Essays, Practice, Opinions

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About two years ago, I began workshopping an amazing new play by a really killer young playwright. Then, last summer, after a bunch of readings, at least three script overhauls and even a staged workshop, the play was selected to be workshopped at a prominent development house. I was genuinely happy for this writer. I think the play is amazing and fresh and fun and smart. So, of course, I immediately knew I’d be bidding it good-bye. You see, I’ve never worked at this development house and I know how these things go. The playwright assured me that they would press to have me continue on with the piece. And a week or so later, the artistic director of the theater wrote me a three-sentence email asking if I was free for the dates of the workshop, and to get back to her right away, because she was asking other directors. She implied that if all of them didn’t work out, I could be considered. I wrote back immediately, of course, telling her that yes, I was free, and if she needed any information or would like to chat about my work, or chat with the playwright and I together, I’d love to, because I loved the play and the writer and wanted to continue our relationship. The artistic director wrote back, “I’ll have an answer for you this week.” I waited, hoping all the other older, more talented, more important directors with MFAs would be busy. Turns out at least one of them was not. And I never heard from the artistic director again. It was clear she merely contacted me to appease the playwright (assuming that the writer did, in fact, actually advocate for me, which of course I can’t know for sure). But I suspect the artistic director never had any intention of even considering me. I found out on Facebook that I didn’t get the gig. For all this artistic director knows, I never found out at all.

Can you imagine if you were an actor and you did all the rehearsals, but when the show opened, some other actor took your place? Or a designer who only got to create the light plot and then had to hand it off to another designer? When you put so much work into something, you want to see it through to production. And the next production and the next one. As a director, my artistry isn’t in readings or coffee meetings or phone chats or music stands or talkbacks. My art, and the art of my colleagues, is creating a 3-D theatrical event from the script, which starts out as an initial blueprint. And because, even though it says “by [insert name of playwright],” you feel, in a sense, that it is “by” you as well. You cast that weird actor the writer never would have thought of that revolutionized the play. You sat in Starbuck’s with index cards, shifting them around to uncover the particular code that would unlock the dramaturgy in the most satisfying way. You spent hours picking apart that critical beat where the main character makes a decision that changes the course of the play. But ultimately, we all know the play belongs to the writer, of course, not to us. And I would never begrudge a writer I work with an opportunity to have their work produced, with or without me. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful. As directors, we must accept that we own nothing, no matter how much we care, no matter how much we invest.

When I began to write the article, still stinging from the obvious dismissal of, and frankly, disrespect for the work I did to support that playwright in creating a play that apparently that artistic director liked enough to choose out of hundreds of submissions, I thought I was going to write about how in the new play world, directors are wronged. They are cast aside! They are underappreciated! They are victims in a senseless game of theater chess! But then I got over myself and my ego (mostly) and thought—I don’t actually think playwrights or artistic directors are monsters. I know they are well meaning artists, committed, as I am, to enriching the fabric of American theater. So what’s at the core of this issue?

After mulling it over on my own, I updated my Facebook status and wrote: “Playwrights and directors: help me out...what do you think is the greatest contribution(s) directors make in a new play development process?” I sat and waited smugly for the glowing reports of how that one director saved the show with her keen dramaturgical insight and how one time, that other director solved the last moment of the play with his brilliant staging idea. I planned on turning these responses into a defense of the relevance of the American theater director and proof that directors are essential partners for playwrights everywhere. But I am not too proud to tell you, that is absolutely not the feedback I received. I was privately messaged by about a dozen playwrights and a few more wrote on my wall. The consensus was shocking to me. Some direct quotes:

Directors are spread too thin.
They never give their full attention.
My play is never their number one priority.
They are constantly trading up.
I’m afraid I’ll lose my director to some better projects.
Directors take six months to a year to get back to me.
As mean as it is, I hate it when directors I work with start to gather speed in their career, because I know it means I’ll never see them again.
There are only two directors I work with. I don’t like working with anyone else.
There’s this look in a director’s eye: that “I’d rather be looking at my BlackBerry” look.

…and on and on.

