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Working in a Literary Office at a Theater Company

(The following is a Gasp entry from August 7, 2006. It was titled “Karmic Implications.” It has been lightly edited from its original post for clarification and typos.)

In the early 90s, I graduated from NYU Tisch with two degrees in playwriting, several awards (including “Playwright with Most Potential”) and a wealth of experience from working in the downtown New York theater scene.

Before I finished my undergrad coursework, I interned at Circle Repertory Company. During the summer of 1991, I worked in the literary office during the day and crewed their mainstage play at night.

The Literary Manager left the job shortly before I was hired, so three literary interns (including myself) were left to our own devices.

Outside the door to the literary office were wooden shelves filled with hundreds of manila envelopes. Each envelope contained a draft of a “Circle Rep” play. This meant that I could read a very early draft of Burn This, and then each subsequent draft that Lanford Wilson wrote. By reading along, I could observe the development and thought process of the writer.

I spent every moment at the literary office, reading draft after draft of famous plays by famous writers.

A member of the artistic staff suggested that we might want to read some of the work that was being sent to the company. Inside the office, there were stacks of plays collecting dust. Each play was placed in the “agent pile” or the “slush pile”. My fellow interns and I weren’t supposed to touch the agent pile, but I was curious. The clear blue plastic binders made the William Morris plays stand out, and I wondered what it took for an agent to like your play. How good did it really have to be?

I snuck a peak at a few of those scripts. After I finished, I respectfully placed them back on the pile. My question, however, remained unanswered. But if an agent likes your play, then it must be a good play… Right?

I turned back to our “slush pile” – the plays without the fancy clear blue plastic binders. Each intern was to grab a play from the pile and read. It was never stated,  but we knew that this was the pile we had to reject. And we did, because we were also in charge of writing rejections. The intern who had been there the longest showed us how to write the inevitable letter.

“Thank you for sending us your play, NAME OF PLAY. Although we found it very FILL IN WITH ADJECTIVE ENDING IN ING we cannot accept it at this time.”The second paragraph had to state what we liked about the play, and then what we didn’t like about it.“Sincerely, YOUR NAME.”

We cut through the pile quickly because we prided ourselves on being tough. “Ibsen would never make it through this office,”the oldest intern declared. We nodded in agreement and laughed.

Sometimes, if a play was particularly heinous, we took turns standing on chairs and acting out parts… Giggling all the way through.

One day, a staff member caught on to the fact that there were three literary interns in an office, laughing their asses off. He gave us a “criticism test” to determine if we were capable of critiquing a play. Two out of the three of us passed. The one who flunked cited “character delineation” as his reason for rejecting every play he read.

I’m not certain what happened to him after that, but he forever owns the words “character delineation.”

Earlier that summer, the guy who flunked told me he was psychic. “You are going to be successful – eventually – but you’ll be paying your dues for an awful lllllooooonnnnnggggg time.”

Over a decade later, I’d think about the karmic implications of that summer. I’d think about the writers who received the rejections we wrote. I’d consider the futility of sending work out at all.

I’d wonder why I didn’t ask him to define a “lllllooooonnnnngggg time.” What did it mean, “paying your dues?” Is it possible to pay too much?

I’m going to tell you the story of how I got to where I am, what decisions led to other decisions, how I ended up in a place I never thought I’d be. This is a story without a conclusion, but with some resolution.

Then I’ll move on to other matters.

When You Quit Theater but Don’t Leave the Building

A life in theater, especially as a playwright, can be filled with skips and restarts. That’s what I’ve found to be true for me. There are times when things go well and then depressing periods with occasional bouts of quitting completely. And even though I swore up and down I had quit theater, I never really did. I only stopped calling myself a playwright

When I was interviewed by American Theatre magazine about sexism in theater in 2016, I made a conscious decision not to call myself a playwright. To be honest, I was fed up with sexism and could not see a way around it anymore. Not only did I experience the brunt of it myself, I saw other women struggling with it as well. Let’s face it, I have been involved with theater since 1986, when I started acting as a teenager. I had been staring at this problem for a very long time. It’s natural to throw up your hands when you’ve seen and experienced a problem for that long. Quitting theater seems like the only thing to do.

On a side note, I’m glad that we can all talk about it without being ostracized. Because that’s what has always happened in the past. 

