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.


Anonymous said...

I had a recent discussion with someone regarding the same thing, except I argued for tact.

What's the difference between being tactful and being honest?

I feel like there are ways to be honest without being insulting, crude, rude, vulgar, or hurtful. Others feel like any attempt to "sugarcoat it" is detrimental.

What do you think?

99 said...

I'm a big fan of tact and gentleness...playwrights are fragile and their process should be a safe one. But there's a line between tact and dishonesty that a lot of theatres skirt. A theatre shouldn't need to give "reasons" that a script isn't ready to be produced; simply say, "we don't want to produce it." The shifting goalposts don't do anyone any good. But by all means, employ tact when saying it.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most informative and honest things I've read on development hell. And it just makes me even more despondent over the crop of artistic directors in this town. Middlebrow tastes for middle management types. Where is the fire, people!?!

Anonymous said...

I think you've actually gotten to the nuts & bolts of this issue nailed pretty well with this post, but I will say that the topic is still more detailed than stated. For example, I have produced plays, on my humble level, that I didn't "love" - there were other reasons, and I know other ADs who've done the same.

Much more goes into such a decision than my love, and simplify ADs as much as you want, I'm sure they all (well almost all) take their jobs seriously and consider many, many more factors than their personal tastes.

Sometimes it has to do with how much the theater community loves a playwright. Another example, I do not loooove Adam Bock's work (just haven't seen any yet to know), but if he gave me even a crappy play of his to put on, I would do it in a heartbeat, because right now the community loves them some AB.

So, I agree that communication on this can always improve, but if it makes you feel any better, I know that Tony Kushner would not let my company produce his new play, and I've been turned down by others of note - so it works both ways.

We all want to leave our options open, cuz I would hate to tell someone No, and then next season things change. Maybe it's just more about finding the right match.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that the theatres/ADs are lying to themselves, too. I've heard mine lament a play's edginess or the fact that subs won't like it, or the fact that it's not star-castable, or any of the million lies you list, when you're right, it's just that they're not in love. Sometimes they'll say, "It's really good, but I can't see myself wanting to watch it 20 times in previews," which is an honest thing, but, of course, only said internally, but is a variation on the honest thing to say. But this is a great post and a way of thinking about this process that I will remember.

99 said...

I think the reasons to "love" a script are different for each theatre and each AD. The reasons you mention, Secret, and that RLewis alludes to, I think, are reasons someone would "love" a script, not just the artistic love. But those reasons are still more honest and more helpful than the reasons that playwrights get, most of which boil down to "make this play different and we'll love it". Especially when the reasons you don't love a play are confined to the play on the page, that spins writers off in bad directions. I appreciate the difficult position and the need for wiggle room that most artistic staffs have to deal with, but at the same time, in the pursuit of making better theatre, a wave of honesty would be helpful.

99 said...

I meant to say "aren't confined to the page" in the comment above...sloppy typing...