Thursday, September 16, 2010

TCG's list of 2010-11 most produced playwrights

In their upcoming American Theatre season preview issue, TCG will list the top ten playwrights being produced by TCG-member theatres this upcoming season.  They are:

1. Patrick Barlow: 26 productions
2. Tracy Letts: 20
3. Sarah Ruhl: 19
4. Lynn Nottage: 17
5. August Wilson: 17
6. Annie Baker: 17
7. Tennessee Williams: 15
8. Steven Dietz: 15
9. Edward Albee: 15
10. George Bernard Shaw: 13

My first question was--who is Patrick Barlow?  Turns out he wrote the adaptation Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps (duh), which played in Boston in 2007, and now is all over the place.  Good for him.

Sarah Ruhl's play, In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play) opens this weekend here in Boston (I'm going to see it Saturday), at Lyric Stage.  Lynn Nottage's Ruined will be at the Huntington this season.  Three of Annie Baker's productions will be done here in Boston, starting October, in a nice collaborative effort between the Huntington, Speakeasy, and Company One.

It's been a while since I've seen a Steve Dietz play--I wonder when we'll next see him in Boston?

Someday, this is a list where I'd love to see my name.  A man can dream, right?  (I'd sure love to see another Boston playwright on that list, too.)

Speaking of playwrights that I'd like to see on this list, on poking around the TCG site, I also saw the list of 2010 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Awards, and I happened to see that my friend and fellow Rhombus playwright, Kirsten Greenidge, won one of the awards, which will support her upcoming production of Bossa Nova at Yale Repertory.  Way to go Kirsten!  (She's much too modest to actually mention this to anyone herself.)  (Keep watching that top ten list for Kirsten's name someday...)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ten Years in Boston, Part 2 (productions)

Okay, so I've written a bunch of work in the ten years I've been in Boston (see Part 1).  How have I been doing in terms of actually reaching an audience?  Has Boston been a good place for me, in terms of writing career?

When I arrived in 2000, I'd spent the previous three years without being part of any specific theatrical community (I was in Kansas City for one year and Champaign, IL, for two years).  I was starting to make some connections to Chicago, but only lightly when we left.  I'd been working pretty hard on getting books published.

Being here didn't seem to be a plus or minus, when it came to getting my books published.  The agent I'd had was unable to sell my pseudo-memoir about race in America.  He wasn't interested in my novel.  I started writing more plays and a screenplay (heaven forbid I should fully make use of an opportunity like having an actual agent) (I might have learned my lesson, by the way).  I did ultimately end up finding a small publisher for my novel, Tornado Siren, in 2006.  It was not a bestseller, and I was not catapulted to fame and fortune.  And now I have just found an agent again, so book-wise, it seems like a reasonably good decade.  With any luck the next one will be even better.  Maybe a lot better.

Theatre-wise, I arrived knowing no one.  I was pretty lucky to find the playwrights group, Write On, where I met some terrific writers, actors, and directors. After a year or two I had my first Boston production of a short play, thanks to CentaStage, Christmas Breaks, which was very well-received .

By 2003, I'd realized how much I missed my Chameleon Stage theatre (that I'd co-founded) in Denver, and helped start a group in Boston, Rhombus, that functioned to develop scripts in much the same way (we're still going strong).  Around the same time, I also started the on-line Playwright Submission Binge (which now has almost 600 members, worldwide) to help make the business-end chores a little more fun, and a lot easier.

In terms of productions of full-length plays, my ten years in Boston have been a bit of a disappointment.  I've only had two full-length plays produced in Boston in that time, both in 2005--Blinders by Out of the Blue and Pieces of Whitey by Rough and Tumble.  I had tremendously good experiences with both productions, but there haven't been others to follow.  I've had readings of three other full-length plays here, Hearing Voices by CentaStage, Constant State of Panic by Boston Playwrights Theatre, and Fire on Earth by the Huntington.

In comparison, in my seven years in Denver, I had full productions of four full-length plays (The Split, The Marmotville Chronicles, Reading the Mind of God, Blinders), plus readings of Armageddon is Late and Never Say Die.