My very personal way of dealing with sexism in theater has been to go stealth. I write but I don’t show anyone. I don’t send my work out. It hasn’t been for lack of confidence in myself. I’ve lacked confidence in the theater scene that didn’t see women’s writing as being valuable

While this all seems very self-sabotaging to the outside world, I don’t think it’s true. I wanted to write stories and plays that meant something. It takes time and wisdom to achieve that goal. I thought I was pretty wise back in the day. When I look back at my work, I don’t think it’s terrible. But I do know that I can fill in a lot of blank spaces because of my age and perspective. If you quit theater but you haven’t left the building, you are not alone.

As I head toward putting out my work once again, I know it is work that matters to me. I hope others will find meaning in it as well. They aren’t personal stories, so much as things I’ve learned along the way. It’s time for me to start sharing wisdom. It’s a different time, but one that I am embracing completely. 

Site Update – a New About Page

It’s been a while since I worked on my site. That is largely due the enormous amount of writing I’m doing right now. I have an autumn deadline for a play draft and a first draft of a novel. It’s hard work and my emotional and mental bandwidth right now hasn’t permitted me to do much on the net, including writing a new career/life story for my About page.

Nevertheless, I have updated my About page. Finally. It’s daunting to write a biography. Most of my previous bios have been media-friendly but they only tell you a small part of who I am. I decided to color outside the lines with this new About page.

Of course, if you really want to know me, then you should read my work. But while everything is under construction, this site update will have to suffice.

Review: Theatre of the Unimpressed by Jordan Tannahill

There’s a bookend at the beginning of your journey. You travel along the road, being transformed or maybe not. The other bookend arrives and your journey is finished. “Finished” is different from “complete.” There might have been many more possibilities during your journey, that worked out or didn’t work out matters not. You have to keep moving forward.

That’s what I remembered while reading Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama by Jordan Tannahill. The central question of this book is why theater is boring. Each chapter highlights the aliveness of the form. The book questions the criteria by which theater is judged. Tannahill provides examples of the good, some of which can be found on the Internet. It is a thoughtful, quick read. Once I picked it up, I kept reading. Sleep was my only obstacle.

Tannahill’s voice makes his ideas accessible. Rather than condescending to the reader, he writes as if he were sitting across from you at a coffee shop. That’s a marked difference from other theater writers who still are working hard to impress their college professors. 

What saddened me is how the book forced me to remember my days studying theater in college. I thought back to creating and performing a scene for a directing class. During our performance, I asked actors to work against me as I played the part of a director. I stepped loudly on platforms as I came down to “confront” the actors. It was an attempt to use sound to convey emotion. Then I began to cry. 

The teacher tried to stop the scene because he didn’t realize he was looking at a “scene.” The actors didn’t break character. They tied me a chair and left the room. It was in that moment of absurdity the teacher realized it was a “scene.”

The same teacher told me to read Camino Real by Tennessee Williams. Another teacher privately recommended Unbalancing Acts by Richard Foreman. It was a new book back in 1993, when all of this took place. I read the book, and I still have it.

These are the things I wish I had been able to build upon, but theater remained elusive after I graduated. Some of that was my own fault. However, there was also pressure as a playwright to write what Tannahill calls The Well-Made Play. He defines it as a story “in which most of the story takes place before the onstage action, the action itself is a series of plot twists adhering to an Aristotelian narrative arc and the play’s climax comes at the eleventh hour, leaving just enough time for a satisfying catharsis.”

If you don’t write this structure, who will produce your work? As a playwright I needed to spend more time literally walking around a stage. Generally speaking, people have wanted playwrights to take a passive role in productions. If you submit your work, what do you learn? If you are sending your play thousands of miles away and you can’t see it up on it’s feet, what are you getting from that other than another notch on your resume? To break free from that idea, playwrights have to work directly with directors and actors. At least that’s how it was for me. 

I was bored with The Well-Made Play back then and I still am. He’s right. It’s one of the reasons why theater is unnecessary. Yet, there are fewer opportunities for plays that are not The Well-Made Play.

I also felt a twinge of jealousy while reading this book. I wish I had the ability to see the kind of theater he described. The good news for readers is that some of the groups and performances Tannahill references are on the Internet. Hopefully more theaters will see the benefit of broadcasting performances. Broadcasts will not replace live performances, but it is a way to document and communicate ideas about theater to a worldwide audience.