I was floored, but at the same time, I knew it was true. I have committed all those director sins, and likely more (this is a public apology to all playwrights I’ve wronged with my deep desire to check my phone constantly. Please forgive me…it’s not you, it’s me). I should also note that not a single director responded. Which is surprising, since most BlackBerrys have a Facebook app.

After digesting these responses, I realized the core of the problem. Polly Carl talks about it in her April 2011 HowlRound essay “Notes on Generosity.” At the end of the day, it comes back to this scarcity narrative she describes:

Certain stories that we tell ourselves over and over rely on the idea that there isn’t enough. These are some scarcity narratives in the theater: The story that plays are developed to death rather than produced. The story that artists are at odds with institutions. The story that nonprofit theater is beginning to merge with commercial theater. The story that pits playwrights against directors and directors against dramaturgs and everyone against artistic directors. These are all narratives driven by a feeling of lack—lack of respect, lack of understanding, lack of appreciation.

There are only so many productions to go around. There is only so much room for so many artists to make so much work because there are only so many donors and foundations to fund said work. Which puts producers and artistic directors in a tricky position because they feel they cannot afford to take artistic risks. I think we know that in the work we often see. But it is also reflected in the lack of diversity—of gender, race, background, and age of the artists who work on professional productions in New York and regionally. So, playwrights get frustrated with directors who don’t invest, but directors don’t invest because they will get cut because producers don’t program new directors because it’s too scary to take risks in this supposedly deathly economic climate. The scarcity narrative rears its ugly head.

Understandably, the only risks artistic directors and producers are willing to take (if any) are risks on the actual play itself. So, you can program this wacky play (possibly written by a famous writer) as long as that hot director can direct it because he never churns out a dud. This leads to the same group of six to ten directors directing 90 percent of the new plays that premiere in the New York season (not actual statistics, just perceived). The rest of the thousands of directors in New York spend their time directing copious readings and hoping to break into that elite circle. But we don’t. Like my experience last month, we end up getting cut as soon as the play we’ve worked on sees any sort of culminating moment or future life. So, what happens? This mistrust bleeds into artistic relationships. As a director, I have been burned by “play poaching” so many times, I have to operate in ways that are destructive to creating trust and deepening artistic marriages between myself and the playwright. Ways that are completely at odds with my artistic collaborative philosophy. Emerging (oh god, that word!) directors all over the place are in the same boat. Here’s how it manifests:

1)    Directors have to assume they will be cut from the production, so they are wary of investing too much time and energy into developmental phases or “giving away ideas” when they know they won’t get to execute those ideas. When I work with a playwright on a production, I make an image binder and a plot chart and a structure map, and I score it and I research—I do intense preparation. But, in the developmental life of a play, sadly, I’ve learned it’s not worth it. Why spend hours and hours of time on something that will never be mine? Why work so hard for a play or playwright I’ll never see again? I used to take the gamble and really dive in. But it has literally never paid off. Not once. I am praised and thanked (sometimes over the course of years) and told I’ve unlocked the play, or helped the structure, or changed the trajectory, or clarified the dramatic arc…only to have the play “picked up” and the playwright paired with another director. So I grit my teeth and go to support the writer, only to get to see the fruits of my labor in someone else’s production. Whether it’s an ego issue or what have you, it’s a very frustrating feeling. And it’s even more frustrating to me to watch myself become less and less willing to give all of myself to playwrights I’m developing scripts with because I know it will be too painful later if I do. I don’t like not applying my whole being. I cried when I got a B+ on a fourth grade history test. It’s not in my nature to do less than 110 percent (and I think the same is true for most directors).

2)    We have to constantly be on the look out for the next project, always balancing as many balls as we can, so when we get dumped from one project we have lots of back ups (hence the “I’d rather be looking at my BlackBerry” look). Once you dump me, I’ll need to have another iron in the fire—and it’s causing me to live in the next job, the next rehearsal, the next reading. Rather than in the moment we are in together.

