Sending Plays and Sexism

Part of being authentic is being honest. That’s tough for me because I’m used to ignoring issues under the guise of “What’s the point? If I bring it up, no one is going to do anything anyway.” This has largely been my thought process regarding most aspects of theater, including sending plays to them.

It’s not fair to have those expectations, even if they are based on previous experiences. We live in different times. Behavior that was tolerated only a few years ago is no longer acceptable. I’m grateful for that.

The Issue

I’ll be honest here, as well as deliberately vague. The reason for that is I don’t want to start a thing. The thing happened years ago – seven to be exact – and I don’t feel like resurrecting it. But I want you to know what I learned from it.

The last time I sent out a full-length play was back in 2012 or so. The play was about Alabama, a topic I was well-acquainted with since I already had six years under my belt as an Alabamian. It was about my experiences here. It took some courage to send it out since I thought I had quit theater. The topics I addressed in the play were dicey and topical.

A member of an internet group posted a submission opportunity that he had organized himself. I emailed the play to him, with my standard cover letter. The accompanying letter summarized the story, and explained why I wrote it. Within minutes, I got a response from him saying that my facts were wrong. The email was snide, condescending and rude. 

As I read his email, I thought perhaps he misunderstood my cover letter. So I wrote him back, gently explaining it further. His response was abusive. It was as if he were deliberately misunderstanding what I wrote. He said he could correct my history because of what he read in a book. I wrote him back that I am married to the president of the local historical society who fact-checked my work. 

That didn’t seem to matter because he hadn’t read my work. His onslaught had to do with one sentence in my cover letter. That’s it. 

I withdrew the play and thought that was the end of it. Shaken, I commiserated with a group of women playwrights who were supportive and sympathetic. They helped me through the group admin’s gaslighting.

Let’s face it. Sending your play to a submission opportunity is not an open invitation to be abused.

The next day, I was stunned to see this man posted a note mocking me in the group. I knew why he did it. He wanted to start an Internet mob. Rather than reacting emotionally, I copied and pasted our email exchanges to the group so they could see what happened. Then I asked him why he took it to a group level. What purpose did it serve? 

Some people responded to me off-list to be supportive. Others tried to continue his line of abuse. The group admin responded publicly by chastising both of us: Him for being abusive and me for posting the email exchange in question. Futhermore, the admin also wrote me personally to say that I shouldn’t have responded because the man didn’t use my last name. Nobody would’ve known it was me.

But I would’ve known. It was a matter of self-respect. Why would I not defend myself publicly if someone were lying and bullying me publicly? I’ve done that before and it has diminished my self-esteem every single time. 

Finally, the group admin also reminded me that the group was supposed to be safe for everyone. Even at the time, I thought that was ironic. Clearly it wasn’t safe for me. I paused the group right away and kept it paused for the next seven years.

Defending Myself

My own life experiences have taught me that authorities don’t often come to my aid when it involves sexism. Theater has not been any different than real life. I’ve written about it before

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve remained in the periphery of playwriting. Sending plays out is a matter of trust and when that trust gets broken so dramatically, it can make someone pause. It’s the reason why I’ve got stories that are only now willing to share. I promised myself I would be authentic this time. Real. Honest. So here it is.

Back then, I made peace with the admin. Then I put my group membership on pause because this man’s bullying was treated the same way as me defending myself. I knew inside that I couldn’t depend on the admin. I knew that and it was proven. 

Again, it has been seven years now. I dove back into the group last fall and lurked a bit. I saw that man was still an active member, and it was a reminder of everything that happened. After a short time, I unfollowed the group. Or so I thought.

Trouble Today

A week ago, I had a group notification, which is weird since I had paused it. I viewed a few threads and saw that this man had once again started bullying women. This time, his conflict involved women of color. And again, people got hurt. I followed what happened, as an observer this time. I was happy to see the admin come down on him, but I also saw people attempt to excuse his behavior. Again.

