An open letter from a drained literary associate

Alright playwrights, listen up. I’m tired and have had a hard week and it is only Wednesday, but I want to send a firm but loving note out to save you time and money and save me time and energy.

1: Know thyself.

I really want to follow my impulse and dramaturg the crap out of that saying–maybe go into the history of the Oracle at Delphi and cleverly tie it into the advise I am about to impart (and come to think of it, I think this is the first bit of “advice” that I really intentionally imparting. Either I am growing up, or my exhaustion has unjustly inflated my ego)–but I am too damn tired to follow the thread.

Why are you so tired, Dan? Well, I am glad you asked me that, Playwright. I am tired because I have a lot going on right now at work–nothing out the ordinary, just a lot at once–very little of which concerns you. But one part of this tiring puzzle does involve you, because it is you.

Know thyself. Know who you are, know where you stand in the professional theater world (are you an emerging playwright? A mid-career playwright? Where has your work been produced? What makes you a playwright?), know where your work fits (Do you primarily write adaptations of Greek plays? Are you an absurdist? Do you write politically-oriented pieces (God, I hope not)?).

If you discover that your play is a circular block stop trying to jam it into a square hole. In other words, do your homework and stop sending your plays to theaters that have nothing to do with the kind of work you write. That’s just common sense.

What is not necessarily common sense, but is a painful truth: don’t send your plays to theaters that want little to do with playwrights of your level. There, I said it. Hate me. Hiss and boo and call me a traitor; I’ve said worse things to myself.

Theaters are businesses and theaters are brands, even (especially?) non-profits. And I will nod and smile and agree with your protests: no, no, it must be about the art! I will sit there and fantasize with you about a world in which every brilliant play gets a production and every theater is able to pay its actors a living wage and a city’s worth of patrons will flock to the theater every evening (except on the holy day–Mondays–when everyone rests). And with tears rolling down our grinning mugs, we will rejoice!

But this is not reality. Reality is that a theater has a fan base that is, over time, built around a theater’s mission and that core group comes to expect certain kinds of plays. So if your mission for thirty years has been to produce classic plays, then few of your subscribers and fewer of your donors are going to go gaga over a new-works program. If they want to subscribe to a new-works program, they will go down the street to the theater whose mission has been for years to produce new works! Maybe gradually the classically-oriented theater could build up a new-works program on the side, but it is not going to happen overnight, especially if during the night the bottom drops out of the market.

Very few theaters can do everything, and even fewer can do everything well. You don’t get mad at a Mexican restaurant for not serving dim sum.

So 1: Know thyself!

2:Know your theaters!

The American dream is that anyone can become anything, which I probably still believe. But some of you seem to think that the American dream also incorporates a rapidly illogical accent. It’s like you look at this wall surrounding a kingdom and your immediate impulse is to throw a grappling hook over the edge and you expect to be hoisted up to the top.* There are stairs! They’re right over there. For the love of God, TAKE THE STAIRS. I will grant you that there are some playwrights who have put a play out there, and off they went: they got a break, and now they have commissions from major theaters coming out of their ears. Because theaters do want to find the NEXT BIG THING. All businesses do.

For the rest of us who are less blessed, there are still wonderful opportunities. Smaller theaters who WANT TO DO YOUR WORK. Smaller theaters who are excited to work with emerging playwrights who will be in the room collaborating with them. And there are theaters that have dedicated themselves to emerging playwrights. Will you get famous right away? Will your name being plastered on every poster in every bus terminal on Market Street? Will you make the money Traci Letts is making this year?

Is that why you’re doing it?

3: It’s not a race, it’s a StairMaster.

I love you guys. Of course I do. And this advice is as much for the playwright in me as it is for anyone else. I have sent plays to theaters without getting so much as a courtesy rejection letter in return. I have felt your frustration, which is why I am writing this: so you can experience less of that frustration. And, selfishly, so that I can avoid, as much as, possible being the cause of that frustration.

*I realize this metaphor is disjointed: is getting inside the wall, into the kingdom, the goal? or is getting to the top of the wall the goal? I think I should have used tower instead of kingdom, and the top of the tower represents Broadway and the major regional theaters; the steps are smaller theaters that may not be able to pay you a dime for your work or foundations/centers/writing groups that are committed to helping emerging playwrights along. So, my b.


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