The Story of Project 1968 and an Announcement

Project 1968 by Laura Axelrod

I am finally getting around to updating my site. On the Media page, you will now find a full interview with me about Project 1968, a blog docu-novel I wrote some years back. Even though I took the site down, people still mention this story every now and then.

Like much of the writing I’ve done, Project 1968 started as a full-length play. I spent a year at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, researching 1968 – specifically the Democratic Convention. I also traveled to Chicago and researched it at the Chicago Historical Society and the National Archives at Chicago. My work was quite extensive. I must’ve photographed tens of thousands of documents and collected numerous out-of-print books.

The play, which was then called “War is Kind: The 1968 Democratic Convention,” followed three young women as they experienced 1968. It got one reading at Austin Script Works in 2005. I kept sending it out after that. Several agents looked at it. One was quite impressed but basically told me that I wasn’t in the pipeline so there wasn’t much she could do.

It was all very, very depressing back then. I definitely had the feeling I was writing something special and that it didn’t matter. Looking back, I think three young women experiencing 1968, written by a female playwright, was a bit of hard sell for gatekeepers in theater. But it was also capped by the deep sense that if only I were someone else, then those gatekeepers would be more open to my work. So there was an element of shame as well.

Knowing how theater was a dead-end, in 2008 I moved the story out of that form and created something new. I called it a blog docu-novel. Basically, it was a daily blog written in the voices of two of the three characters. They talked about what they saw, how they felt and things they learned. It was a challenge. One of the characters, Janine, traveled with the McCarthy campaign, so I included details about the places she went, TV shows she watched and the weather. Those details came from newspapers published in 1968.

On the site, I included interviews with people and news summaries. I also tried to review some books published in that era about the topics I was tackling: racism, sexism, poverty and the peace movement. As I worked out the story publicly in this new form, the characters and stories grew. So in a way, it all worked out. I wanted the opportunity to develop this story in theater. That couldn’t happen. So moving it to another form became a new way for me to work.

One of the strangest things about Project 1968 was the reaction once I moved it out of theater. We wrote press releases for it, but everyone knows press releases are often ignored. In this case, people were genuinely interested in what I was doing and how I was doing it. It was such a visceral shift. I was so invisible in theater but once I moved my work out of that world, people saw me. They read my writing and took it seriously.

So I’m pleased to tell you that for my book series, I’m going to expand Project 1968. As I told the interviewer, we are going to follow these characters and their families throughout history, all the way to the present time. I’ve been planning this series since 2010. It’s an expansive, sometimes overwhelming project. But since it includes most of what I’ve written for theater from 1992 to the present, much of my work is already done.

A few other notes: The title, War is Kind, came from the poem by Stephen Crane. The submission draft of the play I wrote was a bit unwieldy and complicated, which is why I needed readings so I could develop, simplify and sharpen it. Lastly, if you ever run into a roadblock like I did, remember you’re a creative being. Use your creativity to turn your perceived weaknesses into strengths.

More on Sexual Harassment in Theater

Back in 2017, I casually mentioned on Facebook that I experienced sexual harassment in theater. In response, someone asked me if I ever wrote about it. 

Yes, I responded. I wrote an essay for publication addressing the topic years earlier.

I thought I wrote it in 2014 but it was 2012. A few days ago, I reposted the essay to this site. You can find it in the journalism section.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this subject. Since this blog serves as documentation for my work, as well as insight into the decisions I make, it’s important to acknowledge these experiences and how they’ve affected my writing. 

I had a lot of chances to think about sexism and sexual harassment in theater after writing the last entry. I love theater. I always have and always will. Playwriting is the form of writing I’m most comfortable with. I see stories on the stage. It’s how my mind works, and it’s been that way since I was a kid.

But at this late date, I’ve also reconciled that sexism and sexual harassment have taken a toll. I haven’t disclosed all of my experiences, and I can’t imagine I ever will. 

I haven’t felt safe in theater for a very, very long time. I’ve had panic attacks, intense shame, and a desire to make myself smaller and smaller and smaller so I could feel safe. I’ve spent years trying to figure this out. It’s one of the reasons I kept going to acting classes, even though they were so far away. I thought I could heal this thing and it hasn’t budged.

One of the other reasons I kept going back to theater is that I continuously thought they’d change. It makes sense, right? They talk about social justice. They’ve branded themselves as being some kind of moral consciousness for society. They write impressive essays about social justice in industry publications. They are evolved, aware people, but not really. They’re just like everybody else and maybe it was my fault for thinking differently.

After posting the last entry, my mind drifted back in time. I was about 20 or 21 years old when I was newly hired to work stage crew and saw my trainer get sexually assaulted backstage. In the published essay, I focused on my experience. I, too, was assaulted but not by the same person. 

Although we complained, the production stage manager didn’t fire the men who did it to us. She – yes, the stage manager was a woman – didn’t believe me. And my trainer? The man who forcefully groped her backstage in front of everyone got off with a warning. The next show, he came back and frightened us. 

It seemed like the stage manager’s main goal was to preserve the status quo, even if it was dangerous to the younger and least powerful in the crew.

I’m not going to provide more details because it involves another woman and what happened to her. The last entry I wrote, watching other women get hurt, kicked the memory and feelings up again. And if I were totally honest and authentic within myself, I’d admit that each time I experienced denigrating, demeaning comments and behavior in theater, this stuff percolated up.

Can I really do my best work in this kind of environment? I’ve asked myself that for years and the answer is no. There’s a part of myself that will always be on guard, always waiting for the next shoe to drop when dealing with theater. And, to be honest, I haven’t done my best work. 

As I am now getting ready for a milestone birthday this year, it’s time for me to do my best work.

It will be strange for me not to worry about sexism and sexual harassment in theater. But I can’t fix it – I never could, though I tried. I wrote a lot about it in various forums and ways. I don’t think it was a waste of time. It’s taught me compassion for other people. And, once again, I don’t think you can see other people’s pain until you acknowledge your own. 

One last thing. Whenever I’ve written in authenticity and honesty, there’s always a theater bro out there to characterize it as “painful.” No, my dude. This is not painful. The pain is in the past. As I turn my head to look forward, all I see is freedom.

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 Black Women. 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.

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.