Daily Dojo

Is Theatre Corrupt Or Has Somebody Just Left Something In The Fridge Too Long?

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One of my favorite bloggers, Laura Axelrod, has a post up about writing for theatre.

About her experience in New York as a playwright and so on.

I need to echo out a big AMEN to what she wrote and add onto the subject myself.

Backstory, Laura recently cut all ties to theatre and has instead decided to focus on other areas of writing.

She explains why here in Talking to Myself, Part II.

Go check that out.

Excerpt:

I no longer work in theater and have no outstanding submissions. I have no desire to be a part of theater.

So what’s stopping you?
Okay, here’s a thought. The system that mainstream theater uses to pick plays is immoral and corrupt.

Ouch. Defend that statement.
Corrupt - Not producing plays based on their artistic value. Instead, plays are chosen many times because of who the writer is. We knew that back then, but no one wanted to talk about it. I worked in lit offices in NYC, and I’ve seen the memos. I think that’s the reason why you get only a handful of “important” writers, when there are far more playwrights out there who are doing tremendous work. It’s why you have the same writers featured season after season after season in the regionals and mainstream. Those writers are saying the same things, so there’s no diversity. That’s why it always used to crack me up when writers believed their own press. There are many, many reasons why plays get produced. Quality isn’t high on that list.

Corrupt - A true story. I responded to a call for submissions from a certain theater company. My play got rejected. Being open-minded, I went to an event held by that theater company to learn more about what they liked and didn’t like. One thing led to another, and I discovered one of their chosen plays was one that hadn’t been written yet. That means that my play (and yours too - if you submitted) was rejected for one that didn’t exist.”

Laura’s right. That shit happens.

I want to add, as a playwright fortunate enough to have been produced in London and Off-Broadway, that I myself have been witness to the same, if not worse, type of artistic sleight of hand (or corruption, if that works) that Laura has.

I’ve experienced it and witnessed it.

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And it kind of sickens me, I have to say. I’m sorry, but it does.

It’s not just mainstream, either. I’ve been witness to it on smaller levels, on indie and above.

Just some small examples. Allow me to rant a bit, if you please.

I’ve been told, myself, by a director running a theatre, that my play TALLBOY WALKIN’ was the best play he’d ever read but he’d never produce or direct it because, since it took place in one place in real time, there wasn’t any way to show off his director tricks . . . the play was all about the writing and acting and there wasn’t anything in it that allowed him to show off his fancy light and fog tricks. No lie, that’s the truth.

So he passed.

Ouch.

TALLBOY WALKIN’ has the the distinction of getting many, many passes of just such the above nature despite how much people love it . . . generally when there’s a reading, people laugh and love it.

Get it? During readings, THEY LOVE IT!

Then the AD looks at me and my resume and says, “it’s great, but I have concerns about the violence, the racial aspect, etc” it’s all over.

And then they produce a version of GREATER TUNA or something worse.

The last reading of TALLBOY WALKIN’, during a disasteous talkback orchestrated by the AD to really undermine it, my best friend, who read the lead, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Dude, this is beneath you. You shouldn’t have to put up with this reading bullshit, etc.” He’s a calm guy who always sees the best in everyone, but he could tell that they were, in no way, interested in the play and tried their damndest to undermine the reading.

And he’s right.

Poor TALLBOY. I haven’t given up on it yet, but certainly it’s been a trial.

Once I showed up for a meeting with someone who LOVED IT and wanted to produce it and when they saw me, they exclaimed, “Oh my God, YOU’RE WHITE!”

I said, “Yes, I am white, it’s true.”

“That’s going to RUIN everything!” she said. She had the whole PR angle of discovering the next great black playwright and I ruined it by having the misfortune of being born white.

So it didn’t happen. Because of the color of my skin. Irony, that, heh-heh.