In some ways, this disparity is a result of a shifting theatrical landscape nationally--space was harder to come by everywhere in the 2000s (the real estate boom was deathly for small and mid-sized theatres), as were productions.  And also the result of a contraction in the Boston theatrical landscape for the production of full-length plays.  The ART and Huntington have big budgets, but look more nationally for scripts than to Boston writers, though the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program is offering important support to writers, and I'm very lucky to be part of it this year.  But the odds of a Fellow getting an actual mainstage production are still pretty slim.

CentaStage no longer stages very many full-length plays.  Boston Theatre Works is defunct.  Speakeasy, the Lyric, and New Rep are not exactly presenting scads of new plays by local writers (if any).  Boston Playwrights Theatre does excellent new work (and I'm grateful for my reading there this spring), but at the moment, they're limited to doing full productions by BU grads.  Company One and Central Square Theatre seem to offer the best, mid-size opportunity for Boston playwrights to see their work fully staged (am I missing someone?), but they've only got so many slots.  There are a bunch of very small theatres who are doing some new work, but their resources are very limited.  They lack the ability to sort through submissions from writers.  Some are doing readings of new plays, and some are staging them.  But it helps if you're actually a member of one of these small companies (which is fair enough).  There are lots of nice spaces at the local universities, but I don't see many local, non-affiliated playwrights having productions in them (I hope that can change).

This lack of full-length, full productions is hard on playwrights, because we need a lot more chances to get our work completely on its feet, and for it to have the chance to succeed or fail.  I'd like to be getting a lot more opportunity to fail, but the climate here isn't as supportive of failure as it needs to be.  If a writer wants to grow, he or she needs to not feel so precious about every play that hits the stage.  Staged readings are nice, but it's actual productions that tell you what works and what doesn't.  If I only have two full-length plays fully staged in ten years, I'm going to want them to be well-loved and successful.  If I had five or six performed, I'd have room for more failure (as well as fantastic success).  And that's a good thing.

Despite the shortage of opportunities for full-length plays, there are plenty of places to get short plays on stage.  I've been extremely fortunate in my time in Boston to have had a lot of short plays produced.  I've been in the Boston Theatre Marathon seven times, which has given me the opportunity to work with a bunch of companies, all in a pretty low-risk environment.  (Thanks, Kate!)  Since I've been in Boston, I've worked with at least 18 New England theatre companies.  They are:

Actors Refuge Repertory Theatre
Another Country Productions
Boston Playwrights Theatre
Cotuit Center for the Arts (Cape Cod)
Devanaughn Theatre
Fort Point Theatre Channel
Hit and Run Theatre (Salem)
Huntington Theatre Company
Independent Drama Society
Mill 6 Theatre Collaborative
Out of the Blue
Rough and Tumble
South City Theatre
TYG Productions
Underground Railway Theatre
Wellesley Summer Theatre
Yellow Taxi (New Hampshire)

and I've had a blast.

Some companies I've worked with multiple times, too, which has been great.  For me, and probably for many other playwrights, it's my dream to work with one company and one or two directors, on a long-term basis, so we really get to know each other and can drive the quality of the work to a whole new level.

I think there's lot of room for Boston to grow, in terms of it being a good place for playwrights.  As a board member of StageSource, I'm trying to encourage that to happen.  I think Rhombus is a tool that helps nudge things in the right direction.  

The proper response for any playwright who complains about not getting enough productions is to start a theatre company, but I've already done that in other cities (New York and Denver),and I don't have the time, energy, or money at the moment.  (Not that I'm still not tempted sometimes.)  Whining is not particularly useful as a strategy (despite the frequency with which it's employed).

