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.