There are only two black characters in TALLBOY, but there is much talk about race and religion, and my first agent told me, after he read the first draft, that he couldn’t find a producer for it because it reads like a BLACK PLAY and BLACK PEOPLE DON’T GO TO THE THEATRE - he said the reason there are so many gay plays is because gay people go to the theatre and black people don’t.

I responded that I think the reason there are so many gay plays has more to do with the fact that there are many, many gay agents and no black literary agents (that I was aware of) - in fact, the agent feeding me this line of bullshit was gay. I left that agent soon after that and happily Tyler Perry has since proved that guy wrong.

TALLBOY isn’t the only play I’ve been hosed on, I’ve had that same experience with other plays.

I’ve been told, by a Producer with her own theatre, that she really enjoyed my play THE HOT NAKED TRUTH but since there wasn’t any decent lead part FOR HER, there was no reason to feature it on their season.

I could go on and on citing examples from all my plays, but I will not. Just trust me when I say that I’ve had that experience many, many times over.

They love my work but it ain’t about my work, it’s about THEIR WORK, whoever is acting or directing.

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And it’s cool, you know? Rejection is a part of this, I don’t deny that work will get rejected and sometimes should get rejected. I just want to point out, as Laura does, that it seems in theatre that work isn’t being rejected because OF THE WORK, but for reasons that have little to do with the work.

Okay?

And hey, if that’s the way they want their theatre to run, fine.

The sad thing is, most of the time they pretend they AREN’T running it that way, that it’s all about NEW WORK, when in reality it is not.

And people aren’t stupid, they catch on after awhile to the dishonesty and the hypocrasy, they do. And they move on.

And that bad smell theatre is getting?

That’s the smell of really talented writers moving onto to television, comics, and films, where they are more appreciated.

There are a couple theatres I know who have had a TON of great writers come through their doors, all doing short play nights and whatever . . . and when the theatres disrespect them, ignores their work and focuses on producing another production of THREE SISTERS or a mess of a first play written by the AD’s girlfriend, they get it and move elsewhere.

I saw early scenes of ALMOST, MAINE at theatre company I shall not name, during a student workshop.

They were brilliant. The playwright is brilliant (and a Tony-nominated actor) and I shared a bill with him on some short play nights. He’s just that good, and also, according to the Samurai Lady, a really nice guy (costumers know all about actors, trust me) and easy to work with.

The Theatre wouldn’t produce the play, once it was finished, even though pieces of it were workshopped at that theatre, they wouldn’t produce it, for whatever reason (I’ve heard rumors) and just said no. The theatre is run by director-slash-actors, so you can imagine on your own.

Suffice to say, whatever reasons the theatre had for NOT producing that play were wrong, because it’s a great play, affordable to produce and well-written.

The playwright had to take the play up to Portland, Maine, to get produced, and then it was brought back for a nice run Off-Broadway and now runs regionally. Get that? A Tony-nominated actor and New York Playwright had to go to MAINE first to get his play produced Off-Broadway.

The Theatre, instead of producing that nice play developed right at their theatre by a playwright who’d already put much time and effort and work into its community, instead produced an older play about Jewish prisoners in German concentration camps fixing clocks during WWII.

THAT play, the Jewish camp drama, starred the Co-Artistic Director and the Managing Producer of the theatre and was directed by the other Co-Artistic Director.

Notice a theme here?

It had a fair Off-Broadway run as well, though not as successful as ALMOST, MAINE, was.

As far as I know, the ALMOST, MAINE playwright probably won’t go back to that theatre for work and it’s truly their loss, because he’s great (and those that know me know I don’t toss those words around lightly).

Now I freely admit that not EVERY theatre runs itself that way, but I maintain I’ve been witness to many, many more examples of THE ABOVE than I have of theatres committed to discovering new voices and respecting playwrights.

So here’s a challenge for you directors out there, reading this.

Do you really want to put a new play out there?

Here’s your chance. Email me, I’ll set you up. I have plays that need a home.

