Yearly Annual Playwriting Year-in-Review Wrap-Up Rundown

IMG_2584At this point in the calendar a lot of my playwriting colleagues crunch numbers from the past year, quantifying their labor and accomplishments as writers.  I always look forward to these annual posts as a welcome opportunity for self-loathing. But this year it occurred to me that I should try it myself. Because 60% of success is being good with numbers (the other half is perserverance) (and the rest is knowing how to spell stuff like perserverernce).So, without further ado: my playwriting numbers from 2017!Number of pages written: 744(Technically just one page that I rewrote 743 times, but it's really starting to come along.)Total number of words I wrote in 2017: 428,384Number of these words that were in furious single-spaced multipage screeds sent to theaters who elected not to produce my plays: 107,166Total number of submissions: 113Total number of acceptances: 0Total number of debilitating self-doubts: last count, more than 6Number of times I texted to my friends "We should start our own theater company:" 21Number of theater companies started: 0Number of times I invited myself to coffee with a literary manager: 12Number of times a literary manager agreed: 7Number of times I didn't spill coffee on the literary manager: 5Number of literary managers who didn't take me up on the invitation but then I followed them from their offices and just had coffee near them: 3Number of literary managers who did not file restraining orders against me: 11Total spent on submission fees: $115Total spent on birthday gifts for my parents: $7Number of hours, on average, set aside weekly for writing: 26Number of those hours spent actually writing instead of reading about Steve Bannon or Anthony Scaramucci or other people that in five years I won't even remember who they are: 1.5Number of very encouraging, complimentary personal rejection notes received from theaters: 3Number of those that were sent to me by mistake but were actually intended for other playwrights' submissions: 2 (btw congratulations, Eric Wapstler and Donna Pfortmueller, you're doing some very impressive work)Number of "likes" I clicked for online pleas for gender, racial and cultural parity in the theater: 1006Percentage of characters I wrote this year who aren't straight white affluent males: 11 (way up from 2016!!!)Time spent arguing in online discussion threads about whether playwrights should use stage directions, pay submission fees, write comedy or allow second acts to be longer than first acts: 208 hoursTime spent with my children: 207 hoursNumber of times my parents casually mentioned that y'know Jenny who used to ride your school bus is a pharmacist now and I bet she makes a really nice living: 14Number of years spent emerging: 27

