Monday, June 27, 2011

Fun or Serious? Or Serious Fun?

Yesterday was the first day I've had in a long time with no commitments.  No social engagements.  No rehearsals.  No auditions.  No meetings and no errands to run.

And the weather was cool and cloudy, a nice break from our heat and humidity.

A perfect day to be anti-social by staying indoors and writing.

Which is what I did.  I had every intention to start writing that serious play about the feuding sisters, but kept toying with this radio play instead.  I spent a couple of hours hammering out a not-quite-thought-out plot of a western with sci-fi elements and by the end of it, I felt satisfied in that "I just had a good writing workout" way, but then looked over the script and thought, hmmmn, not all that great.  It was a fun diversion, but somehow not fulfilling.

So I have my writing group tonight and I think, bring the fun radio script or bring in the first scene I wrote awhile back for my serious drama about feuding sisters?

I've noticed in me a difference of investment in terms of thought and energy.  There are plays that are fun whims and plays that actually take a lot of time and energy.  Not that fun whims can't be good plays and highly successful.  My play LOVE & DEATH IN THE TIME OF CRAYOLA literally only took me a day or so to write and was quite fun and that play has been done over a dozen times across the country. 

I guess what 'm talking about is the meaty kind of dramas that Odets, O'Neill and Miller would write.  Plays that tackled complex characters in situations that mirrored the times. 

Those kinds of plays aren't usually written casually on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  They are forged over time.

There's a great line in the Hugh Grant movie "Music & Lyrics" where he tells Drew Barrymore that as a pop musician, he writes dessert while someone like Bob Dylan writes dinner.

Sometimes I get tired of writing dessert.  Dinner takes a lot more preparation, but its also a lot more fulfilling. 

(By the way, that photo is my wife's paella, a very fulfilling dinner!)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Next up: a reading of THE ALBATROSS

As part of the Underground Readings, my play THE ALBATROSS will be having a reading next Monday, June 20th at 7:00 pm at The Grey Box.

It was directed by long-time collaborator, Lisa Jackson-Schebetta, and features some pretty amazing Pittsburgh talent like Jeffrey Carpenter (Bricolage) and Mark Clayton Southers (Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater and The August Wilson Center) as well as up-and-coming talent like Laci Mosly and Fred Pelzer.

As those who know me and read this blog, I'm the guy always saying "self-produce, self-produce, self-produce".  So when Bill Cameron, the writer-director of Violet Sharp which is being produced by Terra Nova Theater, said to me and some other playwrights, "hey, we've got some dark nights at Violet Sharp, do you want to do something with them?" I jumped at the chance.  I hate seeing a dark theater.

So, I teamed up with playwrights Ginny Cunningham and Jeanne Drennan and we decided to do a series of readings and found some playwrights with some stuff to read--all of them of high calibre--and they got some great directors and celebrated local actors and next thing you know, we got us a great mini-festival of new works.

The first evening, Monday night, we heard Gab Cody's new play, The 2nd American Revolution and had wonderful turnout of about forty to fifty audience members.

On Monday, I'll be hearing THE ALBATROSS again.  It's been a few years since the last reading and I'm curious to dive into it.  It's the right amount of time to be away from the material, I think, in order to see it with an objective eye.  I hope I can see some new things or be proud of the things that I know are working.  Either way, I've got a fantastic director and talented actors to take care of the play.

For those of you wanting to know more about the play, or any of my plays, please click here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Playwrights in Mind Kicks off

Playwrights hard at work in the "Haiku" workshop this morning
It's about 10:30 am and I'm about to head over to the Mason Inn Conference Center for Day 2 of the first ever national Dramatists Guild conference.

Last night kicked off with some workshops and panels in the afternoon--I went to one about getting a Fulbright--and then a "Conversation with Christopher Durang", followed by the first keynote speaker, Molly Smith, Artistic Director of The Arena Stage.

To say that she was inspiring and eloquent in her praise for writers is an understatement.  She seems to be the ideal artistic director--committed to theater as a social practice, as something the community needs and something that needs the community in return.  Her ideas are somewhat revolutionary and require a shift in thinking across the country. She also made a call to us playwrights to be revolutionary in our thinking as well.  We should not shy away from blossoming our own ideas and alternatives to deal with the economic issues of developing and producing new works.  We should make our own partnerships and connections.  In short, we should hustle.

Today is Todd London's keynote, author of Outrageous Fortune.  Then more panels, workshops and later a conversation with Edward Albee and Emily Mann.

The only problem I see with this conference right now is that there's too much going on--not enough time to hang out with all these fabulous playwrights!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Can't Make it to DC for the DG Conference? Watch it on your TV!

So this is cool...if you're a playwright in the middle of Arkansas or Kansas or wherever and you don't have access to Edward Albee or Marsha Norman but want to watch them on TV talk about their craft...then check out the Arena Stage's New Play TV!

For schedule of what might be broadcast from the conference, check out the New Play blog.

If you watch, maybe you'll see the back of my head!

(Ooooh, I know, I know, so exciting...)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Can You Make a Living as a Playwright?

There’s an old joke about playwrights.  They say “you can make a killing, but you can’t make a living”.  And it’s true.