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Not just me, just to prove it ain’t all about me, I would be HAPPY to pass the names of other talented playwrights I know. I could give you the names of five or six really good playwrights (ten, if I thought real hard) who have plays that don’t have a home. And the plays need a home, because the playwrights are good and so are the plays.

So are you willing to take a chance on something that might not have a part for you in it, or might not be the type or style you like or are used to, or might not have special effects so you can show off your director tricks, are you willing to risk working with a playwright ONLY because the playwright is talented and for no other reason?

Those are the reasons I work with people. Because they’re talented.

What about you?

You got the sack, let me know. I’m ready.

To me, that’s putting yourself out there on a limb.

So what about it?

4 Responses to “ Is Theatre Corrupt Or Has Somebody Just Left Something In The Fridge Too Long?”

  1. Travis Bedard Says:

    [Puts on Devil’s Advocate Hat]

    For you it’s about Your Work, which is fair.
    But why do YOU get to do something that is all about you and the producers and artistic directors are supposed to sack up and produce something that doesn’t have anything in it for them?

    Should they be playing all innocent with it? No. You rightly call them on their hypocrisy.

    But if I’m putting up my time, and my effort, and my slot in the one space I’m able to get for this season (or one of the three/four slots I have in my own space for the year) why wouldn’t I make sure that there’s something in it for me? Am I simply supposed to be noble and pay for for my sacrifice?

    /Devil’s Advocate

    In all honesty? I would love to do some of your work, and I’ve never even READ any of your work. I assume that your shows have the same passion, wit, and facility with language you show here, and I think the Austin stage could use a little more passion than it has right now.

    But truth be told? I can’t afford you. And how many shows in how many seasons can I do that have nothing in it for me? I only have so many (very short) seasons in me. I don’t have answers.

    I don’t have a problem doing shows that Feature others. Hell, my last show featured just about everybody but me (despite my many hyphens). But I need to be in theatre for me too. Where’s the middle ground?

  2. Joshua James Says:

    If it was ALL about me and MY WORK, I wouldn’t be offering to hook you up with other talented playwrights I know. That’s why I included it - because I also get turned on by new work and I know other writers feel the same why I do.

    Most theatre companies don’t have the memo - WE ONLY DO WORK THAT FEATURES GREAT PARTS FOR OUR ARTISTIC DIRECTORS - most theatre companies are dedicated to producing good work for their audience, right?

    They don’t have that memo, but that is how they’re often operated.

    And really, I don’t have a problem with people getting something out of it - they should - nor do I have a problem with companies formed specifically to perform the written work of only its members (like 13p, for example) . . . they’re honest about it . . . that’s their mission statement.

    But I do have a problem with companies claiming non-profit status and haul in grant money for developing new work when, in fact, that is not the REAL mission statement of the company.

    You know, if they just were more up front about it, maybe it would be better - in a way, it’s why screenplays have been fun for me . . . you know, generally, exactly what’s expected of the writer - that’s my experience, so far (granted, I know others who have been burned in that field).

    I have no problem writing plays specific for a companies needs and in fact, a great many of my plays (such as SPOOGE and THE XMAS PLAY) were written by request.

    I simply point out that the widespread duplicity and hypocrasy about the selection process, of which Laura also underlined. Like her, I also worked as a lit assistant for a theatre company which made much money from government grants specific to the development of new work . . . how that didn’t go to that was shocking, to say the least.

    Now when it comes to the thing about doing a play for you - if you do that play that breaks out (like MATT AND BEN, or URINETOWN) do I need to tell you how you benefit from it, whether or not there’s a part for you in it?

    If you were instrumental in launching the career of the next Carol Churchhill or Sam Shepard and maintained a great relationship, can you see what’s in it for you, doing such and thing even if the play isn’t the kinda thing that shows off directing skills, can you see how that pays dividends in the future?

    In terms of how hard it is for small companies, what you have to face and the costs and all that, I certainly can sympathize, you bet, I been there.

    But this isn’t about that, this is about the work - people come to theater to see the work, don’t they? And if they’re not going becuz of the work, why do you even need the work?

