Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The System

I read an interview with playwright Kate Fodor over on Adam Symkowicz’s blog, and in it she shared a quote about life as a writer from Cary Tennis, who is an advice columnist at, oddly enough. Anyway, I thought it was terrific and thought I’d do my part to spread the good word:

“Remember that as a writer you must find your motivation internally, not in external rewards, and you work in opposition to the system, not as a supplicant to the system. Whatever contingent truces you have maintained with the system in order to participate in its orderly orgies of consumption and distribution, good for you. But you are not a part of the system. You are a free creative worker. You do not need the system to do your creating. You only need it as a utility to reach your audience, and increasingly not even for that. On the other hand, the system cannot create anything on its own. It can only manage and distribute. So it needs you. It needs you but it is not on your side. Remember that.”


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Shock of the Neu!

There’s been much talk in the theatre blogging community of late extolling the virtues of new forms of theatre, such as the one-on-one intimate performance piece (“You Me Bum Bum Train” at the Barbican and the “One-On-One Festival” at BAC are two good examples); site-specific theatre that has left the notion of the auditorium behind and pops up anywhere and everywhere that feels right (hotel rooms, empty buildings, public toilets, etc.); and theatre that emphasizes the “new” in terms of form and presentation over everything else.

This is all well and good. In fact, it’s great. Without innovation and experimentation we would find a hardening of the arteries that would lead to a deadening stagnation to the art form as a whole, and so a constant reexamination of what we do and how we do it helps to keep theatre fresh, relevant and alive. However, there appears to be a pervading sense of “out with the old, in with the new” amidst all this chatter, which makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it makes me want to roll my eyes. Is that because I find it more than a little naive to think that the concept of traditional theatre has become antiquated and redundant? Or is it because I sense an attitude of conceitedness among so many of these proponents of a new theatre world order?

Whatever it is, and despite my professed admiration of innovation expressed above, I know that so-called “traditional” theatre does not and will not ever need to be replaced. And that’s because the fundamentals are, quite frankly, irreplaceable. Rock and roll will always be based around drums, bass and guitar. Punk came along and did an amazing job of breathing new life into a music scene that had flatlined. But what was that music essentially based on? Drums, bass and guitar. More raw, more energetic, but in truth, more basic. A return to the basics of the genre. A simple stage, a couple of actors and a good story to tell are the fundamentals of theatre. They always will be. It’s extremely healthy to play with form and presentation, but content will trump concept every time.

If you don’t believe me, just stick around a few hundred years.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

“There's villainous news abroad!"

There is a well-known and respected theatre in London (which I shall refrain from naming) that has a stellar reputation for presenting new works of social and political relevance. Thinking that this could be an ideal place to send a particular play of mine, I decided to look up their submission policy. Sure enough, after a short while I discovered a link named “new writing.” To my dismay, however, upon opening the “new writing” page I discovered not an explanation on how to submit a play or play sample for their consideration, but rather a short paragraph asking for £15 (or $25) in return for which they’ll read your play and let you know what the reader thought of it (whoever and however qualified this anonymous person may be). That’s it. No consideration for further development, simply a paid opinion on your play from some unknown entity. They also make a curious comment about your “reader’s fee” not being acknowledged by them.

I find this all rather disingenuous for a state-funded company that prides itself on presenting “new writing” with a social conscience. There are plenty of theatres that accept plays with the proviso that they’re unable to offer written feedback due to the number of submissions they receive, and this is completely understandable. But these theatres are also taking the time and trouble to read your work (gratis) with this possibility of future development with them. You tell me which is the better deal?

This company’s policy is not in service of new writing, and certainly not of playwrights. In my opinion it’s simply treating up-and-coming, struggling playwrights as a revenue source.

Not pukka, sahib.

My little tantrum over, I shall now go and lie down for a while.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Long Haul

I thought I’d offer another example of the true value of tenacity in this hardscrabble business. I offer it because, personally speaking, I always find it immensely encouraging when I hear writers share their tales of overcoming the odds or snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

Several years ago I had an idea for a short play that I thought was rather novel and could prove to be quite popular at short play festivals if done right. After all, it could be played by any age, ethnicity or gender, and in any combination thereof. It also would require no props and no set. A cash-strapped producer’s dream, not to mention the casting director.

After I’d finished it I sent it off to any opportunity that it seemed like a good fit for…which was pretty much most of them that I saw at that time. Again and again I’d submit it, feeling confident that its debut production – the first of many – was imminent. Wrong. Again and again the play was rejected. However, I resolutely continued to send it out, though after a while more from a feeling of obstinance than confidence. Still nothing. That play couldn’t get arrested. Eventually I resigned myself to the fact that something about the play just didn’t connect with people, and I accepted that this was one play that just wasn’t ever going to be brought to life.

A few of years later, after rereading it and deciding that I, at least, still believed in it, I began sending it out again. Lo and behold, a short time afterwards I had four productions of it lined up in different parts of the country, all within a few weeks of each other, and it received a great review in a newspaper of note. Not only that, it was accepted for publication, and now I’m even generating a little income in royalties from it (and can’t stress the word “little” enough here).

So there you have it: an object lesson in believing in your work when it seems as though no one else does. Sometimes it’s timing, sometimes it’s luck, and sometimes it’s simply a matter of who’s hands your play falls into. You can never second guess any of this, so, in the words of Curtis Mayfield, you just have to keep on keeping on.