INTRODUCTION BY JOHN CLINTON EISNER, LARK PRODUCING DIRECTOR...
This blog focuses on what our community members at the Lark Play Development Center have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Each month, we invite guest essayists to share their perspectives on the role of live theater in the twenty-first century and what the field has to offer society as a whole.
Our guest essayists this month are Jordan Seavey and Tommy Smith. Jordan’s CHILDREN AT PLAY was included in Lark’s Playwrights’ Week in fall 2007 and subsequently produced by CollaborationTown, a New York City theater ensemble co-founded in 2003 by Jordan (www.collaborationtown.org). He is an imaginative and prolific playwright and theater maker who recently joined the Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater. Tommy was recently named the recipient of Lark’s fourth annual Playwrights of New York (”PONY”) Fellowship (http://www.playwrightsofnewyork.org), He, too, is prolific and has taken an active role in producing and promoting his own work throughout his career. He is a graduate of The Juilliard School’s Playwriting Program, a recipient of the 2008 E.S.T. Sloan Grant, and the 2008 Page73 Playwriting Fellow.
Both playwrights are “on the rise.” They have fought hard to create their own opportunities whenever and wherever possible. Writers like Jordan and Tommy cannot truthfully be characterized as “emerging”—they have accumulated impressive bodies of work and have an abundance of good stories to share about their lives in the theater—but they still struggle for financial resources and to find an audience. This is a topic I have discussed frequently with Matthew Paul Olmos, my co-worker at the Lark and our Communications & Marketing Manager, also a playwright on the rise, and we were excited to engage Jordan and Tommy in a conversation about their careers as well as their visions of success when the four of us met recently at a restaurant near the Lark.
We wanted to know what was on their minds, as artists who had demonstrated such tenacity and resourcefulness in pursuit of self-defined success. We wanted to know what they had learned so far about the paths they had chosen, what they thought they could share with others about what they had learned, and where they were headed. Based on our conversation, they agreed to write personal essays for the Lark’s blog and we decided that it would be valuable to publish them in the same month.
In fact, I have been thinking a lot recently about the idea of success and what it means to me, to the Lark as an institution, to the artists we serve and to the field. When you think of success in black and white terms, its binary opposite is failure. Our fear, in the creative process, is that nothing exists in the space between success and failure, that we will have nothing to hold onto in this middle space, and that we risk life and death with every step we take. In the face of so much recent cataclysmic failure worldwide—and I mean failures of enormous scope like the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, financial collapse in global markets, and chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan—I have developed a new appreciation for the idea of small, incremental successes, the stones we step on to cross the water to the accomplishments we seek on the other side. These are the kinds of successes that are achievable by us all, that are the result of careful and thoughtful planning, and that usually add up to results of consequence. Though the steps may be small, they require imagination, big vision, generous communication, tenacity and huge heart. I root for these successes every day, in the rehearsal room, for my kids at school and in my life.
Naturally, I’m not the only one in history to have ruminated on the meaning of success. At our end of the season celebration last week at the Lark, I shared a few expert perspectives on the subject with the assembled members of our community.
Thoughts on this issue include deep thinkers like Swami Vivekananda, Indian spiritual leader of the Hindu religion and disciple of the famous 19th century mystic-saint Sri Ramakrishna of Calcutta, who said: “Take up one idea, Make that one idea your life—think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. That is the way to success.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, American poet, lecturer and essayist (and the subject of a new play by Rob Ackerman that is being developed at the Lark), said: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children… to leave the world a better place... to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
Albert Einstein said: “If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut.”
There are the politicians and policy makers:
Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
And Colin Powell, more earnestly, said, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
And, of course, there are the humorists:
Mark Twain stated, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”
Oscar Wilde quipped, “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
And Lily Tomlin observed, “The road to success is always under construction.”
All these ideas about success are pretty consistent, I think: real success is something internally defined.
Real success is the capacity to connect the things you do to the journey you want to take.
That is a hard idea to process in a field and a society that defines success by awards and box office grosses.
I think this connection between vision and the steps that are necessary to take to achieve it is our core value at the Lark, and of the community we attract.
I think that Tommy and Jordan, who began their journeys some time ago, are continually refining their plans and goals, learning lessons at every step and building a working knowledge of the unique territory they have each chosen to traverse.
I hope that their personal reflections, and their significant successes, will engage and inspire you. We look forward to reading your responses to Tommy and Jordan—and to one another!
DRAMATISTS: SLEEPING IN THE DEAD CAT’S ROOM
By Tommy Smith
There’s your life and then there’s your art.