What was really interesting to me is how people were concerned about his feelings. Yes, HIS feelings even though he was deliberately being hurtful. It makes me wonder how many people like me left because he attacked them. I’m also curious why the group admin allows this guy to use the group as a weapon to shame and humiliate women in theater.  

My Own Admission

What these experiences taught me in the past is that I had to put up with bad behavior. It was the price of being in theater. There were very few times I saw instigators corrected. Very, very few.

A couple of years ago, I took a hard look at all this. If I had to put up with inappropriate or hurtful behavior, then I wasn’t willing to “do theater.” It simply wasn’t worth it. Nothing is worth my self-respect. 

From what I’ve seen, these days people aren’t as tolerant as they used to be. Maybe. I’m still not sure. But I’m willing to take a risk again. We’ll see how it goes.

The Bottom Line

If they hadn’t given him a pass on his bullying seven years ago, then he wouldn’t have hurt people now. You might think excusing someone’s behavior is compassionate, but you’re wrong. Dealing with trouble today will prevent further and possibly bigger troubles down the road. The people who get bullied are the ones who leave. The bullies who get a pass end up staying. Then the toxic behavior continues.

Writing Books Versus Writing Plays

I’m going to do something really unusual for me. I’m going to be honest in a public forum. My topic: Books versus plays.

Authenticity is my New Year’s resolution and my rallying cry for this phase of my life. Part of authenticity is being honest. I’ve avoided it because I’m supposed to sound confident when I talk about writing or my work. That’s what people tell me. 

Here’s the deal: I spend a lot of time thinking about books versus plays. I imagine it comes from the theater blogging days, when venturing outside of theater was viewed as some kind of betrayal. You could ONLY be a playwright or “traitor!” 

It seems quaint now, doesn’t it? Playwrights are getting poached left and right from theater and now doing work in TV is viewed as a measure of success. Okay, poached may not be the right word but you get the idea.

The theater blogging days are long gone and a lot has happened since then. I’ve lived in rural Alabama for 13 years now. For the most part, I’ve done everything in my power to maintain a connection with theater. I’ve spent whole days driving the southeast to go to acting classes. I’ve written about theater and interviewed key figures. 

What I haven’t been honest about is how I’ve continued writing plays. The amount of stories I’ve written in Alabama is now in the double digits. As an added bonus, all the plays are connected. Think of a family saga with tangents or a newspaper article with sidebars. The point is that my work is now a series. You don’t need to read all the plays to understand what’s happening in one of them. But all the stories together mean something.

I’d love to keep trying to put these plays into theater. For years, I’ve been counseled to publish. When I pitched them to a publishing professional, she asked me why I was giving them away to theater. The question caught me off-guard because it implied that my work had value. That my stories were something to take seriously. With all the sexism I had to deal with, it was rare for me to feel as though people in theater thought my work had value. I have never felt heard there.

Then, of course, there’s the problem with the pipeline. The only time I think I was close to the pipeline was when I was graduating NYU. Then things happened. But I also wonder if my voice and my stories belong in theater. I’ve been called too intense. After my first play got produced, a gatekeeper said that the play should’ve never been seen in theater. It’s a pretty good bet that they considered it too violent. 

It’s funny because I developed Mercer Street with all of those criticisms in mind. There is no need for a fight coordinator because no bodies are injured. Violent things are discussed but there’s a moral and theme at the end. It’s not complete devastation for no good reason. And it happened. I wanted to tell a survivor’s story in a way that was not confessional. You can create art from complete catastrophic damage. But then, again, I wonder if theater is the place for those stories or my voice. 

Just as a footnote, it isn’t a question of whether or not I can write a play. Oh, I can and I do. The first act of Mercer Street is my Master’s thesis. For thirty years, I observed the following: As much as conventional wisdom says that writing for other forms is a kind of betrayal, people in theater will tell you that you are not really writing a play if it deals with themes and ideas they aren’t really willing to grapple with. 

