Thursday, March 27, 2008

Lying Liars and the Liars who Love Them

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.

Lessons I Didn't Learn*

I've been doing some housecleaning and re-filing and I came across a file that I think most, if not all writers, have tucked away somewhere. It's my file of rejection letters, stretching back ten years. It's been buried in storage for a while, so I haven't looked in it for some time. It was an interesting experience, reading through it again. I noticed some things that I'd completely forgotten about. Like it's not rejection letters. There are two letters naming me as a finalist or a semi-finalist for awards. Not the most prestigious of things, but nice, nonetheless. And many of the other letters end with requests for more work down the line. Of course, I never followed up on most of those requests. I tucked the letters away and moved on.

I'm in a very different place now than I was when I got those letters, and I might behave differently now. But would I? And why did I behave the way I did? I chalk that up to what I like to call fungus on my shower shoes. That's what I call the quirky, self-destructive, immature things that we all do to undermine ourselves. Call it insecurity, call it neuroses. But it's part of this business.

The good side is that some of the people in those letters have re-surfaced, some never really went away. Some, of course, are long gone. But maybe I've learned a little something.

*I was part way through this post and accidentally navigated away from the page, so that draft was lost to the ether. But this one is pretty good.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mentors needed...

This is totally my fault and my psychological issues: I was never good with being mentored. For an easygoing, happy-go-lucky person, I'm suprisingly private and a bit stubborn and contrary. (Trust me, virtually no one who knows me would ever think that's true, but it is.) And because of that, I've never been one to be mentored. Blame my deeply flawed parents, their crappy divorce, you name it, but I've always had a deep distrust of authority figures. I was never one to act up, or act out (I left that to my older brother), I'm definitely a pleaser, but I'm also always ready for them to split, flake out, do all of the bad things I'm used to. So there's a distance.

But right now, I'll be honest: I could use a good mentor. Someone a bit older, a bit more experienced, but of a similar style, experience, temperment. In grad school, one of my professors always stressed how solitary the life of a playwright could be and how much you need colleagues. I think you also need mentors. This life is a lot about lessons and about advice. It's a craft, the whole theatre life, and crafts require apprenticeships and stewardships and mentors.

I'm finding myself at a bit of a crossroads, a sticking point on the path from "promising" writer to "emerging", and not sure how to navigate it. It's one of those times that you need advice from someone who really knows ya. This isn't a bleg or anything. unburdening. I'm out of the theatre lifestyle right now, working a straight job, dating someone not in the field at all, living a slightly remote area, away from the whole "demimonde". It's hard to feel connected in any meaningful way. Just sharing that...

Rewriting sucks

It just plain does. One of the things that's kept me away from this blog, beside attempting to actually live my life, has been a long spate of rewriting, which always just leaves me drained.

I'm a big fan of first drafts, a huge fan of first drafts. They're fun and exciting and it's all juggling flaming chainsaws. I tend to be a Stewer, as a writer: I stew, I simmer, I think and ponder. I've spent up to two years just thinking about a play I want to write. Not constantly, but coming back to it, writing scenes in my head, working out plot points and themes, kicking it around for as long as possible, until finally I sit down to write. The first draft usually comes quickly. I've heard Edward Albee speak about writing like this, that he finds himself "with play" and then the play springs fully formed from his head. I ain't Albee (in so very many ways), but that's pretty close to how it is for me.

Which makes rewriting a long, hard slog. If first draft is juggling, rewriting is dancing in mud, it's cleaning the bathroom, you name a hard, difficult task that most be done. And it's got to be done. First drafts can get by on adrenaline, style and dumb luck. To make the crossover to a play, you need to tighten your structure, kill your darlings and rethink what you've done. And good luck doing that once you've gotten even well meaning notes.

So I've been trying to rewrite two full-length plays for various deadlines and it just kills me sometimes.

