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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.