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.