I feel like after ten years, I've become a part of the Boston theatre community--I know scores and scores of actors and directors and producers and designers and writers, so the years feel well spent.  I hope the next ten years brings lots more local productions, and that I do ultimately find a long-term theatrical home, where I get a chance to play with my friends, on my full-length plays, with ample chances to both succeed and fail.  I'm starting to form some promising relationships with a few directors, and theatres, that could end up being just what I need to improve more as a writer and reach broader audiences.  We'll see.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ten Years in Boston, Part 1 (output)

Ten years ago, I moved to Boston.  My wife, Tracy, had landed an exciting job in her new career (moving from corporate engineer/manager to academic librarian).  We arrived with some trepidation, a white couple with two black kids--a kindergartner and a 6-month old baby--moving to a city with a tough racial past.  And we were buying a condo in a mostly black neighborhood in Roxbury (which would be something new for all of us).  We had very little money and no contacts or friends in the area.

In the decade prior to arriving in Boston, we'd lived in 5 houses in Colorado (where we spent 7 years), Missouri, and Illinois.  Anyone would have been surprised to find us still in Boston in 2010.

But here we still are (though we've lived in three different houses since we've been here).  Ten years seems like a good point to reflect on how I've been doing, writing-wise, since I've been here.  Plus, I enjoy making lists and counting things, so this provides a good excuse for doing both.

Since 2000, here's what I've written:

3 full-length plays:  Pieces of Whitey, Constant State of Panic, and Fire on Earth.  Two of these have been produced, all have had readings and workshops.

4 one-act plays:  The Light Collectors, The Next Big Thing, Reassembling Sasha, and The Sky is Falling.  All have been produced, three are published.

21 ten-minute plays: 
Christmas Flight
Confirmed Sighting
Counting Rita
Den of Iniquity
Escape to Wonderland
Flying the Friendly Skies
Invisible Husband
Measuring Matthew
Out of Time
Perfect Vision
Phoenix Funeral Draft 3
Pumpkin Patch
Schedule Meisters
Ship of Fools
Special Education
Stick up for Mars
Stop Rain

1 feature-length screenplay:  The Three Great Loves of Christopher J. Tomaski (an adaptation of my one-act play.  Never produced, but it won a couple hundred bucks in a national competition)
2 novels:  Moving (A Life in Boxes); Buried Treasure.

2 non-fiction book proposals

I'm always trying to figure out if I'm working hard enough, being sufficiently productive.  This list seems like a pretty long list, but it is over a period of ten years.  Five full-length works in ten years isn't bad, but it's not exactly speedy  (from 1990-2000, I wrote 7 full-length plays, 1 novel, and 4 screenplays).  Though twenty ten-minute plays should be worth at least a full-length play or two.

In my defense, I'd like to add that during the past ten years, I was also pretty busy being a stay-at-home dad for two kids, with no money for daycare or babysitters.  And I also moved a couple times, fixed up a house, coached some soccer, ran and started some gardens, etc., etc..

I've also gone back and forth between writing books and writing plays, which has been great fun, but also can kind of slow down the whole process (and career).  When I arrived in Boston, I'd been away from Denver for 3 years, which had been an important theatrical home for me.  I'd written a novel (which wasn't published until 2006) and found an agent for a non-fiction book, semi-memoir about race in America.  I was still working in theatre and trying to work in film, but most of my energy had been spent on books, though I was researching for a play on illiam Tyndale and the creation of the English Bible (starting the germ of a play that has ended up becoming Fire on Earth, ten years later).

Now that the kids are older and both in school, despite a zillion other obligations, I feel like my writing pace is getting closer to what I'd like it to be.  I'm happiest when I feel like I'm being productive and both starting and finishing projects that are reaching audiences.  It's been a good ten years here, a productive decade.  I'm confident the next one will be just as fruitful, or more so.

(next:  Ten Year in Boston, productions and publications--has Boston been a good spot for my career?)

Monday, September 6, 2010

time to apply for the MCC playwriting fellowship

This morning I put together my application for the Massachusetts Cultural Council playwriting fellowship.  The deadline is September 20 (the big prize for a handful of winners is $7,500, with additional $500 for finalists).  I'd sure like to get this one, but I've never even been a finalist (this is my fourth time applying, because it's only available every two years).  Maybe this can be my year.  (I have several friends who have won in the past.)

