In this new-fangled age we live in, playwrights have many sources for good advice. I’ve seen countless articles online with genuinely helpful tips on topics varying from structure and format to how exactly to keep on writing when the rejection letters keep flooding in. Most of it rightly focuses on the kind of habits and attitudes that will help you get to that fateful moment when a theater calls you up, and offers to produce your play. One thing I haven’t seen, however, is advice for what happens after that phone call, advice on how to wait.
Because one of the things all those helpful people never seem to talk about is how, even when momentum is on your side and theaters are responding to your work, EVERYTHING JUST TAKES … SO … DAMN LONG.
I got that coveted call in February of 2014. Deanna Jent, the artistic director of Mustard Seed Theatre called to tell me that they’d decided to produce my play, An Invitation Out, as part of their 2014-2015 season dedicated exclusively to new work. I was ecstatic, of course. So ecstatic that I didn’t quite process the information that my play would be the season ender, very much in the 2015 section of the 2014-2015 season. In short, it’s been almost exactly one full year since I got the good news. And my play starts rehearsals in a month and a half.
Even in February of last year, it had already seemed like a pretty long haul. Deanna had first seen my script in 2011, as part of a new play contest. At that point, An Invitation Out was exactly umpteenillion and eight pages long, had several dangling character arcs, far too many words, and a completely different ending. Strangely enough, a different script I had submitted ended up winning the contest. So my first serious script, The Geography of Nowhere, got a staged reading, while Invitation sat on the back burner. That reading went relatively quickly – notified in January, staged 3 months later – no doubt skewing my idea of what to expect when things get rolling. It was another year after that before I finally dusted Invitation off at Deanna’s urging, and subjected it to a writing seminar at Mustard Seed in the summer of 2013. The play really started to get whipped into shape thanks to Deanna’s guidance and a wonderful group of very talented playwrights who were nice enough to read the thing out loud and very kindly tear it to pieces, which is really what it needed. I came out of the seminar with new tools and a much better draft. And also another five months before I heard anything about what might happen with the play.
From this process, I’ve learned a lot about playwriting and myself, and would like to momentarily transform myself into one of those helpful online theatre advice dispensers: (ahem) For all you aspiring playwrights out on the interwebs, I want you know that there is good news, and there is also-good-but-kinda-annoying news.
The good news: Just because you haven’t heard back from a theater you’ve sent your stuff to doesn’t mean that someone there is not actively thinking about your play. Maybe it’s not right for them – yet. Maybe they want to see what else you’re capable of producing, or are investigating to find out how open you’ll be to constructive criticism when it comes. There are a lot of reasons a company doesn’t contact you right frickin’ now to get your work ready for production, so be patient. These things do, in fact, take time. And not just in a “B.S. people tell you so you’ll feel better” way. In a real way. So take heart. It took four years for my script to go from an A.D’s desk to the reason I’ll be nervously biting my haphazardly painted nails until April. Which brings us to –
The also-good-but-kinda-annoying news: even when you do hear back, the chances are you are going to have to learn how to wait. The realities of theatrical production are not hurry-friendly – there are too many humans involved. So here’s a few tips on how to handle the long wilderness between the amazing news that someone might actually have faith in your work and seeing anything actually happening with it.
1. Keep working on the play, dammit!
Just because it’s finally been accepted doesn’t mean it’s done. Even if the director doesn’t ask you to, keep exploring, keep trying out new things. Very few directors are going to begrudge having new options to look at, and if your experience matches mine, you’re going to need to keep yourself connected to your script somehow. There are a lot of times in the production process when you won’t see any forward movement at all because the ball is basically in someone else’s court. But you’ll still be getting rejection letters from other places you’ve submitted to, and that makes it very easy to forget you’ve even gotten a break in the first place. What Is (rejections, not hearing back) feels more emotionally real than What’s Coming, even if you have it in writing. So do what all great artists do, and distract yourself from reality! (only kinda sorta joking) Keep finding out more about the characters, keep fiddling. The staging of your show may not always feel tangible, but the script and the characters do. Find out more about them. They may surprise you, which can be exciting. And you’ll need things to keep you excited. There’s only so many times you can tell your friends about your slowly approaching good luck before they want to punch you in the face.