Most people I think who are artists would agree with that statement.
I think some artistic practices are exempt from this rule, though.
And I think playwriting is one of them.
Some other world always occupies you, or you hear dialogue on the street and codify it as dialogue instead of conversation.
You use aspects of your own life to privately inform fake situations; every artist does this to some extent but playwrights often forgo the artifice of fiction and place the actual situation in the mouths of actors.
I have lost friends over this.
They say, That’s me.
And I say, How could that be you?
And they say, Because that’s a conversation we had.
And I say, That’s an actor speaking memorized dialogue that I wrote down in a computer after I thought of them in my head, alone in my room.
And then even if you patch it up, there’s always this weird glitch in the relationship, and sometimes you think of how Eugene O’Neill must have felt with that draft of Long Day’s in his drawer for all those years, rubbing his chin at the thought of his family members ever catching a glimpse and seeing, somewhat, what Gene really felt.
I know playwrights who have to hide what they do from their parents.
They don’t invite them to performances.
Because it would be weird, wouldn’t it, if you were a fifty-five year old man and you’ve lived in the Suburbs for the last twenty years and then you come to the city and find a journeyman actor who may have and most likely appeared in an episode of Law & Order – you find him onstage saying things that sound like the things you say to a young girl/boy who looks like your son/daughter?
I would probably have the same reaction.
Or boyfriends of my female playwright friends who get all huffy at the fictional boyfriend summarizing a long-dead fight and later they’re staring at the ceiling in bed, hour three of the rekindled argument, and they have nothing left to say to one another so they follow the passing car lights on the ceiling.
Playwrights are encouraged to bring their personal life onto the stage, and I guess what I’m talking about is the phenomenon of the resulting interpersonal fallout that sometimes happens when you’re a playwright and you’ve decided to present fictional versions of real life encounters for other people to see.
There’s also the monetary concern.
Playwrights are not known to have money.
A journeyman actor friend of mine said to me:
Playwrights can make a killing, but they can’t make a living.
Neil LaBute, Yasmine Reza, David Lindsay-Abaire.
A music professor of mine said to me while we were listening to Yanni play in the background at a coffee shop that no one should ever make fun of an artist who has found a way to build an audience around what they do.
You start to develop a story around your life.
Mostly you’re framed by how you haven’t died yet.
How haven’t you died yet? people say.
And you shrug your shoulders and say, Not yet.
The story of most playwrights involves the laundry list of sacrifices.
My playwright friend spent over a year on her friends’ couches while living out of a backpack.
Another had a mental breakdown after harsh criticism, and could not write for a year.
Another suffered from a deteriorated mental state brought on by a combination of sleeping aids and alcohol and began to hear voices coming from a radio, experiences which he used to fuel his next artistic project.
Another got sued for harassment by two of his former best friends for using material from their friendships.
Another became a dominatrix to support her writing.
I have yet to find a playwright who does not, or did not regularly, smoke marijuana.
Joe Orton’s lover hacked him to death.
The multiple pill bottles of Tennessee Williams.
It is not exactly a healthy lifestyle, and it is definitely anti-social, and as I’m writing these very words I’m thinking about all the things I have to do today, and really I just want to keep sitting here at this desk, remembering things I wanted to say to people later in another form.
We can talk about the odd jobs.
We can talk about teaching or temping or waiting or getting snatched up by a product placement job in the television industry.
It’s all a distraction from getting back to the desk, away from everyone, in the globe of your own impulse.
I was talking with another playwright friend and on the fourth or fifth glass of Trader Joe’s we expressed our disinterest in attending rehearsals or responding to what we wrote in any way and us realizing simultaneously also that the great majority of playwrights really have been reclusive since maybe very young, as we were all kids who preferred to keep ourselves holed away in a corner instead of playing with the thronging mass, writing in our College-ruled notebooks on the bleachers.
You write what you know but everything’s that written is fiction.
Three years ago, I was sleeping in a dead cat's room in Prague when it struck me: Why the hell am I doing this?
I had traveled to the Czech city to produce a show of mine.
We designed piece so that the performer could perform the show and I could run the tech, making it a two-man operation that was easy to tour.
Through the hobo theatre network, the performer had landed a free apartment in the outskirts of the city.
This made the production possible, as we could pay ourselves if our lodging was free.
At the foot of the apartment was a strip club that was actually a whorehouse masquerading as a strip club.
When we got upstairs, our billeter showed us our room.