What they mean is, if you have the good fortune of the theatre gods smiling on you (a big IF), then perhaps you will get a BROADWAY production which may garner good reviews and a Tony award.  This play will then be published and consequently produced in every regional theater for the next two years and then possibly be performed in some summer stock and/or community theaters for a few years after that.

It is the playwright equivalent of winning the LOTTO.

And you have about the same odds.
Angels in America 
There has been much blog buzz about the recent statements made by Tony Kushner in a Time Out interview.  

Mr. Kushner is perhaps the greatest American playwright living and working today (Angels in America, pt I & II) with major productions going on, on Broadway, and off, with tons of commissions and has garnered many awards. 

Here’s the comment that brought about the buzz:

“I make my living now as a screenwriter! Which I’m surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don’t think I can support myself as a playwright at this point.”

This comment was picked up and commented on by Seattle playwright Paul Mullin 

And then also responded to by the Arena Stage New Play Blog

First of all, we have to ask, is this even an accurate statement for Mr. Kushner?  What does he mean by make a living?  Yes, he’ll make more money writing for HBO, but Mr. Kushner has done quite well for himself solely as a playwright with Broadway productions, publications, grants and commissions. 

Second of all, why should we expect that playwrights could make a living?  There are far too many actors out there who don’t “make a living”.  The average take home pay of a professional Equity actor is probably not more than $20,000 - $30,000 a year (from theater, not from TV and film, mind you).  And I would gather that’s a high albeit rough estimate. 

Is that making a living? And let's be honest, there are many professional actors who aren't making anywhere close to $20,000/year.

I think all of us would agree that all artists should be paid for their work and should be paid well enough to not have to have a full-time or part-time job doing other things besides their art.  Unfortunately, we live in the U.SA. which is not a nation that believes in or supports the arts.  I would love to change that, but don’t see that happening any time soon.

Many people in this country are surprised that you even have to pay for royalties for a play.  What? You pay the playwright to do the show?  And you pay your actors?  People don’t just do art for free? For the “love of it”?

Having a playwright on salary and giving them health benefits is a radical idea.  Thank God for Arena doing something just like that.  They have five mid-level playwrights on salary for three years each.  They will produce at least one of their plays that they write during that period.  That’s pretty awesome.

But again, that’s like a mini-lottery.  Who decides those five playwrights?  There are thousands of writers to choose from.  The amount of playwrights in the Dramatists Guild is somewhere around 6,000.  Now, we have to admit, not every playwright deserves to be on salary, just like not every business major graduating from college deserves to be a manager or CEO or a corporation. No, let’s say only about %10 might be really good and/or mid-level.  That’s still 600 playwrights.  If you had to choose six people out of that, you’d have a 1% chance of getting a salary position.

These are the odds. 

I’m not saying we shouldn’t make money.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t get paid for our work.  I’m saying maybe we should reevalaute our expectations given current circumstances.  Would I like to live in a country that pays playwrights and other artists decent wages?  Yes.  Will I make efforts to change that in our country.  Of course.  Will it happen over night?  No. 

There's been a lot of discussion in the theater world about this very topic--especially given the recent publication of Todd London's book Outrageous Fortune.  Molly Smith, of Arena Stage, will be at the Dramatist Guild national conference, as will Mr. London, so I'm sure it will be a topic if debate this coming week.  

A few years ago, I was interviewing an established award-winning playwright, who was also writing and directing movies, and said something about making a living as a playwright.  He responded, "That's like saying you're going to make a living as a poet.  No one makes a living."  

So it's not just Tony Kushner saying these types of comments.

I don't believe we should think of writing plays in the same terms as playing the LOTTO.  I do feel there should be more avenues to make money doing theater, in general.  But for now...well...If you’re writing plays because you think you can make a living, I’d have to say to you….um, don’t give up your day job.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Playwrights in Mind: A National Conference June 9-12

Looks like June will be almost as busy a month as May and to kick things off, I’m traveling to Washington D.C. to the first ever national conference of The Dramatists Guild of America.

I’m fortunate enough to live close enough to D.C. so that this trip is not too expensive for me.  I’m sure we won’t see to many playwrights from west of the Mississippi coming to town.  The idea of this conference, though, is that it will travel from coast to coast, city to city, thoughout the years, so that all members of the Guild will at some point make it to a conference.

I’ve been to my fair share of conferences, both academic and professional, and this is exciting just for the fact that it’s the first one ever for this almost 90 year old organization.

Guests planning to appear and/or give workshops include Edward Albee, Marsha Norman, Christopher Durang, David Ives, Julia Jordan, Doug Wright, and Jeffrey Sweet.  Plus, I’ll get the chance to see an old faculty member from my UNLV days, Julie Jensen, in addition to other Dramatist Guild Regional Reps.

While some skeptics may be wary of this gathering, as playwrights are known to grumble about not enough productions, I think it will be a positive and empowering experience.  As I’ve said before when I was a regional rep in Seattle, never underestimate the power of a group of playwrights in a room.

After the DG conference, then we move into The Underground Readings at the Grey Box in Lawrenceville.  My play THE ALBATROSS will be having a reading on June 20th, directed by Lisa Jackson-Schebetta and featuring Jeffrey Carpenter and Mark Southers.  More on that later. 

And at some point, I’ll be working on a new full-length play.  Not the robot play.  A new idea of a story set in the Pacific Northwest about two feuding sisters.