Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Lottery, Part 2: In It To Win It

I first learned of and met Sarah seven years ago through an actor friend who appeared in an early Wisconsin production of EURYDICE. And ever since then I have discovered that Sarah is a writer so beloved by the actors she's worked with - actors truly loyal and vocal in championing the work separate from their own personal participation in any reading or production -that she does possess a distinct advantage.


In Sarah's case - in large part this devotion has to do with a mutual understanding of the collaborative, communal nature of making and experiencing theatre. In fact, this appreciation and empathy is at the heart of her PASSION PLAY. So while her success may spark giddyness in some, envy in others, I hope this community and others don't miss out on applauding an artist whose own personal efforts are to engage and include rather than alienate.

That's from Zak Berkman's "nickel" comment here. Obviously, this comment ties into the ongoing discussions of privilege, MFAs, success and whether giving play selection over to a lottery system would be a step forward or back.

To start, I want to applaud Zak for throwing his nickel in the jar and saying his piece, publicly, for attribution. That's a kind of courage a lot of us lack (and I include myself, your humble anonymous blogger, in that). It's also something that happens so rarely in the NY part of the theatre blogosphere. I wish it would happen more, so I hope Zak isn't too upset by what I say here, or, if he is, he comes back to keep talking about it.

Part of the whole problem is that we, out here in the interwebs, are often on the "outside": outside of the system by choice, in some cases, with gnashing of teeth in others. Those on the inside, as I've mentioned before, tend to view us with a mixture of pity, distaste, wariness and condescension, but are generally too busy putting out fires to worry about some guy in his pajamas talking about arsonists. I think that leads us to some of the loggerheads we find ourselves at.

A lot of people heap scorn on the Prof's head for being, well, a prof, having a cushy university gig and not having to scramble out here to make a living in this crazy business called show. He openly acknowledges that he doesn't have the same concerns and doesn't approach the problems from the same place. On the balance, I think that's a good thing. We need academics, who aren't trying to get their plays written, produced, reviewed, to sit on the sidelines and try and see the bigger picture. We need outsiders to sometimes tell us what's actually happening on the inside.

To belabor a metaphor, as is my wont, and to fold in a great, awful movie, Scott is Robert DeNiro in Backdraft. There's a fire raging itself through the American theatre, burning away resources and opportunities. Most people who work in theatres are Kurt Russell, hard-driving, busting their asses against a kind of machinery as well as just trying to put out as many fires as possible. Then there's us, out here, a combination of writers and directors, but very few firemen and women. Maybe we're Billy Baldwin. Ugh. Maybe this metaphor sucks. Well, too late now. We're Billy Baldwin. We're firefighters at heart, in our blood, but we're also working to figure out why the hell these building keep blowing up and killing the poor kid from the Iron Eagle movies. (Backdraft AND Iron Eagle in one post? If I can get Con Air in, best post ever! Wait. I just did. Best. Post. Ever.) I'm not sure who's Scott Glenn here. Or Jennifer Jason Leigh (what the hell was she doing in that movie?). Regardless.

From where I sit (and I think close to where Scott sits), there is so much randomness, chance and unpredictability in how plays are chosen, when looked at from the outside. Here, on the inside, we seem to fall into two camps: The "It's all who you know" camp and the "It's all what you do" camp. The most cynical of us thinks that it's all connections and backroom deals and p.c. considerations and real talent is lost on the shoals of commercialism and liberal highmindedness. You know who those folks are. At the other end of the spectrum are the earnest, open-hearted people who think that it really is about the work, first and foremost, and doing hard work and committing to your vision and eventually, it'll break your way or you'll find your natural level. A great many of us cycle between those two depending on how many rejection letters we've gotten recently or what show we just saw.

I really did love this post from Freeman, even though I kind of disagree with it. His first paragraph is key:
I don't agree with Scott's provocative idea because I prefer choice over chance. If we stop trusting people to make real decisions, we give up on their ability to make good choices and grapple with complexity.
No matter what, here on the ground, we believe that there is some intelligence, some plan or pattern to it all. People are making decisions, even if we can't see them or hear from them, and they have their reasons. Sometimes we understand them, sometimes we don't. But there is somebody at the wheel.

What I find is one of the more spiritually troubling aspects of Scott's idea, as I've thought about it for a couple of days, is that, from a place a little away from the ground, it can actually look like there isn't much of a plan at all. That we're a few steps above a random lottery, with some plays and playwrights getting some extra chits in the kitty.