2. But work on other stuff too.
Because seriously. There’s only so long you can work on one script before you burn out. In the course of getting a play put on, there are lots of peaks and valleys, and having something else to focus on can keep you from feeling all the ups and downs so strongly. For instance: Mustard Seed Theatre has auditions for their whole season at once. So at the very beginning, there were lots of things to do to prepare for that. I got lots of recognition from people and lots of pats on the back. But after auditions, everyone had Other Things To Do. Like, you know, three whole other plays that needed their undivided time and attention. The sudden lull made it hard to not feel a complete drop in energy. Luckily, I had a new play and songs for a musical to work on – other worlds to take vacations inside of, and that helped a lot. Production can be crazy because all of the sudden a lot of very talented people are spending tons of time figuring out how the heck to make that crazy-cool thing you wrote on a piece of paper once exist in 3 dimensions, on a budget, preferably in a way that won’t kill anyone. Being able to go back to a place where anything can happen with just a click of the keyboard, no practicality required, can be a wonderful tonic to the headaches of actually putting something on stage.
3. Don’t forget to actually have a life.
I’m pretty bad at this one, and I don’t think I’m alone. Playwrights are kind of an odd lot – introverted enough to sit alone in a room scribbling things for a large majority of the day and/or night, but extroverted enough to want to put that scribbling up in front of lots and lots of people you’re actually in the same room with once you’re done. I think a lot of us are attracted to the theatre as opposed to fiction or poetry because it offers community that can be hard for us to find elsewhere. But as mentioned in the previous point, that community has natural ebbs and flows. When your play is in one of the more active stages of production, there are cast and crew meet-and-greets, going out for drinks after production meetings, and other various activities that don’t involve staring at a screen by yourself, and it can feel great. But it can also vanish quickly when all those people have other things to focus on. Spending time building relationships with friends and family outside of that particular world is something that has helped a lot when I’ve remembered to do it, and left a huge, ugly gap when I’ve forgotten.
4. Try not to spend the whole time worrying about what can go wrong.
My girlfriend loves me a lot, and only occasionally wants to throttle me with her bare hands. One of those times is when I sit on the couch fretting over the possibility of bad reviews seven months before rehearsals start. So don’t be me. Hug your girlfriend. Go take a walk. Do anything but obsess over things you can’t control months and months before you get the chance to not control them. Either learn to live in the moment just a little bit more at this time in your life, or get really familiar with a particular kind of eye-roll from all of your friends. I’ve done the latter. Not recommended.
5. Go see other people’s stuff while you wait.
There are two things that are very inspiring when you’re waiting to have your own work produced – seeing other work that you want to be as good as, and seeing other work that you hope to god you’re going to be better than. Either way, you’ll be challenged in new and interesting ways. If it’s good stuff, you may find a solution you wouldn’t have thought of without seeing how that particular playwright dealt with the tricky parts of their work. If it’s bad, take all the things that bothered you, and go look for them in your own script. Be prepared to find them, too, because they’re probably there even if they’re hiding. And the more you find, the fewer playwrights will be inspired by you in the less nice way. But also do it for karma. Do unto others, etc. And yes, I’m mixing religions, but you get the point. You of all people know how terrifying it can be to put new stuff out into the world, so do your best to support as many other people doing that as possible, not only because it can be helpful, but also ’cause it’s just nice.
6. Don’t forget to enjoy it.
Like most early career playwrights nowadays, I have a day job, and a lot of other things that demand my time and brain activity, so in order to actually write a play, my life sort of HAS to revolve around it just to get it done. Production is different, though. There are many points in the process where there’s just not much for you to do. And that can be a good thing. If you’re anything like me, writing isn’t just a passion or a calling, it’s also the only thing that might possibly rescue you from the prospect of waiting tables until you die. That sort of “there is no Plan B” desperation can actually be put to good use as motivation, but even when used as fuel, it’s exhausting. During this year of waiting, I’ve had to battle hard against my own tendency to constantly want to get on to the next thing in order to not have all my eggs in one basket, always in a rush to prove to myself and others that this one opportunity isn’t just a fluke. But you know what? That’s really not any fun. It’s been shocking for me to see in myself how easy it can be to lose track of a positive moment in life by constantly trying to figure out what that moment can get for me later. It’s a mindset I didn’t realize had snuck in, and now that I’ve seen it, I want it out! Lately, I’ve been working hard at enjoying moments for themselves. It may sound strange to say that I have to work at enjoying something, but it’s true, and I know I’m not the only one. It’s a useful skill, so don’t be afraid to work at it.
Those are the things that stand out right now, but I’ve got another 43 days before rehearsals start, so I’ll do my best to keep you posted with the latest breaking neuroses.