A HowlRound retweet caused this blog post — “The Real Reason Playwrights Fail” — from 2011 to pop up in my Twitter feed. It was new to me, and it’s equal parts infuriating and true. Which of course, got a lot of folks upset and in the mood to comment (which, come on, is the design, right? This was clearly built as provocation and not a comforting hug.)
So we kick off the rant with this:
However, this is what I believe, with all due respect to my peers:
our general laziness,
inability to commit,
lack of talent,
and unwillingness to truly listen and change—
are the real reasons we—the “emerging” playwright—fail.
Okay, I’m with him for the first three. Yes, I could work harder and commit more. We all could. There’s always room to push ourselves more. Yes, I can get wrapped up in a defeatist attitude about it all sometimes. I could learn to let go.
But the last two… eh.
I think playwrights “fail” because we have the wrong idea of success. Maybe we don’t need to change “The System” and maybe we don’t need to kick each other’s asses. Maybe we just need to shift the way think.
1. Odds are, I’m never going to make my living solely as a playwright. Just accept that. It’s like a unicorn. A unicorn dipped in gold that shits the next “Angels in America” or “August: Osage County” once a year. Never. Gonna. Happen. And if it does, by some miracle, I’ll be fully aware that I’ve done the impossible, and I’ll spend every day thereafter grateful beyond words. I have to do something else in order to keep writing plays — just like everyone else. And if everyone else has to do it, it’s not failure. It’s just how it is.
2. Winning in “The System” is only one kind of success. Getting a play on Broadway would be awesome. Playwrights Horizons would also be awesome. Spending a summer at the O’Neill would be very cool. Steppenwolf doing my play would also rock. All of those really incredible opportunities that we all want — they would mean success. But they’re just one kind of success. We’re very wrapped up in the notion that those opportunities divide the successful playwrights from ones who fail or can’t cut it. Why? I had eight productions of my work last year. Eight. In Louisiana, Oklahoma and North Carolina. In theatres you haven’t heard of. How’s that not a kind of success as well?
3. I no longer accept the term “emerging.” I’ve always kind of hated the term “emerging playwright.” Emerging from what exactly? And for how long? It’s a goofy term. And I don’t accept it anymore. I’m just a playwright. I write plays. They get produced. I’m a playwright. I think the “emerging” moniker does something dangerous to a lot of playwrights. It suggests we’re somewhere we need to get out of, some murky cocoon we need to “emerge” from so we can become real butterflies out in the world. And there are a lot of us in that “emerging” cocoon (Gwydion Suilebhan has a great post on playwriting odds that estimates 10,000 playwrights out there. No small beans.) We’re all focused on getting out of the cocoon “emerging,” and we’re missing the fact that we could band together and do a lot of work in the cocoon instead. And it’s really not a cocoon. It’s just a different field to play on.
4. Success happens in the theatre, not in my bio. I used to be a playwright that apologized for productions. “Yeah, they’re doing my play, but it’s just a 50-seat house.” “Yeah, they’re doing it, but it’s just a small college in Illinois.” “Yeah, they commissioned a play, but they’re just a high school program.” Gross. Gross. Not only does that kind of thinking hurt me, it diminishes the people who invested in doing my work, the people who busted their ass to perform it every night, the audiences who paid to see it. It comes from believing that the only work that matters is the work being done in “The System.” Not cool. The same thing happens between audience and play in a 50-seat black box in Louisiana that happens on Broadway. Scale’s different. But the essential work isn’t.
5. I’ve got power, too. I went to the Great Plains Theatre Conference last year, saw a terrific play I liked, went home to Louisiana and got it produced there. I have another playwright friend who’s gotten two commissions because I nudged my colleagues in his direction. Are we famous? No. Did we band together to make work? Yes. Maybe we “fail” because we’ve bought into the idea that we’re not legitimate until we somehow crack The System. But I think we have, in the cocoon, plentiful resources and collaborators and connections and passion — because that’s key, that’s vital, that’s almost more important than anything else — to do for each other what those individuals and companies at the very visible level of theatre are doing. We’ve got power, too.
I sometimes say I’m the busiest playwright you’ve never heard of.
That used to sting. Now… not so much at all.