Whenever Tannahill referred to someone, I looked them up on YouTube to see if I could watch a performance. Hopefully theater will see the benefit of broadcasting performances and integrating the internet into shows.

Transitions

It’s a different period of time. On the one hand, I feel gratified that 25 years of work is finally coming together. Those failed attempts and false starts are paying off. It’s all being upcycled. The writing is fast and easy. I often visualize a large ring filled with keys, each being the missing piece of the story. As long as I follow my own intuition, everything comes together. 

Although it seems counterintuitive, it’s a good sign when I don’t update my blog. It means I’m working hard offline. Since January, I’ve experienced a quickening. The headline for this year is completion. The subhead is transition. 

My primary issue is pacing. Forcing myself to take time off is a challenge. If I don’t do it, I’m exhausted. 

As you can see, I’ve been working on this site as well. Some things might be wonky for the moment. Transitions can be a bit bumpy sometimes.

A New Podcast & Special Guest Appearance

It’s been a while. The month of November was a bit hectic and I wasn’t able to accomplish everything I wanted to do. But I did want you to know that a new episode of Gasp! with Laura Axelrod is now available. You can find it on most podcast platforms. For the first three episodes of the podcast, I wanted to explore authenticity. Now that it is over, I will move on to writing, the arts, books and retro things. I also think I finally got the hang of the podcast software.

Also, I made a special guest appearance on the Syncopator Familias podcast. Greg Richter and I discuss Santa Claus. You won’t want to have the kids around while listening to it. That’s for sure.

Gasp! with Laura Axelrod Podcast is Now Available

I’m happy to announce that Gasp! with Laura Axelrod is now also a podcast. It will be available at a variety of outlets, including Google PodcastsRadioPublicStitcherBreakeriTunes, Pocket Casts and Spotify.

Each podcast will feature a reading of a blog post, along with a discussion of the topic with a special guest. I will also include book reviews, interviews and a whole lot of other things. Maybe I will read some  of my work on it as well. The podcast will offer things not on the website and vice versa.

Why create a podcast when there’s a perfectly good blog? Good question. There won’t be room for comments on this site. Sure, it can drive up your page views. That’s nice but it comes at a cost. Comment moderation takes a ton of time. Weeding out spammers can be infuriating. After that, you might have a good discussion. Or you might end up with people who are abusive and lecture-prone. The Know-It-Alls of the world love to leave comments and try to make others feel very small. It’s the reason why I stopped including comments on other versions of Gasp. Who needs that nonsense?

As you can see, it’s been a while since I wrote in this blog. I’m hoping that things will become more streamlined as I get used to glitchy technology and all that. I’m still not sure of the frequency of the podcasts. Twice a month? Once a week? I don’t know. Much will depend on my schedule I suppose. I am presently gearing up for doing a bunch of writing in November, in connection with National Novel Writing Month. The thing is, I’ll be finishing up plays instead of novels. But they will both eventually be novels so I think that counts. If it doesn’t, don’t tell me. Oh wait, you can’t because I’m not allowing comments on this site.See? It’s all for the best.

The Prayer of St. Francis and Being Yourself in a Different Culture

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”

  • Prayer of St. Francis

I’ve learned many things living in rural Alabama, and other things I’ve had to relearn.

I was raised a New England Catholic, so I’m familiar with the Prayer of St. Francis. I never really studied it though. Then one night, as I recall it was Year Three into my culture shock of moving to Alabama, that it came to me I should seek to understand rather than be understood. I needed to stop expecting people to care about my positions or feelings. Instead, I needed to work on finding out more about them without trying to change them.

It was revolutionary on personal and professional level. With this new perspective, I had a reason to be in my situation. I was there to observe, understand and document. Occasionally I still fell into the trap of feeling responsible for something that was way beyond my power. I was never going to change anything, especially with my northern accent. But I could humanize people who have often been stereotyped. My time in Alabama has taught me that people are more alike than they are different, but that also doesn’t negate the differences.

For the past two entries, I’ve focused on authenticity. I’ve lived in a variety of places and I’ve tried to change who I am in order to fit into those regional cultures. Maybe I was doing it wrong. I tried to fit in rather than considering whether something was a good fit for me.

