Monday, May 17, 2010

The Madness in the Mission

Not long ago I quit my job so I could write. I had this vague sort of notion that being a playwright wouldn't be too different from being a character in an E.M. Forester novel. Except without the servants or the clothes or the accent. Well, sometimes the accent. I'd wake up late. Do some sort of light physical activity. Drink too much tea. I would sit at my desk, bathed in the sun light and my own brilliance, drinking slightly alcoholic beverages, and I would write!

I'm not going to disillusion you. Let's all pretend that is exactly what it was like.

Except there was also the new part of my life they don't talk about in E.M. Forester novels: submitting. I had done it on a small scale before, but I hadn't really followed submission calendars or anything like that. Quiting my job to write was as much about writing as it was submitting my work, researching theatres, writing query letters, licking and stamping envelopes, and creating contact lists. In a sense, I quit my full time job as an office manager to manage my home office.

Chapter 1:
Miss-guided yet edifying experiences.

I spent a lot of time looking up theatres, festivals, retreats, and grants. Mostly I found I missed the deadlines, didn't have a script that was good for (blank theatre experiment here), or it cost a lot of money to submit (if I see one more ten minute festival requiring $15 or more I'm going to scream.) Not to mention, in the midst of this personal fervor for throwing paper to the wind, the book "Outrageous Fortune" came out. If you are a playwright and haven't heard of this book, I suggest you continue living in your own personal E.M. Forester novel. Turn away. Turn away.

Regardless, my eyes were opened up to the idea that I need to focus my efforts and really think about what I was doing. Besides the submission calendars, I was spending a lot of time doing blind submissions. Which felt as much like an empty gesture as I'm sure it feels like on the other end.

Recently I've been given the opportunity to sit in on more than one meeting of artistic directors, literary managers, and playwrights talking about "Outrageous Fortune". Artistic directors and literary managers bemoaned the difficulty of slogging through the unsolicited script piles. They mentioned that not only were most of the plays just not ready for submission, but they were submitted so blindly they plays were completely inappropriate for the mission and needs of the theatre. I think my favorite example was Melissa Hillman's.

Melissa is the Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley. Their tag line is "Beer. Pizza. Plays." This season they produced "See How We Are" and adaptation of "Antigone" written and directed by Jon Tracy; "Large Animal Games" written by Steve Yockey; "Learn to be Latina" by Enrique Urueta; and "Twelfth Night". Scrolling through their production photos will lead you to understand this: they work in a pizza basement, they work creatively and often beautifully in said basement, and they have a lot of young good looking actors on their side.

Melissa's example of a playwright not knowing their audience is perfect. The play she received was a play for several actors all of whom would be over the age of forty or fifty and even sixty.

I suggest you go and look through their production photos again...good. Now you tell me if she accepted this play.

The answer is, of course, no. She said she loved it and thought it was really beautiful, but just not for them. Not their style. She wouldn't preclude EVER accepting a play like that, but it just didn't fit with the needs of the theatre.

But how can a playwright know?

Chapter 2:
The missions and the madness.

Theatres who commit themselves to producing new works also commit themselves to having literary committees, standards by which they will and will not accept scripts, and to spending hours treading over first five and last five pages. They also commit themselves to a hope that the next "Great White Hope" is out there. But form letter rejections all tell us the same thing: the life of a new works literary manager is a hard one. Echoing Melissa Hillman's feelings about submissions, over and over I heard "Why don't playwrights just read our mission statements? Look over our websites? Everything about our theatre is there!"
Is it? I wonder...

Here are several mission statements from several companies around the bay area that all accept new works. Each mission statement has information that is helpful to a playwright: how big the space is, their audience, the way they see themselves, and their history.

Class, your homework is to find the theatre that best fits your play. Go.

Full disclosure...I've edited these a bit. Mostly I've replaced the theatre names. Not that anyone in the Bay Area doesn't know these theatres...hopefully...but place yourselves in the shoes of submitters across the country.


THEATRE #1

THEATRE #1 has spoken to a new generation of theatregoers and enthusiasts alike who want to see something fresh and bold on stage. THEATRE #1’s audience ranges from students to professionals to seniors, all of whom share a taste for exciting, unpretentious theatre that doesn’t conform to stale assumptions of what constitutes high culture. THEATRE #1’s primary mission is to directly contribute to the future of American theatre through focusing on new plays by emerging playwrights. Impact has produced 17 full-length world premieres, including 12 by local playwrights, as well as dozens of world-premiere ten-minute plays by burgeoning writers nationwide in the Impact Briefs series. Impact also prides itself on its fast-paced, vital, contemporary spins on classic drama. THEATRE #1’s shows compel, provoke, and inspire, at prices everyone can afford. And nowhere else in the Bay Area can you eat pizza and drink beer while you’re watching a play. The Daily Californian included three of THEATRE #1’s shows in its list “Top Ten Plays of 2006.”

