The other night, I met up with a literary manager connected to a pretty major NY theatre. We met to talk about a play of mine that's under consideration. We had wine and cheese and laughed a bit. When we turned to the turkey talk, I said, "Don't worry about sugar-coating it. I've been where you are, I know the lingo. Just give it to me straight." And the lit manager did. Which was helpful and made the conversation very productive. (The wine helped, too.)
But it reminded me of a conversation that I'd had a while back with an artistic director. He told me a story about a theatre which got a new artistic director who established a new policy that was revolutionary: no more lying. The big secret about working in artistic development is that we're all a bunch of liars. And these lies can do real harm.
What this artistic director at this theatre established was really simply this: when it came time to tell a playwright why they weren't producing their play, to tell them the simple truth: we don't love your play enough to produce it. See how simple that is? And yet how bald, vulnerable and open it leaves everyone involved? In these conversations, there's so much protection going on. The theatre people don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, they want to keep their options open, they want to help (in most cases). We're trained that there's some formula that means a play is ready for production and if it's ready for production, then you must produce it. But if you don't want to, you're not supposed to say that. So we hedge, we fudge, we give notes, we have meetings. We lie. We say that the ending isn't earned, that some thematic thing doesn't land, some character or scene or plot point is unecessary. We blame our subscribers, our audience, the finances, the board. But what we're really saying is that we don't love this play enough to produce it.
Because we all know that none of the notes, none of the restrictions about cast size, scenes changes, subject matter, none of that matters if the theatre (or, in most cases, the artistic director) loves the play enough. Come hell, high water or bad reviews, they will produce the play. And if they don't love it, no matter how many rewrites, revisions, alterations, they will never produce it.
This is a part of "development hell". It's, in some ways, the key part. One of the things my lit manager friend and I said was that this whole process was like dating. And it is. The problem comes after a couple of dates when the other person says, "I'd love to date you more, but you need to change your clothes and learn some better jokes." But they have no intention of dating you. So when you walk in with your new jokes and new threads, they sigh and say, "Well, the hair isn't quite right and you could use a tattoo." Eventually, you're a different person and still not the person they want.
This is what feeds the insecurity of playwrights, and the timidity. Instead of just hearing, "You're not for me. Thanks. Call me sometime for coffee", we hear, "If you were just..." And try to be just...whatever. And around and around it goes.
If more of us can break the cycle and work in the truth, then we can make better theatre, find better homes.