Woody's Nightmare

While condemning Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen said, "You also don’t want it to lead to a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer to defend himself."  Hackers have obtained and leaked one of Woody Allen's actual nightmares to see what this world looks like to him.SCENE: The vestry room of the Meeting House somewhere in Hollywood, 2017.GOVERNOR McGOWAN: Now, Woody Allen, there is abundant evidence in our hands to show that you are a witch and that you perform the most perfidious kind of witchcraft and horndoggery. Do you deny it?WOODY ALLEN: Uch, oh, now, see, see, this is -- what I was afraid of, this, this, this witch hunt -- I mean, I'm from Brooklyn, what do I know from witches? If, I mean, I could do magic, I'd have made the girl at the dry cleaners give me her number.JUDGE PALTROW: Contemptuous disrespect! Your very words condemn you with their wicked microaggressions!WOODY: Microaggressions, I, see, that, that just makes me feel inadequate. L-like, "Why can't you be more like Tony, his aggressions are, hm, tchk, so, so sexy and, y'know, medium-sized?"SalemREVEREND JOLIE: The Devil drives you to wickedness.CLERIC TAMBLYN: (And for purposes of these proceedings, every time we say "the Devil" we're referring to "your penis.")WOODY: That's, yeah, that's fair.REVEREND JOLIE: The Devil makes you treat every woman like an object.WOODY: I, is that so bad?  What I wouldn't give to be, uh, y'know, objectified, y'know, for just ten or fifteen minutes even.NURSE MILANO: I saw Goody Woody with Bill Cosby! I saw Goody Woody with Polanski! Arrest him!WOODY: See, tch, I knew this would happen, this hostile climate to innocent winkings and grabbings, ehrm, I knew it was a bad idea to represent myself, I don't even, y'know, enjoy representational art.JUDGE TEIGEN: Your lies would have materialized in any event. We burn a hot fire here; it melts down all concealment.WOODY: I'm no good with fire. When I was young I, I, ehm, tried to be an arsonist, but I had y'know no follow-through. The police were called in to, ech, investigate a rampant rash of mad charrings.DEPUTY GOVERNOR GRAHAM: The court acknowledges the defendant's attempts at deflectionary cuteness, but we are discussing actual crimes here. Your shtick won't save you now.WOODY: Uch, you're all so humorless and, and, and female. Is there any provision for being judged by a jury of my, y'know, my, my bros?SHERIFF JUDD: The Devil makes you -- and by "you" I mean "dudes" -- makes you think you can be funny and cute and transgressive and flawed and complicated and with slightly more progressive friends who congratulate themselves on mildly encouraging you to behave, while women get to be scolding harridans -- does that seem fair?WOODY: I -- at least it's a job?JUDGE THOMPSON: There lurks in your heart an evil.WOODY: It's true, y'know, but my doctor put me on Lipitor. I told him all I wanted was to just, ahm, outlive my enemies. Speaking of which, based on how things are going here I, I wonder if I can get a refund on that co-pay.REVEREND BANKS: Take him to the dunking-stool!WOODY: Oh, geez, eh, does it, y'know, have to be the dunking-stool? I mean 'cause, y'know, do you sanitize it after each dunking, 'cause I'm a germaphobe. Also a thanatophobe. I'm, let's cut to the chase, I'm basically a phobe. Do you provide an alternative punishment for, um, eh, people who are allergic to punishment?PASTOR LAWRENCE: Nope, nope, for harassers and rapists and assaulters and poor innocent winkers it's pretty much all just drownings and dunkings...JUDGE STREEP: Except for that one guy. Who became president.PASTOR LAWRENCE: Yeah, what happened there?CONSTABLE RODRIGUEZ: Just take him away.WOODY: Now, see, you wouldn't know this because you're, y'know, younger than most of my moles, but -- there was a time when a guy could, uch, uh, live his life, y'know. Make his movies. Women could help out or stay out of the way, either was fine. I mean maybe he makes a few mistakes. Winks at the wrong girl. Marries the wrong stepdaughter. B-but people would, y'know, let him be, as long as he was a, a, an acknowledged genius and y'know had testicles. They were simpler times. And, and by "simpler" I mean uh, er, tchk, ah, um, ehm, erk, "very convenient for me."GOVERNOR McGOWAN: Go! You are condemned!WOODY: Where's, y'know, Marshall McLuhan when you, ah, y'know, need him?Exeunt. 

How a Season Falls Apart

At Howlround, David Dower posted a compelling insight into a theater's season planning called How a Season Comes Together.  Of course, not every theater has the same priorities.  Accordingly, my colleagues at the Rust Belt Repertory Theater have similarly shared a glimpse into their season planning process.

  CULTURE FEAR FACTOR LOGISTICS STRATEGY PROGRAM?
Play that everyone's heard of but nobody's seen White OMG nobody's seen it this could be a disaster Google reviews from big cities for press release. If not stellar, abort mission. Or use ellipses. Timid Yes
Play that everyone's heard of and everyone's seen fifty times So white What if those other productions were better? Do we still have that kitchen sink? Check storage Craven O yes
Play from New York that every regional theater is producing this season Affluent/ Brooklyn Fear factor low Now that we've programmed it I should probably get around to reading it Desperate God yes
Play that can use pretty much the same set as the last play So very white Kevin's couch may start to disintegrate Marketing angle: The Living-Room Series! Come to the theater, feel like you're still at home…? Rethink. Penniless Yes
Jokey musical that trades on familiar ethnic, cultural or gender truisms without offending anybody I hope White-ish Afraid that I'm not equipped to assess whether jokes about Jewishness or menopause are funny or offensive Find a woman and/or ethnic person, ask them questions Pandering Yes b/c we're edgy
Shakespeare thing Ecru Fear factor medium if we can get it down to under two hours Check on supplies; swords and codpieces have a habit of walking away Elitist but, like, safe-elitist Verily
Neil Simon-y thing and/or something that plays like it could be on TV Like a sugar cube in a snowstorm Relaxed Already sold out Surrender YES YES PLEASE YES
New play that's only been produced once before Exotic Off the charts Check anxiety meds for refills Certain destruction You're kidding, right?

For a more intimate window into their programming process, take a look at this.