3)    We are forced to attach ourselves to institutions, not to playwrights, because there might be more potential for future work there. The writer may move on to somewhere or someone else. But if the institution likes me, I may get more gigs with some other writer (who will also leave me, but it’s OK, because I’m also directing six other readings this week, which is why I can’t meet with you in advance to talk about casting and why I’m not going to have time to read your draft before the reading, etc.). Then I will repeat steps 1 and 2.

Now, let me be clear. This is not an indictment of producers, or artistic directors, or development departments. I’m keenly aware that there are, in fact, limited resources to produce new American plays unless you self-produce with a Kickstarter campaign and a dream. I understand the quandary. It is really terrifying to program something or someone new and risk your subscriber/donor audience’s displeasure—and then fear that their annual donation will go to cancer research or worse—to some other theater. So, when you do take risks—if you take them—it stands to reason that you take risks on the work. But though you may have taken an aesthetic chance in a certain way, unless you’re mixing up the artists (not just writers!), you aren’t really mixing up the art.

It’s also not an indictment of writers. I love you guys. You’re brilliant. You’re funny. You’re daring. And you’re in the same boat as me. You’re just trying to get your work out there on whatever terms the world will let you. You feel powerless. You feel insignificant. You feel outside. So do I. I totally get it.

So what do we do? First, we recognize that we are all on the same team. Obviously, artistic directors are in this business to make artists happy: to serve their needs, to deepen the work, to enrich audiences with fresh and vibrant theater. Otherwise, they would have gone off to run corporations and make more money. And obviously, directors are in it to support the work of writers; to get in there and get messy with collaborating. Otherwise, they’d go to Norway where they throw money at crazy auteurs who make puppet shows. And writers would move to the countryside and become novelists and only email their publishers. So that’s good. All of us want the same thing. To make plays together as collaborators. So, how can we continue to nurture an environment of trust and mutual respect for artists at all levels?

Here are some ideas:

Producers, try not to split functional teams. Listen to the writer. If the writer requests a director, at least seriously investigate. Take just twenty minutes and see if perhaps that director might be the best person for the job. Try calling or meeting with the director and hearing his or her thoughts on and approach to the play. At some point all directors who are famous now were in the early stages of their careers and someone took a chance on them. That director may be the next Mike Nichols. And listen, I’m no fool. I get that if Michael Greif is available, you’re not going to say, “Well, but this emerging director has done ten readings of this play!” But can you engage us in some way? Can you invite us into your community? We played a role in making the play that you want to produce or program. And, if you dare, commit to taking just one chance per season. For one show in your season, pick a director who is new to the scene. Make a commitment to foster a new talent. Playwrights deserve different perspectives on their work. You and your audiences deserve different aesthetics on your stage. Different directors will help to create these varied flavors just as much as different writers will.

Playwrights: fight for your collaborators even when you feel powerless. I have fought for you. I have given out your script when you asked me to. I have brought you up to agents when I’ve met with them. I have directed and cast that reading you wanted with ten actors who weren’t being paid; I called in favors because I wanted you to hear the best version of your play. If you believe in my talent as I have believed in yours, dare to push for me. I don’t expect you to give any producer any sort of ultimatum or jeopardize your chance for a beautiful production, but mention my name. Also, when we do get cut (which we will, it happens, we know it’s not always in your control) please thank us for our work. Call us and acknowledge what happened and make it possible for us to work with you again. Send us your next script. It smarts less to know you still respect and love us.

And as for directors, I can’t speak for all of us. But, in return, artistic directors: I promise to not give up. I promise to continue to support and develop scripts that you are ultimately going to produce in your theater. I will work hard so that they will leap out from the stacks in your office. I promise to work on readings and workshops of new American plays so that your audiences will come and love them and this art form can persist onward as it always has. Playwrights: I personally promise to give you my attention. I promise to invest. I promise to read your script (and there are eight playwrights out there who have given me their scripts and I have not read them… some over a year ago. I am reading them this month and you will hear from me!). I promise to not build our relationship on a scarcity narrative of distrust and bitterness. I will even turn my iPhone off when we’re in the room together. I will dive in and start fresh and give you all the creativity, humor, artistry, joy, enthusiasm, and directorial skills I can muster.

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