tips on writing

#PlaywrightRespect and #LowellArts

While on the Official Playwrights of Facebook group, I came across a call for submissions from the LowellArts, a group in Lowell, MI. This particular call for submissions is one of the worst I’ve seen (a $20 fee for a 10-minute play!) so I wrote them. What follows is a copy of my email.

To Whom It May Concern,

I recently came across your call for submissions and even though the deadline has passed, I am writing to you today to voice my concern that your contest is taking advantage of playwrights. To ask for $20 in the hope that my ten-minute play may or may not be produced is one of the highest, if not the highest submission that I’ve seen, particularly for a ten-minute play. Ten-minute plays, in the life of a playwright, are not money makers, are often given away for free as a way to help get a playwright’s name out there or to help benefit community theaters, schools, etc. who may not be able to afford royalty rights. As the playwright, we have already spent time, energy, effort that could be spent making money, into crafting this piece of art, for our own self-fulfillment and again for the promise of no money.

Asking the playwright to pay also raises the question, do you ask your actors to pay for the chance to audition, whether or not they get a part? What about potential directors? If you have 10 directors interested in directing one of the 8 plays you have selected, do you ask all ten to pay $20, use eight of them and keep the additional $40? You may say, and I’ve heard this as an actor myself, that the actor does pay for their part in ways other then in cash. Through bringing their own costumes, props, time, etc. The same with the director. I recently directed a musical for my local community theater and invested a lot of my own personal money into the show, by my choice. However, that argument is flawed when you consider the time the playwright puts into creating their play. A 10-minute play is not written in 10 minutes. Personally, I have spent days or weeks writing the perfect 10 minute play. If you do understand this, and still ask the playwright to spend $20 of their hard earned money, on a play that is not guaranteed a production, then you have great disregard for the art of playwrighting.

If you are targeting this call to playwrights who are not more experienced and are looking for a start, then this call is even more egregious because you are taking advantage of a group of writers who do not know better. In writing circles there is an adage, “money goes to the writer, not the other way around.” And that is the way it should be. in this case, money is going to ONE writer, while others who submit are not even promised a production, only the lucky eight.
I understand you are offering a substantial prize, but I’m not convinced that asking for playwrights to pony up the cash for the prize money and fund your theater is the way to go. There are close to, if not more, 9,000 working playwrights in the United States. If even just a fraction, say 100, send in a play to you, that is $2000 to fund your festival. Subtract the $500 purse, and you still have $1,500. Now I know from experience that putting on a play isn’t cheap, but where does that $1,500 go? Are tickets to the show being sold? What is the size of your house? And why are playwrights being asked to fund your festival? These may seem like hard questions, but as a veteran of the stage for over 20 years, I know some of these questions (cost of tickets and expected house size) are often asked by licensing agencies when rights are sold.  Most licensing agencies will charge you whether or not you are charging for tickets are not and still want to know an average cost and house size. you may not want to disclose this information to a playwright, but you should. Why should the average playwright, who is licensing his or her own material, not be privy to this information? If I put in $20 to your show, I’m essentially an investor in your company and should know how my money is being spent.
You may not see these points the same as I do, but it is the truth of the situation. You are taking advantage of playwrights, we are serving as investors and licencors, and we should know these things before deciding how to spend our money. We are NOT your patrons, we are your artists.
Thank you,
Everett Robert
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#PlaywrightRespect and Moving Forward: Minnesota Troupe Responds to Critical Dramatist Guild Letter About Rules for New Play Fest – Playbill.com

Earlier this week, I blogged about a  youth theater program in Minnesota, their call for submissions and the backlash amongst playwrights that it was causing.

It started with a blog from playwright Donna Hoke (you can find that in my previous two blogs on this issue), followed by a blog from producer and advocate Howard Sherman, then The Dramatists Guild of America responded and both Playbill and BroadwayWorld picked up on the story. Within the small theater and playwright world on Twitter and the like, it was a hotly discussed topic with snark, anger, some disagreements, and genuine discussion.

So where do we stand today?

The artistic director, David Driscoll, has responded with a slightly more thought out message then we received last year at this time, which was “If you don’t like our guidelines, don’t respond.” What Mr. Driscoll has said is that they never change the playwright’s words without permission (Then why do your guidelines say you can? I ask) and that they plan on working with the Guild to rework their guidelines. That’s good, a positive step forward. Now we need to work on educating people that they cannot change any script period without the playwright’s permission.