This is where the cat used to live, he coughed into his collar.
The cat had died last month.
Our billeter hadn't cleaned the room since the death.
Huge balls of cat hair hid themselves in corners, like lost western tumbleweeds.
The dried out water dish sat sadly next to a food dish with a remaining few bits of kibble.
As is customary in situations like this, we thanked our billeter profusely for his generosity and hunkered down.
When everyone in the apartment was asleep—four other people lived there aside us two, a common lodging situation in Prague—we started to clean the room.
Jetlagged, hungry, with tech at ten the next morning, we managed to get the room in an acceptable state to get to bed by three.
Staring at the looming water spots on the ceiling, I started to think of all the people my same age who were sleeping in their nice apartments.
Did they have to hear the ambient sounds of johns fucking prostitutes in the Czech night?
Is this what a normal life looks like?
A phrase popped into my head:
You’re always camping.
I camped a lot as a young kid because that’s the sort of thing you do if you grow up in the rural peninsula of Northwest Washington State.
The idea is that you’re going to pretend like you can live with only the possessions you carry on your back.
You start to think of what you actually need in life.
What you need to survive.
And often these things are intangible, they are qualities of observation, ways of relating to danger, tactics for survival.
If you’re an artist, and especially if you’re a playwright, you’re always camping.
You forage for shelter.
And after the fire’s built and the tent’s popped, you look up at the stars.
You might get lucky sometimes, you might fall into a good situation every now and then but your eye is always on the door, wondering when you’ll be on the other side of it again.
No one supports the life of the playwright except the playwright.
In terms of employment, the closest relevant analog is the profession of a phrenologist.
No one talks about the quality of life as a playwright, so I guess what I want to say is that I’m really proud of the people who do this still in this day and age when everything points against doing it, your very survival is constantly put into questions be recessions and new technologies and better employment and misunderstanding and artistic dry spells and the inability to mesh conflicting schedules with your lover or retirement, what’s retirement?
I was saying pretty much those words to a friend of mine.
We were in the heat of an argument about the lack of funding in this country blah.
His music device was on shuffle.
A male voice with a deep twangy accent, an inspirational speaker, came on.
This is what he said:
Keep at it. It’s such a tricky business. You want to do your art but you’ve got to live, so you’ve got to have a job, and then sometimes you’re too tired to do your art. But if you love what you’re doing, you’re going to keep on doing it anyway. I’ve been very lucky. Along the way there are people who help us. I’ve had plenty of people in life who’ve helped me go to the next step. And you get that help because you’ve done something, so you have to keep doing it. So much of what happened to me was good fortune, but I would say, try to get a job that gives you some time. Get your sleep, and a little but of food, and work as much as you can. There’s so much enjoyment in doing what you love. Maybe this will open doors and you’ll find a way to do what you love. I hope you do.
THIS PLAY REALLY DESERVED A LONGER LIFE
By Jordan Seavey
So spoke Lark actress Jennifer Dorr White, who tackled multiple roles in my play CHILDREN AT PLAY, the most recent fully-produced piece by my company, CollaborationTown.
I describe CollaborationTown to people as a small nonprofit theatre company that creates ensemble-based new work collaboratively. By "collaboratively" I mean any number of things—from group-devised collage pieces to a play of my own lone writing which I receive input on collaboratively from company members even when mounted and produced in a more traditional way—and by "small" I mean... really small. We work on a shoestring budget and, in fact, have also been so insular and company-based that CHILDREN AT PLAY was the first time we worked with an entirely new "outside" director and professional actors who were also new to the company. (This was partially due to necessity as it was the first time we produced a piece that required actors older than those in our founding members' peer group.)
Now, when I think of Jennifer's comment with my cynic/realist hat on, I think, "Sure, the play 'deserved' a longer life but I'm a young, emerging writer and this production of this play was, ultimately, probably just a stepping stone (albeit a significant stepping stone) in the development of what I hope to be a long career, and of course, at the level at which we produced it and with our limited resources, it couldn't have continued much further." But when I think of Jennifer's comment with my optimist hat on (compared to the other, this hat's a clunky fit on me and so often gets relegated to a hook on my bedroom wall), I think, "Goddamnit, you're right, Jennifer! This play DID deserve a longer life—in fact, it probably deserved a better, more supported production. What if I could be part of a theater community that actually embraced risky, exciting-if-flawed work by unknown or very early career playwrights?"
I've been thinking a lot about the very true cliché that writing a play is like bringing a child into the world, so I've been thinking a lot about what kind of world I'm bringing my children—my plays—into.