Look at Zak's quote. Now, granted, he's the Executive Director of a theatre that's about to produce a playwright and that particular thread had its issues, but do you notice that, nowhere in his comment, does he talk about Sarah's work, in and of itself? He doesn't say that he, or the other leaders of the theatre, were struck by her language or imagery or the power of her words. He talks about her commitment to theatre-making and the effect she has on her collaborators, but not her work. Maybe it was just an oversight, but I think it's a telling one.

Someone goes to a grad school program, meets some actors, works well with them. The actors head out into the world singing their praises. The chain of events that leads from there to actually being produced is long, broken and bizarre. One flip of the coin, one way or another, and it never happens. For want of a nail, right?

Chaos theory (or at least the bastardized versions I remember from Steven Spielberg movies) tells us that what seems like order can have chaos bubbling underneath it and what looks like chaos is underpinned by order. The same can be said of theatre. It's seems like a mad scramble, but there is some kind of order underneath it. It can also seem like a system that behaves by certain obvious rules, but those rules aren't fixed or dependable. Scott's big idea nudges this a bit further into the light.

For someone with no interest in acting ever in my life, I have an incredible amount of training it and I've done it a lot. I've sat through a lot of acting seminars and one of the big things they tell actors, especially in professional training sessions, is that you can never really tell why you get a job or don't, so don't beat yourself up. Go in, do your audition and then leave and let it go. You might get it, you might not and even if you do, you'll never really know why. How is that not like a lottery? Someone who walks in off the street with no training has almost the same chance as you do to win. Someone who didn't go to grad school, who never studied playwriting, could write a play, mail it to a producer and get produced. In the end, no matter what, the chances are the same.

Except that's a bit of a fiction, isn't it? It's something we tell ourselves to make it easier, to keep us off the ledge, or out of the bell tower, picking off literary managers with a high-powered rifle. The playing field isn't level. Some people are going in and buying more tickets, having more tickets handed to them. Maybe it's more like a raffle. Because, on the other side, when a play gets picked, they really have no idea what they're getting.

A couple of years back, I was commissioned by a theatre, along with a number of other writers. We wrote our plays and submitted them. Some were selected for production. Some weren't. Mine wasn't. When I asked the Associate Artistic Director why, he actually had a good answer for me and we had a good chat about it. But here's the thing: of the plays they produced, some did well. Some didn't. If they'd picked mine, would it have done well? I don't know. Neither do they. They had their reasons for not producing mine, but in the end, if they'd put all of the names of the playwrights in a hat and pulled four or five at random, I bet in the end, the average would be the same.

This whole conversation has ranged far, far afield and hit a lot of things. I know we're all, out here, a bit tired of it and over it. But I just wanted to say I think it's good. It's actually, I think, been productive. Frustrating, yes. Annoying and angering, sure. But it's a good thing. I am a fan of the talking cure, so take that with a grain of salt. Or an entire Elvis-shaped shaker of salt. Whatever floats your boat.

It's Christmas Eve, we're coming around the final turn on the year and a whole decade. Next year, there will be new outrages, new ideas, new stuff to talk about. I can't wait.


joshcon80 said...

Here, here.

Also, please translate your metaphors into 90210, Dynasty, Dallas, Dark Shadows or Gossip Girl.

Zak said...

Hi -
Just a quick note to say, no oversight just assumption on my part when talking about Sarah's work. Given the context of this exchange, I probably shouldn't've assumed it's a given that most Artistic Directors select plays based on taste. For all the (worthy and appropriate)speculation regarding the politics and lottery dynamics in the way many theatres program productions and select plays for development and commission, in the end I hold out hope that individual taste becomes the dominant factor.

I love Sarah's writing - it hits me in a very deep place. I grew up idolizing and then becoming family-friends with Craig Lucas, Caryl Churchill, and Judith Thompson. I yearned to become a writer with their kind of adventurous/brave imaginations, their playful magic, probing politics, and deep heart. And while my work has yet to ascend to that high bar in my history and soul, I did recognize such a compelling combination and theatrical lift-off in Sarah's writing. I'll never forget weeping when I first read EURYDICE and the rush of thrill and gratitude when I first encountered PASSION PLAY.

I realize this is MY taste and not the taste of all. But what my original post hoped to focus on is a different way some of us learn of writers and the powerful impact actors can have in this process. It's why as a writer I feel blessed to have started my own company and have worked with some of my favorite actors who then shared with me other writers they adore. This is a vital pipeline.


99 said...

Hey, Zak-

Thanks for the clarification and the comment. This is the internet, so the less we assume, the better.