That means if you can’t find a mauve dress for your production of INTO THE WOODS, you don’t just randomly change it to “purple”. It means when there is confusion in a song as to who sings Kate, Serena or Pilar, you contact the licensing company/publisher who can tell you (as I recently had to do). It means asking if there is a question, and collaborating. It means, as a theater, if the writer refuses to work with you, you either do it as written or you don’t do the show. It means paying for every performance and not cloaking some performances as “previews” or “sponsor nights” or dress rehearsal with an audience that pays.

#PlaywrightRespect isn’t about just respecting the playwright’s words, but respecting their craft and paying them for their art and educating the next generation of theater creators.

Minnesota Troupe Responds to Critical Dramatist Guild Letter About Rules for New Play Fest – Playbill.com.

#PlaywrightRespect and why it’s important

If you missed the hullabaloo over the weekend regarding the #PlaywrightRespect hashtag on Twitter, here is an overview. Saturday, the talented Donna Hoke posted a call for new, never produced, never published ten-minute plays from a group called Words Players. Donna went into great detail about WHY this call was offensive to playwrights in her blog post (which I linked to in a previous blog) and suggested tweeting about, using Facebook to spread the word, etc, using the hashtag #PlaywrightRespect. If you follow me on Twitter or on Facebook, you saw that I was madly tweeting and retweeting about it. Words Players responded by not allowing anyone to post on their Facebook page and ignoring the tweets and hashtag. When this same issue was presented last year at this time, the management at Words Players responded with,”if you don’t like it, don’t submit”. Which is a response many of us chose to not do last year and this year.

The respected theater producer and blogger Howard Sherman picked up on the issue and blogged about it himself on Sunday. In that blog, a commentator who works with Words Players asked why this was such a big deal.

This is why.

I’m a working playwright, involved primarily in Theater for Young Audiences and community theater. I work with a lot of bright kids, smart talented kids, with aspirations of being theater teachers, dance teachers, English teachers or performers. During a recent rehearsal of a big name Music Theater International (MTI) licensed musical, I noticed the actors were taking minor liberties. Skipping a word here, a line there, rearranging words. To most people, this would not be a big deal, but I wanted to take this opportunity to teach these 16-21 years old (with a few 30 year olds and older thrown in) something. I sat down and opened up MTI’s licensing agreement at the front of the script and read to them and had them read along, the agreement that we are not allowed to change words, etc as written. It was like seeing a light bulb go off. This was something they had never been taught.  As I explained, “even if I wasn’t a writer and this wasn’t a hot button issue with me, I would still be talking to you about this because this is what the license says we have to do.”

The #PlaywrightRespect hashtag was chosen because that is what theaters are not doing when they make blanket changes, lines, gender, etc. without at least consulting the playwright. There is a difference between interpretation and changes to the script. Here’s an example, I recently had a production of my TYA adaption of Alice in Wonderland done by a children’s theater education program in Atlanta. My script says this:

HATTER crosses to the table, sits down and the chair breaks. He sighs and begins to work on it.

What they did was one of the funniest, couple of minutes of physical comedy I’ve seen a young actor do. It wasn’t anything I had imagined, but it was a legit choice that respected what I wrote. However, they respected every written word. They had a chair break and they had the Mad Hatter work on the chair. They said every word of dialogue as written.

We could choose to not send in our plays, and many of us have made that choice. HOWEVER, the reason this is an issue to many of us is because we share the same goals as you and your company do, to educate the next generation of theater and art creators and that starts with teaching respect for the writer’s words. The writer’s who have spent hours, days, weeks, etc into crafting a play that you want to produce. By asking us to write a brand new work, even one that is ten minutes long, without respecting the words and the time it takes to write that, is insulting to us. It’s like asking for a gift and then breaking it because it wasn’t the right color, or whatever. It doesn’t teach children about the collaborative nature of theater but rather encourages a culture of entitlement.

Blogging Is Weird

Until yesterday, I hadn’t blogged in weeks. A strange combination of not enough time, nothing to say and a general lethargy had kept me from blogging. I wanted to blog, I knew I needed to, but I just had no urge. 

To be fair, it wasn’t just my blogging that has suffered lately. Almost all writing has been down. I’ve entered a few contests, but most of what I’ve been writing has been on the editing stage of things; tweaking an old script, cutting here, adding there. I’ve had ideas but no real drive to write.

Then I had an accident at work and have been unable to work for the past couple of days. I found myself with time on my hands. And, I still didn’t write. Until yesterday. I was going through my Kindle, looking for something to read when I saw that I had finished Crystal Smith-Connelly’s latest short play collection Never Trust An Angel And Other Plays several days prior. I had reviewed her previous work, For I Am Zeus, and knew I should review her new work as well.

