make a better haunted house next time.
It’s not enough for us to write another play. We must write a play, and then produce it. And if we can’t convince somebody to produce it for us (with us), we must produce it ourselves.
We know this, too. “Self-production!” say the sages breezily, since time immemorial.
But can we acknowledge something? Self-production is really stinkin’ hard.
Especially if you don’t have a built-in apparatus for producing, like a school or your own theatre company, self-production is a beast. The logistics alone – scheduling the venue, the actors, tech – can drive a lesser organized person to collapse in front of their Google Calendars, weeping. It’s enough to make a writer wonder if their 20-actor historical drama that features a lot of nudity is really, y’know, worth it.
And let’s say we get off the mat and actually pull the thing off, what then? What if everybody hates it? Or worse: What if nobody comes? If a play goes up in Iowa, and nobody in New York notices, did it ever happen?
But we must, friends. We must produce. It is the only way to get better. We must, we must, we must. There is no escaping this. We must produce and produce until we’re good enough to attract collaborators, and then we must keep producing. And we must do it publicly, horrible failures and all.
How do we do it? How do we strike the balance between doable and useful? If we’re going to pour our energies into the ordeal of self-production, how do we make sure it pays off? And by “pays off,” I mean, grows our skills and/or attracts collaborators for future haunted houses.
Okay. Here’s my idea:
We launch a series of Get-Art-Quick schemes.
A Get-Art-Quick scheme (a GAQ, if you will), requires the following:
- It’s got to cost little or no money to make. That means any collaborators are volunteers (I’ll get to them in a minute), any sets or props are handmade or found or donated, and any venue is donated or free. That moves us into site-specific territory, which is exciting: a play in a car. A play in a park. Up a tree. In the mall. In my front yard. Or, hey! In a theatre, if we can find one. Site-specific is great, though, because it solves the set-design dilemma. But anywhere you have the urge to do it is fine. Let’s get creative.
- We don’t charge admission. Pass the hat if you must. But don’t lose site of our prime directive: we’re making art, not dollars.
- Since we’re likely in a found space, the play should probably be short. Short-ish. Manageable. This is probably not the best approach for your four-hour opus, but don’t let me stop you if you want to attempt it. Ten minutes? Fifteen? What feels doable?
- Start by choosing the venue and getting the performance date on the calendar, and then emailing all your friends about it. Then write the play. My favorite career adage is “Book the theatre, and the play will write itself.”
- Choose a performance date that’s a month away, or less. This is the “quick” part of Get-Art-Quick.
- Use the promise of limited rehearsal time to entice your collaborators, and pledge your own support for their future GAQs. If we think of our collaborators less as employees or independent contractors and more like independent artists we want to jam with, then we get into an “I’ll scratch your back and vice versa” situation. Ideally, we’ll create a loosely-affiliated community of GAQers who swap resources. (Is this a practical application of HowlRound’s Culture Coin? Sure.)
- Build in an opportunity for feedback and reflection. Maybe this is breakfast the next day with your writing group and guests. Maybe it’s the bar right afterwards. Try not to have a talkback right in the red hot second after you perform, though. Let the experience mellow. Also, I suggest changing out of costume and if possible, changing venues for any kind of formal feedback discussion, for your own mental health. It’s vulnerable, producing your own work.
- Document the whole thing online. This is key. Video it and put it on YouTube, or blog about it, or Tweet, or record it in some way. We are acting locally and promoting globally. Putting your GAQ online allows for other artists to participate in the discussion, it expands your reach beyond the food court at Coral Oaks Mall (or wherever you put on the thing), and at the very least, it makes the thing public. It makes it real. It’s no longer theoretical. You are standing by your work, out loud, to the world. If it’s embarrassing, let yourself be embarrassed forever. We’re all learning and growing. And you must – must! – go public with your work so that you can release it and move on to the next thing. It’s the only way forward.
GAQs can be a series of shorts read in somebody’s living room (better: a series of shorts performed in somebody’s living room). It can be a film/theatre hybrid. It can be a puppet show. It can be a stand-up set. It can be anything, really. But it must see itself to its end; it must be concluded. A reading of a new play in process, while helpful, is not in the spirit of the GAQ. We are producing here. We’re not developing. This is the whole banana. This is the thing, this GAQ. (Or the play. The play is the thing, is what I’m trying to say here. If only somebody had thought of that before!)
We do enough of these, and we start to get better. We won’t be able to help ourselves. Experience teaches. And those skills will start transferring into our larger works. Which is what we want.