"I Gave Myself the Best Part"

Recently my new play Some Other Kind of Person closed at the InterAct Theater Company in Philadelphia, which had also commissioned and developed the script.  It was a terrific production and a great experience, and along the way the theater published on its blog an interview between me and the multitalented future superhero Kittson O'Neill, reposted below.KITTSON: Is there a childhood trauma that led you to write plays?  Tell us all about it?ERIC: Obviously there was.  I don’t want to go into too much detail but the experience left me with a crippling fear of prominence.  Playwriting, of course, was a natural career path.  It was either this or whittling.KITTSON: What is the first play of yours that was ever performed?  What was it like to watch?ERIC: The first was actually something I wrote in the third grade; I didn’t really watch it, as such, because I was in it; I gave myself the best part; and it was AWESOME.  I wrote a play every month of the school year.  Friends and I would put it on, and the rest of the class was forced to sit and watch it.  The concentrated doses of mandatory attention from my peers, along with occasional bursts of approval, were addictive and pretty much left me unfit to do anything else with my life.  It was my third grade teacher who suggested that I orchestrate these shows and it’s entirely possible she may be liable for some kind of educational malpractice.The first full-length play of mine that was performed when I was an adult playwright pretending to professionalism was an equally heady experience: it was a large-cast self-indulgent prop-heavy comedy with Brechtian banners, brief nudity, a full bathtub, and occasional musical interludes; there was no reason any sensible theater should have decided to do it and yet they did and the cast was terrific and the director was a hoot and the whole experience was, unfortunately, very, very encouraging.KITTSON: What other jobs have you done in the theater?ERIC: I’ve been a terrible actor and an uninspired director; I’ve been involved in ineffective marketing and half-hearted fundraising.  I barely passed the class in college where we had to hang lights and hammer stuff, and I’ve worked in multiple literary offices where my chief job function was to reject scripts that would later go on to great acclaim and financial success elsewhere.  The other night I was at a school event in my daughter’s cafegymnatorium and one of the other parents said “Hey, Eric, you know how to do theater stuff, come up here and close these curtains,” and I thought, “I’m totally going to break these curtains.”  The job I do is really the only one in my industry that I can do competently.  Everything else is, sadly, beyond me.  On another note, I’d like to mention that hyphenates are show-offs and no one likes them.KITTSON: Is that supposed to hurt our feelings?  Seth and I forgive you.  Is there a play or production that really blew your mind artistically?ERIC: I’d like to be able to say “Tons of them,” but it is of course common knowledge among frequent theatergoers that most shows fall regrettably short of mind-blowingness.  The fact that we keep going back and hoping for that kind of transcendence is a testament to how good the stuff can be when it’s really, really good — or of how bad we are at learning from experience.  The middle part of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away blew me away in performance, as did a wordless interval in Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses.  I saw Brian Bedford in a pair of Moliere one-acts that played like someone had finally perfected this comedy thing everyone’s been tinkering with for all these centuries.  And I keep reading everything Young Jean Lee writes, waiting for her to stumble and let me down, but she hasn’t done it yet, which is, of course, very irritating.KITTSON: You are a pretty fearless writer.  What is the craziest thing you ever put in a script?ERIC: I’m reluctant to embrace the “fearless” designation since, to date, none of my writing projects has involved running into a burning building or catching a spider.  Still, I’m personally fond of the scene in one of my scripts that involves a parade of actual children in an elementary school pageant that has been hijacked by a fugitive bomber and turned into lurid anti-abortion propaganda.  Every time we get to that scene in a public reading of the script it makes me uncomfortable, which seems like maybe I’m doing something right.  Strangely, that play has yet to be produced anywhere.KITTSON: That’s from HUNTING HIGH, which is the first play of yours I read.  I thought it was awesome.  Okay, so what is the craziest thing of yours that you have seen make it on to the stage?ERIC: At the beseeching of an actor, I wrote a scene that required her to urinate at length on stage every night — so that was something that happened.  I’ve also got a one-act comedy that revolves around blackface and minstrelsy in ways that I think are interesting; that one’s been produced as well, albeit only once.  One anonymous online commenter called it “funny enough to stun a charging rhino” and another said, “I’m not sure but I think maybe it might be racist.”  Which I think are pretty good blurbs.KITTSON: What inspired you to write Some Other Kind of Person?ERIC: The initial inspiration came from the experiences of Nicholas Kristof, the genuinely fearless journalist who, in the course of reporting on the problem of sex slavery, purchased the freedom of two Cambodian prostitutes and followed up on their experiences thereafter.  Where others might hear such a heartbreaking story and say, “How can I help?” I heard it and thought, “Hey, I think I have an idea for a play.”KITTSON: There are a lot of allusions to fairy tales, particularly Cinderella, in SOME OTHER KIND OF PERSON.  You have kids.  Do you read them fairy tales?  The real ones or the not-so-nightmare-inducing versions?ERIC: I read my kids whatever we have on hand that’s shortest.  I mean, the kids are great and all, but I’ve got stuff to do.KITTSON: I know you are a huge nerd, so when are you going to write a superhero play?ERIC: No, you are!KITTSON: Nerds are the new cool kids. Seriously.ERIC: I’d love to write a superhero play, especially since I invariably feel like superhero movies fall short, but I sort of wonder if I’ve missed that window — seems like maybe there’s already a swell of geek theater happening, and from playwrights who have more nerd cred than I do.  That said, I have some ideas and you’d look great in a cape, so let’s talk.KITTSON: Your case of whiskey is in the mail.  So, have you been to Cambodia?  What did you do there?  Honestly, are you Bill?ERIC: Get out of my head!!!  I’ve done some traveling around the world — often, as it happens, on an employer’s dime, to do business, no just business, there wasn’t anything wrong with what we did — and so I do know well the cocoon of the corporate-friendly hotel, the siren song of room service, the frisson of risk that attends the notion of venturing out alone when you don’t know the language and don’t know what you might find if you get off at the wrong stop.  That said, my experiences overseas were less interesting than Bill’s, and very nearly 100% legal.KITTSON: Yeah right.