    I simply say playwrights are being marginalized for a number of reasons and it hurts us all, actors, directors and producers . . . we are a significant part of the theatre and we’re being pushed to other venues for respect.

    That’s my observation.

    And dude, who says you can’t afford me?

    Email me, you never know!

  3. Travis Bedard Says:

    The hypocrisy exists without a doubt. But do you think it’s because of reliance on the non-profit model, and it’s ‘benefit to the community’ requirement? I understand the frustration, but is the corruption at the production level or in the abuse of 503(c) law? It is MUCH harder to get non-profit status with a selfish mission statement.

    I agree that independent playwrights (and text more generally) are being pushed aside. But I also think that collabowriting is very in right now, and will fade. I think that strong single POV texts wil come back around because people will get tired of wishy washy theatre.

    If you were instrumental in launching the career of the next Carol Churchhill or Sam Shepard and maintained a great relationship, can you see what’s in it for you, doing such and thing even if the play isn’t the kinda thing that shows off directing skills, can you see how that pays dividends in the future?

    Oh, absolutely, and for me just the satisfaction of being smarter than everyone else would do it ;)

    I think there is a strong need in indie companies of every size to go it alone. No matter how much wheel reinvention goes on. Here in Austin we have a strong playwrights group, and there are very few companies lining up to produce them. Instead they are producing Grote. (This week’s example) Which is a fine step, but we have a talent pool here that is going unproduced while Vestige does NJ Book of the Dead.

    So I’ll work on that (and on responding to your email), you get on playwrights to keep their screenwriting and playwrighting homework in separate buckets ;)

    p.s. Where would you point companies as a resource for finding new scripts? I asked obliquely as a follow up to my education posts, but when I set up my Austin theatre message board system where should I link folks to a trove of new work?

  4. Joshua James Says:

    I don’t think it’s the model of non-profit so much as the differing view of how the work itself is viewed here in the US - in the UK they have a very strong tradition of developing new work while simultaneously honoring the old.

    Here in America, I’d say old trumps new, if only because there are no royalties involved, and when it comes to new work, the director is seen as the creator more often than the playwright, the model is very close to what we see in movies - which, in the end, hurts the work simply because no matter how much people want to believe that the director is author here, it’s simply not true.

    There are many issues, some of which are financial, and some of which are cultural (the director-fetish, so strong here in the US) and some of which I don’t yet completely understand myself.

    I do know that playwrights are being marginalized . . . what I haven’t completely worked out yet is all the reasons why . . .

    As far as new playwrights are concerned, there’s a bunch of ways to go . . .

    firstly, if you do have a strong playwrights group there, that should be base one to start. I completely agree that it’s good to start local, I do. Parse through the ones there and see who you like.

    In terms of others, a quick glance at my sidebar and you’ll see many a playwright I like . . . Mac, James, Matthew, Sheila, Kyle Jarrow, and whomever else is there . . .

    To get away from New York, I’d ring up Chicago Dramatists in Chicago, they are a strong group who develops a lot of new work there (Chicago has a really strong tradition that way) and they can point you to some short play samples . . . Keith Huff does a lot of work there, and he’s great.

    But there are probably younger folks I haven’t heard of yet.

    My alma mater, The University of Iowa, runs a great writers program and every year for a week they do a playwrights festival in April . . . one whole week of new work solely developed by writers there. You can contact them and ask who’s hot, ask for short play samples, etc.

    I always believe a short play sample can tell you whether or not the writer has game . . . it’s why I have mine up on my site for free download.

    Other than Iowa, the only other place would be No Shame Theatre (www.noshame.org) which used to have an arm in Austin, though I don’t think they do anymore . . . but that’s a great place to meet new writers, you can see a sketch you like, meet the writer and say hey, how about turning that into a full length play?

    And bing, you’re in!

    No Shame, which started at Iowa before expanding across the country, was where I got my start as a writer.

    Okay, there it is. Let me know if I forgot to answer anything else.

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