It was there when I got there. The bookcase by my desk: three shelves of plays–some read, some not–and a stack of synopses–some in unopened envelopes–sitting there with a year’s worth of collective dust. January 2008. November 2007. December 2006. Do you respond to a query letter from 2006, or is it more inconsiderate to dredge up old feelings of rejection and disappointment after they have long since sunk into the muck of acceptance?
The Goodman had a similar shelf (though I do not think the dust was as old). It lived in the Literary Manager’s office. I assisted as much as I could by helping her go through them, taking some of them to read (the ones she would let me read), but she wanted to read most of them for herself. “No I should read that. No that’s from this agent I am friendly with. No, I’m actually interested in that playwright. No that script is actually important.” I don’t know if it was a trust issue, a control issue, or if she just really liked reading plays and being in the know about who was writing what. She complained about being behind, but theater is a culture of complaining. It is one of the ways we communicate. We do it because if we stopped and thought, “Holy shit I am getting paid to do what I love,” we would all be walking around with smiles on our faces all the time. And that would be annoying.
A.C.T. doesn’t have a literary manager. Script reading duties fall to 2.3 of us–the Dramaturg, the Associate Artistic Director, and 30% of me (the part of me that earns the Literary part of my title)–and two of our interns. But what I appreciate about A.C.T. is that we’re honest with ourselves about our role with unproduced playwrights: we usually don’t touch them, and that’s fine. We never claimed responsibility for them. That has never been our mission, and there are other theaters around San Francisco that have dedicated themselves to emerging playwrights. Our focus is more established writers, mid-career playwrights (our Artistic Director likes to say). And I appreciate that. It is easier to pay the bills with mid-career playwrights. It is easier to appease subscribers.
Does it disappoint me? Certainly. A bit. I was a young playwright until a few weeks ago when I decided to take sabbatical. Someone asked me if I’m a playwright the other day, or, rather, our Dramaturg introduced me to a young playwright (who wanted us to give a look at her script; she is a past intern so [damn right] we will) as a dramaturg and playwright, and I corrected him: “I can write plays,” I said. “But I’m not a playwright.” Marcus Gardley made me see that when he spoke about being a playwright at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Marcus Gardley is a playwright because he is writing plays (present tense) and is also promoting his plays. I think those are the requirements: actively being a playwright which involves not sitting on successful scripts.
And I think new-play development, from the dramaturg’s perspective, is one of the most satisfying experiences you can have in theater. So I am disappointed. But at the same time I appreciate that we are not pretending to be what we’re not. The Goodman–and I do not want this to read as a bash of the Goodman because it was a phenomenal place to work and I think they produce some fantastic work–but the Goodman would claim to promote emerging playwrights and then script by script, synopsis by synopsis, I realized that we didn’t. These ten-minute excerpts, the plays I requested: they would dead-end because they were not by Sarah Ruhl, Noah Haidle, Naomi Iizuka, Lynn Nottage–all wonderful playwrights worth supporting, but they aren’t exactly just starting out– and I realized that my job was mastering the kind-hearted rejection letter.
I was a tease. We, as an institution, were teases. And who does that benefit? The poor playwright wastes time, energy, hope(!), and money on postage. The organization wastes time reviewing work that it will never do.The intern spends his internship learning how not to write (not I bad lesson, I grant you).
But back to my shelf. The blood and sweat that playwrights have already sent under the guidelines of a past submission policy that we have since done away with: I will still read the plays. I may even read a handful of the synopses, and I may even request some of the plays. But not haphazardly. Some I will request because they’re local, and you don’t piss in your own pool. Some I will request because I want to, because I enjoy reading scripts, I enjoy reading new ideas and new voices, and I do feel, personally if not institutionally, a response is owed. But I will not request any of them under the delusion that we will produce them.
For the rest, I am currently crafting a kind-hearted rejection letter explaining why we are not going to read their ten-page submission or request their play. And why we haven’t gotten back to them about the work they submitted over a year ago.
Dear Sir or Madam–
We are not the gatekeepers. That task is performed by other, arguably better, more selfless people than ourselves. We reside within the walls you are trying to scale, and we sit there with encouraging smiles and shout your name and applaud your attempts (all the while wearing perfectly white gloves). Please do not think we love you less: somebody should be here waiting for you when you make it. Someone should be here to tell you, “You’ve made it.”
Shall we save you a seat? Shall we order you a spritzer? Give you a massage when you make it to our table? We will apologize for not helping you earlier on. But only when you arrive.