The thing I dislike most about this fellowship is that the application only allows you to submit 30 pages.  I don't see how the judges are supposed to tell much about quality of playwriting from a 30-page sample.  I could see the usefulness of a two-tiered system, where they first look at resumes and sample pages and then request entire scripts.  It just doesn't make sense to give away that much money just by reading a couple ten-minute plays or the first third of a full-length play.

I'm always left with the dilemma--do I submit one half-hour one-act, or three ten-minute plays, or the first 30 pages of a full-length?  I've tried it all different ways, never with any luck.  This time I'm going back to a 30-page section from a full-length play (Constant State of Panic), but I do so with some trepidation.

In my ideal world (probably theirs, too), the MCC would give away more money ($12,000 to each winner, at least), and would look at complete full-length scripts.  I'd also like them to consider the role of the applicants in the Massachusetts theatrical community--what has the applicant done to help improve the climate for new work and for playwrights in Massachusetts?

But they're not asking me how to run things, and I don't see them getting more money (I'm grateful they're in business at all, given the current economic climate).  For now,  I'll just keep my fingers crossed. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Just Say No (to meetings)

My friend Dan Milstein and I were talking about work and time and meetings, he recommended this essay by Paul Graham, Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule.  Here's a bit from the start:

Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

I love the way he lays out the two kinds of time.  I bump into this a  lot when dealing with the outside world--there seem to be an infinite number of opportunities for meetings.  At first, it doesn't seem that hard to squeeze one in here or there.  After all, I'm working from home.  I can spare an hour or two here or there.  And I'm social (which is why I'll never leave theatre for good).  And I'm bad at saying No.

But they add up.  And as Graham points out, it's not just the hour of the meeting time that gets consumed, but a good chunk of what was going to be productive time (there's travel and prep time and just distraction time).  My day is already pretty short during the school year (8:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.), and work time is extremely scarce during the summer.

I'm facing a fall with a lot of commitments, both writing-wise and organizational, and I'm going to have to find a way to clear time enough for actually making stuff.  Here are the organizations that I am involved with at the moment:
  • StageSource (I'm a board member and on a major committee at the moment)
  • Theatre Community Benevolent Fund (I'm a board member)
  • The 200 Foot Garden (running it)
  • Brookline Special Education Parent Advisory Council (I'm co-chair for the coming year. LOTS of meetings)
  • Rhombus  (my playwrights' group--run by all 6 of us)
  • My fiction writer's group
  • Bountiful Brookline (I'm on the steering committee, but haven't been to many meetings lately)
  • The Playwright Online Submission Binge (run it, but it's not that much work most of the time, and no meetings)
Plus I do some occasional freelance writing work for a company, some web work for pay (mostly for friends), I have two kids to shepherd, two other gardens to tend, I'm in the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program, there's the condo association, the neighborhood association (I'm no longer in charge of that), White People Challenging Racism (I'm not teaching anymore, mostly just updating a web site from time to time), and I have a nagging feeling that there is more.  Which is a little scary.

When I'm smart and feeling particularly disciplined, I try to reserve most mornings for writing and not even turn on my e-mail until noon (this is VERY hard for me).  I'm going to have to start swimming my way back towards that habit this fall (it'll take a while), because I have a novel (or two) to revise for my agent, a new novel to write, a play to revise, and a new draft of a play to finish.

I'm a pretty good juggler (both literally and figuratively), but the lists above are definitely giving me a serious challenge.  Finding a way to stay fully engaged in my writing as well as in my community is something I struggle with all the time.  Sometimes it's more than I can figure out how to handle.  (I'm a little scared about this fall.)  Graham's essay helped me understand where the most uncomfortable conflicts arise--around the space that's needed for creation--both the writing and reading and just plain thinking.  I'm pretty good at making some writing time, since it still feels like I'm in motion, but the reading and thinking is just as important, and I need to make more of an effort to force myself to sit still and quietly sometimes.

Sooner or later I'm going to have to learn how to just say no.  (At least to meetings.)  But I might be a slow learner.