THEATRE #2

THEATRE #2 has grown from a storefront stage to a national leader in innovative theatre. Known for its core values of imagination and excellence, as well as its educated and adventurous audience, the nonprofit has provided a welcoming home for emerging and established artists since 1968. The Theatre welcomes an annual audience of 180,000, serves 20,000 students and hosts dozens of community groups, thanks to 1,000 volunteers and more than 400 artists, artisans and administrators. With two stages, a school and a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, THEATRE #2 is proud to premiere exhilarating new plays. In the last five years alone, the company has helped send five shows to Broadway. Come see tomorrow’s plays today at THEATRE #2. THEATRE #2 seeks to set a national standard for ambitious programming, engagement with its audiences and leadership within the community in which it resides. We endeavor to create a diverse body of work that expresses a rigorous, embracing aesthetic and reflects the highest artistic standards, and seek to maintain an environment in which talented artists can do their best work. We strive to engage our audiences in an ongoing dialogue of ideas, and encourage lifelong learning as a core community value. Through productions, outreach and education, THEATRE #2 aspires to use theatre as a means to challenge, thrill and galvanize what is best in the human spirit.

THEATRE #3

THEATRE #3 is a bright theatrical venue on the Peninsula. Just steps away from the Mountain View Shoreline movie multiplex (but a whole world apart), the THEATRE #3 was created in June 2002 by a group of theatre artists who believe that Peninsula audiences are ready for plays that will challenge them, as well as delight and move them. THEATRE #3 offers audiences a theatrical alternative--intimate, startling productions that prove you can work wonders on a shoestring, as long as your spirit is willing and your imagination wide. Those of us who have come together in this venture have given our hearts and lives to the theatre. We are experienced actors, directors, writers, and teachers (most of us wear a few hats). Our goals are to produce new plays by local writers as well as innovative stagings of classics and less familiar works; to encourage playwrights to grow artistically through workshops, staged readings, and full productions of their plays; and to offer performance classes to both young people and adults. Above all, THEATRE #3 is a place where people come together to create. Writers collaborate with actors and directors to create art; audiences respond to performers and bring that art into the life of our community. At THEATRE #3, everybody gets into the act. Join us!

THEATRE #4

THEATRE #4 is Union Square's intimate, professional theatre. Using Equity actors and world class design, the THEATRE #4, about which the San Francisco Chronicle raved, "San Francisco's newest theatre isn't just another tiny stage carved out of a storefront . . . its an enticing introduction to a new company," has become an intimate theatre alternative to the traditional Union Square theatre fare, garnering 20 Bay Area Theatre Critic nominations in its first year. Providing a creative home and inspiring environment where actors, directors, writers, designers, and theatre lovers converge, THEATRE #4, hailed as a "small delicacy" by SF Weekly and "eclectic" by the San Francsico Bay Guardian, strives to create works that celebrate the human spirit. Our Mission To create and sustain an intimate, professional theatrical community where we celebrate our shared human experience through compelling productions of premieres and re-invigorated classics that resonate for our times and inspire. Based on the principles of YES!, the aim of THEATRE #4 is to provide a creative home and inspiring environment where actors, directors, writers, designers and theatre lovers converge to create works that celebrate the human spirit. The word “family” is central to what this new theatre means to us. All the actors, directors, designers, and technicians we have worked with over the years and want to work with again, and all the playgoers who have supported our work over the years are members of this family that make our theatre possible. We hope to create a warm and nurturing environment for the sharing of dreams, secrets, fears, hopes, grief, and joy because it’s safe to bring all of ourselves to this THEATRE. To discover we have more in common than we have apart, to replace judgment and disdain with understanding and compassion.

THEATRE #5

THEATRE #5 is one of the most prominent theatres in the nation solely dedicated to the development and production of new plays. The mission of THEATRE #5 is to give voice to playwrights, both emerging and established, and to develop and promote the work of theatre artists. THEATRE #5 engages audiences in intimate, professional productions that speak to contemporary issues with originality and wit, a sense of urgency and adventure. For 43 years, THEATRE #5 has contributed to the inventiveness and relevance of the national canon while passionately ensuring the future vibrancy of the American theatre. THEATRE #5 has played a central part in the national new plays movement for most of the last four decades.


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