I don’t know if theater has changed or how much it has evolved. I do know that I have plenty of pressure in my personal life because I’ve written a ton of stuff now and people who know those stories, and know my message, want others to know them as well. My heart belongs to theater. It always has and always will, as much as I get infuriated or saddened by it. But if I can’t be heard there, if I’m too far away from the pipeline, and if I’m too intense, then I can and will easily flip this work over to books.

Announcing my new play: Moving Off Mercer Street

I’m pleased to announce that my new play, Moving Off Mercer Street, is now available. I’m intensely proud of this project for a variety of reasons. It has a seven-actor cast with some doubling. Most of the roles are open to all genders, races and ethnicities. The leading role is for a woman in her early 20s. There are also four pivotal monologues in this play.

Here’s the synopsis:
Louisa Crane is trapped. What started out as a fun relationship has become abusive and violent. For months she has tried to get help from her therapist, friends and a manager at work but has been turned away or ignored. Now, after breaking up with her abusive boyfriend, he traps her at the apartment. Louisa knows he will murder her. He leaves to decide her fate. Just as she gives up hope, two strangers appear to help her make one last attempt to free herself. Where she winds up next is not where she expected. 

Sometimes people from the future come to help you when no one in the present will.

Moving Off Mercer Street deals with domestic violence, mental health. There is a content warning for suicide, sexual assault and violence. (The violence is not reenacted on stage, only discussed.) The set requirements are minimal since the story relies on the strength of the actors.

Contact me if you would like to get a copy or casting breakdown. You can also visit the New Play Exchange for more information about my work. Go to my About page for details about my previous experiences in theater and publishing.

I’m looking forward to writing more about the process of creating this play. It was, to say the least, unusual. I’m also working on continuing to update this site. Thanks for your patience.

My Vision of Dramaturgy

Recently, I took classes on dramaturgy. It surprised me. I had a really bad vision of dramaturgy from the 1990s. That’s when I heard about the Rent lawsuit and the Dramatists Guild’s statements about it. Because of that, my vision of dramaturgy involved dramaturgs being interlopers. They were people who theaters imposed on playwrights and who might even steal work or credit from them!

Not true. The classes opened my eyes to the benefits of dramaturgy. Not only that, but I honestly believe that if there was a dramaturg on some of my own productions, I would’ve been spared some awkward and painful experiences. And it got me thinking how I wouldn’t mind becoming more involved with dramaturgy.

The teacher asked us all to write a kind of mission statement as to how we would see ourselves as dramaturgs. This is a draft of my vision of dramaturgy. Obviously it will evolve with time.

Because I’m also a playwright, I am interested in preserving the intention of the script and empowering the playwright in the new play process. I am always shocked by how often theaters are changing words without the playwright’s permission or even subverting themes to serve the director’s vision. I’ve also attended several acting classes in various cities/states in this region where the director/teacher has told students playwrights don’t write their own stage directions in published scripts. On a personal note, I’ve had bad experiences getting my own plays produced, with directors shutting me out of the process, rather than viewing me as a resource. In this way, my role would be more as mediator/conflict resolution in the new play process between director and playwright.

I would like to bring voices from rural areas to the mainstream. Living off the beaten path has helped me realize that the cultural exchange between cities and rural areas has been one-sided. When I have made this observation before, many people jump to the conclusion that I’m talking about politics or conservative values. That is simply not true. I’m talking about what transcends all of that – what binds us together as human beings. I believe art from places that are usually unheard in theater will enlighten and inform people who live in cities. Many times you aren’t getting the full story if your primary information source is cable news.

I am excited by work that has requires attention to detail, such as documentary theater, verbatim theater or historical dramas. In particular, I would like to help provide context for the script – making the theater larger than the stage. Connecting these stories and helping people to “walk into” the experience is very exciting. 

Finally, I would like to bring a holistic approach to dramaturgy. I am still formulating how to do this, but being a certified meditation teacher has given me techniques that can help groups become more cohesive. 

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.