Sympathy for the Actor

I recently found myself in the uncommon position of acting (which, given my rudimentary thespian skills, I rarely do, out of respect for the craft and for humanity); even more unusual was the fact that I was acting in a project that I’d written.  I was playing a character I’d created on the page, uttering lines I’d written myself.Which is too bad.  No playwright wants to be in the position of writing for a severely limited actor.  I’ve been fortunate in that, as a playwright, I’ve only intermittently encountered that situation in the past, and the way I’ve typically dealt with it has been by trying to assess what overlap, if any, might exist between the role and the actor’s limited strengths, and then using carefully guided language to herd the actor, through the director, into that little Venn-diagram patch of optimization.  (Doesn’t always work – indeed, as I think about it, it’s possible that it has never ever worked – but as I said: good news is that I’m rarely in this position.  Fortunately, lots of actors are awfully good at what they do.  Otherwise, I surmise, they might pursue some other career, something less overtly insane.)At any rate, this strategy definitely didn’t work when I was the actor.  Because I already knew all my tricks, I could tell when I was being herded, and I resisted and resented myself and there was a big writer-actor schism and I would’ve gone off and sulked in my trailer if I’d had a trailer.The least surprising outcome of this experience was that it increased my already semi-awestruck respect for what actors do.  I already harbored a fanboy-sized appreciation for the way actors find layers in dialogue, knit successive moments together into a character arc, and deploy a seemingly endless array of inflections to find twenty terrific ways to say a single line.  I discovered that I mostly only have one inflection available to me per line – that’s all I got, that’s the only one that comes up, it’s like I downloaded the free version of the acting software because I’m too cheap to pony up for the Pro edition that offers multiple inflections, a menu of facial expressions, and templates for What To Do With Your Hands.  (My operating system probably wouldn’t have supported it, anyway.)So as I delivered each line I did so with this sort of double consciousness: an awareness of how I was saying the line, paired with an awareness that there were funnier ways to say the line that other actors would find but that I couldn’t seem to find those or make my mouth do them.  (I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure none of this is what Stella Adler would have recommended that I be thinking about during a performance.)Additionally, I acquired a new measure of respect for actors on the seemingly fundamental level of just memorizing stuff.  I’d received occasional compliments in the past from actors – remarks along the lines of “Your stuff is so easy to memorize,” something about the rhythms or the train of thought or something, I didn’t analyze the compliments too much; I just accepted them in a cursory way because of course I’m getting compliments because of course I’m awesome – but now that I was trying to commit my own dialogue to memory I had a revelation: beat changes suck.  They fucking suck.  I don’t know how you burrow deep enough into a character’s consciousness to vault the conceptual gaps represented by these arbitrary beat changes.  There’s nothing logical or playable about these beat changes – they don’t have anything to do with character; they’re just about the writer needing to steer the script in a new direction.  Freaking amateur.  Who wrote this crap?All of which is by way of saying that I will either never write another beat change again, or  just never act in my own stuff again.  That second thing is probably more likely.