CHILDREN AT PLAY received the best kind of mixed reviews—the ones that liked it really liked it, and the ones that didn't really didn't. That, to me, is a sign of good theater—it's polarizing, it rubs a fair number of people the wrong way, and it's about subjects people would prefer not to watch in plays. It was not reviewed by The New York Times, despite our reputable press agent and the fact that we had a well-known downtown actress with a bit of a cult following in a lead role. I know this was most likely a blessing in disguise—aborting my baby is unquestionably the more humane choice when faced with sending it naked and vulnerable into many critics’ arms. Yet there is also a sort of cult of playwriting which many of us find ourselves criticizing and complaining about—while, at the same time, trying hard to break into. And I, for one, can honestly say it is not the low-level fame that comes with being a high-level playwright, nor the (possibly kind, probably horrid) reviews I'll eventually get in the Times that attracts me to it. Rather, it's that I write plays to
1) be mounted, and be mounted as fabulously as possible, and
2) share this fully-realized vision/version of my play with an audience of as many people as possible.
I write for a/the community and, while a small community is meaningful, a large community can be life-changing. As of this writing I am in the midst of self-reflection about both my actual work and my career, so I don't have lucid answers to many of my questions. But I agree with Jennifer, so one thing I know is that I don't ever wish to hear "This play REALLY deserved a longer life" again, after killing myself to produce something of which I am so proud.
To that end, a major piece of advice I'd give to younger playwrights who are self-producing and/or running a theater company is this: get a good, hardworking, reputable press agent, and get her/him early on. I think that's one way in which we've been quite naive as a company; we believed we could do our own marketing, and we did it for years. And for the most part had remarkable luck doing so. But we could've gotten much further much faster with a solid liaison. What do I regret least? Well, having six plus years under our belts as a company certainly helps our press agent promote us more, as opposed to promoting a group 6 months out of undergrad. Part of me feels silly devoting a large portion of this essay to "hire a press agent!" but we're promoting our children after all. Some children enter the world less privileged than others and vice versa. And while, for many of us playwrights, our children lean toward the poverty-stricken, one basic tenet of education (as it were) is to invest in someone who'll get your child the attention it deserves. Actually, I don't feel silly saying that; I feel silly that such a big part of theater in 2010 New York City is who's heard of you and how they heard of you—but that's not something I can change right now, so get thee to a press agent.
Doing everything ourselves—marketing very much included—taught me a hell of a lot, however, and not only in terms of myriad practicalities. It taught me about what it is to take responsibility for the art I'm making. It's almost like I extended my undergrad theater training for six extra years; in my undergrad training (which was also primarily focused on creation-by-ensemble) I felt like I owned every aspect of every detail of every choice we made. I think this sensation can dissipate all too quickly in the real world and, in a way, I feel that running my company in a “lo-fi” way has made me really own my choices and, in turn, my art. It's funny that I'm seeking to have my writing produced by larger companies than my own, where many artists and administrators unknown to me increase the chances that said writing might be compromised. But again, I think CollaborationTown has begun teaching me a sort of concrete assurance in my work, and how to communicate.
That's my second big piece of advice to emerging playwrights—collaborate. Playwriting is a notoriously solitary career—but theater is famously collaborative, to the point of being infamously social, and ain't that grand? Take advantage of the fact, find people with whom you work well interpersonally and artistically, and run with them. Really. Grab their hands and run together side by side for as long as you have breath and/or don't kill each other. I'm an only child, and the surrogate sisters and brothers I've forged (forced?) relationships with through art have become my family in a fairly literal sense, and taught me most everything I know about human communication on both personal and artistic levels. One's work deepens so incredibly when it's being shaped, dramaturgically speaking, by collaborators you know intimately, share a common vocabulary with, and have worked with on previous process after previous process.
Because even if you're working on a new play with a single author (i.e. yourself), receiving dramaturgical feedback from those people means you're building said play based on the building blocks of past play experiences past.
Whether or not you, fair reader, have gone on a journey through this rambling essay is a whole other question, and one that probably relates quite directly to its quality.
However, we write at least partially to go on a journey ourselves—right? And I'm discovering I have. Do I think CHILDREN AT PLAY deserved a longer life? Yes, but perhaps analyzing the reasons why it wasn't meant to be is beside the point, fruitless especially if they're bigger things I can't directly change right now. The question becomes this: Would I trade a longer run for a production which I had less of a hand in, artistically? The answer is, simply: Absolutely not.