A Multitude of Casualties

Chris, who you can hear more from here, dropped this comment in this thread below:

The greatest source of misunderstanding I've seen as I've surfed the myriad theatre blogs addressing the ostensible failure of the NFP theatre model is a gross lack of knowledge on the part of the plaintiffs of the rest of the NFP universe, board governance, diffuse executive models, etc. As the practitioners of a collaborative art with great opportunities for both earned and unearned revenue streams unique to our business model, it seems we could do much, much better by investigating how we as NFP theatre leaders are not taking advantage of the tools on the table. Every NFP lives or dies by the quality of its board. Blame your management for building a bad board before you blame the board.

One of the glaring oversights in every thread I've read about creating a new business model is the total lack of math. The general agreement among audiences and NFP theatre producers is that ticket prices are too high - that costs are too high to take risks, etc. Due to tricky things like Baumol's Cost Disease, "affordable" theatre exists in a state of what traditional economists call "market failure" - meaning the cost of the supply is higher than the existing demand is willing or able to bear. NFP status provides a vehicle through which we create subsidy that compensates for the difference.

If we ditch the NFP model, where is the subsidy going to come from?

Many, many good and interesting thoughts there. And, yes, clearly, I'm not an economist, or someone with a hardcore business background. I actually hadn't heard of Baumol or the cost disease before and had to check it out. It makes a lot of sense and there are some aspects of it to definitely apply. It's also true that this conversation tends to happen without enough administrators and financial people involved. So glad to hear from you, Chris!

My one quibble with his comment is this: the word "plaintiffs". I don't want to think of this along a plantiff/defendant dialectic or keep it adversarial. We're all collaborators in the creation of this and we're all both beneficiaries and casualties. And we should all be engaged in making it better. I know some folks really see themselves as bomb-throwing anarchists, lobbing Molotov cocktails over the castle walls. Not so much me. At my most adversarial, I see myself as a diplomat in a war-torn country trying to find rapproachment. I'm a playwright who's worked in artistic development and production in a series of standard model organizations over the last eight years and I like to think I see things from more than one side.

The important question, though, is the last one: where does the money come from? Because I'm seriously committed to finding ways to get the artists paid decently without cutting back too severely on production values and management support while keeping ticket prices to an extremely affordable level. And that means a fairly substantial income stream that's gotta be flowing from somewhere. Where I think Chris and I diverge (and, Chris, feel free to correct me as necessary) is that I don't think that a board of deep pockets is the only way to provide that income. Sure, some deep pockets are needed, but also more smaller pockets and more ways of connecting to the pockets.

The problem I find with the very deep pockets is that they know they're deep pockets. So the expect certain things from an organization: a certain kind of person dealing with them, a certain kind of experience when they arrive at the theatre, a certain kind of return on their investment. (And, yes, I know I'm generalizing. Just work with me.) So you need those things in place to keep them, and, in the standard model, that translates to more staff, more specialized staff and a staff that becomes more and more distant from the artists. And eventually, that puts organization further and further away from the artists and their needs. That's when we get into the edifice complexes, the feeling that if we don't grow, we die. That's also how we move to boards that are more and more homogenous, older and less and less reflective of the community at large. What we're all hoping to do is to halt this trend.

And, yep, the bigger problem is that management is picking bad boards. But how do you define bad boards? If the board is helping the theatre stay flush with cash and resources, you've moved into a big new building and the tickets are selling well enough. Who cares if the plays are bad, or not interesting or not challenging. Is your board bad in that circumstance? The definition of terms is vastly important to this conversation.

So...seriously, where does the cash come from? There are options: for-profit ventures, like this and this, using the artistic talents of the company to generate income. There are more co-productions. Scott describes some very interesting ways of generating income and keeping expenses down here. (Side note: I intend to draw up a similar model for NYC at some point in the next few weeks.)

Does this mean that all traditional boards go by the wayside? Of course not. For some organizations, it makes sense. All we're saying is that that doesn't have to be the only way that theatres are organized. And, yes, I also know about the legal responsibilities and expectations. But remember, when a company begins, the company members are usually the board. It works and makes sense that way. It's only further down the line that the two groups get separated. What I think we're trying to do is keep the two parties closer together.