Alabama has given me so much. I would not be the writer I am today without the experience of living here. I’m also stronger, more aware person because of it. As this period of time draws to a close, I now have to think about my next step. The question isn’t who will I be. It’s what do I want to experience next.

Writing in Rural Alabama: Ten Years Forward

If you are living life correctly, you don’t stay the same person. You grow, change, empathize more – maybe. Or you can sink into the world you inhabit and become dogmatic, rigid, judgmental. I turned 40 while living in rural Alabama. Many people become fixed in their ways at that age. They believe what they’ve always known. As the years progressed, I watched my former acquaintances back in the city become less curious and more unyielding in their perspectives.

And so, I’m grateful for the abrupt change, though I realize it came at a cost. I have no doubt that had I been able to stay in New York, my writing career would look quite different at this point. Sometimes, I try to imagine what it would be like. Having access to resources and the ability to network in person, I would likely possess a souped-up resume. I was already heading toward historical dramas, but could I have gone to Austin for a year of research at the LBJ Presidential Library? I don’t think so. How would I have seen the 2016 presidential election? Probably just like almost everyone else in New York City.

The truth is, I wouldn’t have been happy under those circumstances. I would’ve had the resume, but something would be missing. And my awareness of that would leave me unsettled and frustrated.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been curious about the country. I wanted to know what it was like in other parts. I’ve crossed the country four times by Amtrak. Whenever I passed little towns along the way, I wondered who lived there. How did those folks spend their day? What did they think? What kind of jobs did they have? When I lived in New York, I felt trapped. Everything was expensive and I worked hard to survive. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to think or process.

Pretty soon, I was a writer writing about writing in New York. It’s easy to forget the world when you live there. The world is a big place, but when it comes to you, it has to come in acceptable packaging. It loses something when it conforms to your specifications.

I am quite a different person than I was back in 2006. I get to be who I am now because I know who I am.

An Introduction

Writing the first post for a blog is daunting. I’ve been through this before. Gasp started on July 7, 2003. I titled the initial post “First Entry” and complained how it took me four hours to put it all together- the design of the site along with the post itself. That sounds about right. I was working off a template and I had a difficult time making color decisions. In that introduction, I promised readers I wouldn’t abandon the ship.

Since Gasp was part of a blogging community, I knew I would eventually get readers. But when people starting coming to my site, I felt scared. It seemed like a violation of some kind, but it was also exhilarating. Blogging was new and we were all delightfully innocent. I had no idea there was such a thing as doxing. I had yet to have an argument online or be trashed by complete strangers.

The only thing I knew back then was that a semi-famous comedian wrote a blog for her site. She would give weekly updates on the growth of her career. I thought it was the coolest thing. You could see how her hard work paid off, and I wanted that for myself as well. And it seemed like the best way to have a writing practice. Gasp became a reality.

The second version of this blog started when I became a theater blogger. Before Gasp 2.0, I gave details of both my professional and personal life. The second version focused more on professional experience, opinions and analysis. Everything about the site was sleeker. My old audience was gone. The new readers consisted of industry people. I felt a lot of pressure to be serious and theatercentric.

In hindsight, I lost a lot by doing that. My original intention for Gasp 2.0 was to write about the creative process, performance art and free speech. Instead, I quibbled, argued and pontificated. I was so worried about fitting in with my colleagues that I forgot who I was. Once a writer or artist loses herself, it all becomes mush.

The touchstone of Gasp 3.0 is authenticity. I get to be who I am now. It is what I tell myself before I go to sleep at night. The purpose of my life is to express myself fully through the work I’m writing now. As I look back through the years, I see the roadblocks in the form of authority figures or pseudo-authority figures telling me who they wanted me to be. No more. Not only has the #MeToo Movement empowered women in terms of reporting sexual harassment, we also get to be who we are without having to put up with patronizing and condescending behavior. I don’t have to tolerate or ignore it anymore.

Restarting Gasp, for me, is an act of faith. Whether or not I find a community of like-minded folks or swim in this sea alone, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that I want to do is be true to myself and my work.

It’s going to take a while to find my legs with this version. I will post updates on Twitter once I feel like I’m in a groove. But if you are out there and have stumbled upon this entry, welcome.