The words seemed to flow out of my fingers, opening a well-spring that had seemingly been dammed up. 

No, I didn’t sit down and write the next great Neil Simon comedy or Eugene O’Neill drama. I didn’t instantly become Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter or Lanford Wilson. But I had ideas and a drive to write.

Born out of a review of a play I liked but didn’t love.

So yeah, blogging is weird.

Too Much?

I’m a member of the writing forum Absolute Write. It’s a fantastic site that deals with a lot of different genres and styles of writing, gives advice on publishing, has some fantastic threads where you can share your work and get feedback. All in all, it’s a site I recommend.

In the playwriting part of the site, this question was recently posed from user Izzie.

Smoking, Drinking, Swearing, and Dark Humor on Stage
The ten page play I am working on is a story that has been stuck in my head over the last month. So far, it has broken several of my “Do Not Write This” rules: no writing about College Kids, Teen Pregnancies, The Voice of Reason, and/or Drama Queens.” Too much of that in undergraduate college writing workshops.

Interestingly, to me anyway, it is better than I thought it would be. The characters are college kids who had teen pregnancies, one a Voice of Reason and the other a Drama Queen, but those are the things that brought them together and helped them find meaning. Or something. No finger wagging. Perfect? No. Next big hit on [insert theatre district here]? No. But I think it will turn out well and is making for good practice.

Because I am practicing, I have some questions on potentially offensive content on stage. Are these things problematic to the point I should not include similar elements in future work:

1. Drama Queen swears. In two languages, even. A lot. I thought it fit her personality. Used for emphasis and is not at random.

2. Teen pregnancies. I didn’t glorify them, but the characters ended up with some level of success in life. They’re not the epitome of mental health and I don’t know if I would call their outcome “defying the odds,” but they didn’t end up living in a dumpster or whatever after school specials would have you believe.

3. Drug references. Drama Queen went on a drug binge. See above about mental health, defying the odds, and dumpsters.

4. The Voice of Reason. She has baggage though, so is that a good thing?

There’s a lot of banter, so no praying for a moment of comic relief and ending up laughing at one line that isn’t very funny because there is so much drama you Must Laugh At Something. Thing is, I have seen an audience look afraid to laugh at gallows humor. Well, more than once. And one of the works was mine. And it ended up with someone pulling me aside and saying they were concerned. Yes, the person was serious about being concerned about my mental state because of something I wrote.

Guidance?

It’s an interesting question and one that I gave a lot of thought into before answering. It also gave me the chance to blog about this. This is how I answered her.

A lot depends on your intended audience and if it remains true to the characters. You should also ask yourself WHY you are writing this. Is it to shock or does it serve a purpose?

If your audience is college age/new adult audiences or those that attend “fringe theater” performance (I hate that term LOL I say as a member of a named “Fringe Theater” group) then yes cursing, drugs, etc are acceptable and such plays have seen success. In fact, a lot of mainstream shows feature this kind of behavior. Tony nominated musical NEXT TO NORMAL features quite a bit of cursing and drug use. AVENUE Q features even more cursing, talk about masturbation, and puppet sex. It also gave us the songs “The Internet Is For Porn” and “If You Were Gay”. DOG SEES GOD features characters who are in High School (and are pastiches for the Peanuts Gang) engaged in homosexuality, bisexuality, drinking, doing drugs, cursing, suicide, and bullying. David Mamet paints pictures with the “f-bomb” (see Glengarry Glen Ross or Oleanna) and even that old standard Neil Simon “cursed” in his plays. In THE ODD COUPLE, Oscar drinks like a fish (when I’ve played him (twice now) I’ve always played him as trying to drown out his personal sorrow through booze) and the entire group of poker buddies smoke.

NOW if you are writing a piece for High School students to PERFORM or see, then you’re going to find a lot less success with these kind of tropes (mainly the cursing), but even that is becoming less and less of an issue. I wrote a 10-minute monodrama for a young actor that didn’t have any cursing in it. I showed it to a friend of mine, a HS English and Drama teacher, and he said “you need to have this character curse.” When I asked “wouldn’t that limit the audience?”, he shrugged it off and said “not really.” This is a teacher at a very small school in Kansas.

I think all these things are fine, as long as they are true to the characters. If it is there to shock or just because you can, then they aren’t necessary, but if they are true to the characters and serve a purpose, then go for it.

I don’t think it is fair to say that there are “rules” that you must “NEVER DO.” Rules for writing, in my opinion, are made to be broken and the theater should explore all kinds of characters. I understand that some characters have become “stock” in playwriting but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves, as playwrights, why we are writing about these characters and is there any way to make them “deeper” or more then just stock.