Saturday, November 11, 2017

Things I Didn't Expect When I Was Starting Out: You Can't Remember Everything

When you’re a new playwright, the struggle is all very much in the here and now. How do I write this play right now? Where do I send it right now? How can I manage this development process and production as it’s happening. Which is all very important.

What was impossible for me to see when I was just beginning is that all of this activity and writing and thinking adds up over time. I couldn't really comprehend that it would take me thousands of submissions, of dozens and dozens of different plays, to start to build a career that has any sort of momentum.  Though even now, I view any momentum with great suspicion, knowing that the doldrums, a full blown dry spell, might be right around the corner.

It also didn’t occur to me that my resume would eventually fill up the page, and as the years moved forward, I would have to leave stuff off. Productions that I loved, with great pride, would slowly drift off the list of my most recent work. Because I wasn’t in academia, I wasn’t initially in the habit of keeping a running list, a vita, of everything I had done. And why would I? It’s all so fresh.
Except that it turns out that it’s hard to remember every production and every cast member, or exact opening date over 20 years, 30 years.  (My first play, The Elevator, was produced 30 years ago, in 1987, by the Pendragon Theatre, in Saranac Lake, New York. But I'd have to dig deep to find the date.)

So a bit of unsolicited advice. Keep a running file on your computer, a vita, if you will, of every project you do, every award, every reading. You will rarely be asked for it, unless you’re applying for academic positions. But when your list of productions moves from a handful to hundreds, its going to be hard to remember the specifics. Though I’ve kept an extensive Microsoft Access database of where I’ve submitted my work over the past many years, with all kinds of fun reports and stats available, I have realized that I need to expand that database now, to keep track of specific details, all in one place, of all the productions and readings I’ve had. So I’m going to need to dig through the emails and my big file cabinets, and start a new section.

I actually have a massive Excel spreadsheet that keeps track of numbers of productions and money and attendance each yet, but it doesn't track names, or casts, or opening dates. And the whole thing is unwieldy.

Things you might want to track on your spreadsheet or database:
  • Name of play
  • Theatre Company Name
  • Venue (not always the same)
  • Dates: opening and closing.
  • Number of performances.
  • How much you got paid.
  • Attendance.
  • Director name and contact info.
  • Producer name.
  • Cast.
  • Stage Manager.
  • Designers.
  • Website/links to photos and reviews.

It’s going to take a lot of digging. Which will be fun, but also a lot of work. I’m grateful for each and every one of those productions, and for all the friends I’ve made along the way, and the audiences, and the inspirational collaborators. Now I just need to gather all those names and dates into one place.
You could do this in an Excel Spreadsheet. I like the Access Database, because I can hook up my productions with submissions info, and generate interesting reports and data. Because I'm a number geek.

Which you might already do.  But just in case you don’t, it’s never too early to start.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The 2017 Blood on the Snow run is over


Daniel Berger-Jones as Colonel Dalrymple, Bill Mootos as Royall Tyler, and Lewis Wheeler as Samuel Dexter in Blood on the Snow. Photo by Nile Scot Shots

The 2017 production of Blood on the Snow at the Old State House in Boston is finally over. This is the longest any of my shows has ever run, and that's not even counting the initial 4-week run last year. For the second time, we basically sold out the entire run, which was very exciting. It's a small house (56 seats), which makes for an intimate, immersive theatrical experience. We had more than 3,000 audience members over the course of the run. (Interesting stat--22% of the first year's audience returned to see the show a second time this season.)

Most of our cast returned for the second run, and we were very fortunate to pick up extremely talented replacements and understudies. Our production team of producer/museum liaison Peter Meacham, stage manager Jeremiah Mullane, and director Courtney O'Connor managed a complex casting calendar--with a cast of 10 over 12 weeks, with various scheduled absences--and kept the show running at a high level, seamlessly for the entire run.

I still have a lot to process from the whole experience (and will write about it eventually), but one of the more interesting aspects of such a long run was watching the performances deepen and mature over time. This is a play set in 1770, in a Boston that had a population of only 15,000 and everyone knew everyone. Especially the men in this room. After 3 months of a run (and for some of the actors, 2 years of performing together), there were glances and gestures between these people that really felt like they'd known each other for a long time. The level of detail of performance just kept getting richer and richer, with each passing week.

I'm already missing the cast and crew for this show. It's common to experience a bit of post-partum depression at the end of a run, and this project is one that I'd been working on since 2013. (I'm doing carpentry on my house to keep me from moping around too much.) There's a strong chance that the show will come back again, and I've always got new projects coming up. This production will always be close to my heart.

 In case you want to hear a bit about the show, here's a video of me and Nat Sheidley (Executive Director of the Bostonian Society) at History Camp Boston this spring, talking about the 2016 production.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Design Meeting at Seven Devils

One of the great parts of the Seven Devils script development process is the design meeting. I got to spend part of an afternoon meeting with design fellow Sabrina Reed, my director Christy Montour-Larson, dramaturg Gay Smith, and Seven Devils artistic director, Jeni Mahoney, talking about the physical world of my play, Drift, and how it might be realized on stage. I talked about where the play came from, and about farming, and they asked all kinds of questions about colors and texture, and realism v. non-reality, my best imagined production and my worst.

It's a helpful way to remind a writer who's been living in his head for a while about some of the physical and visual possibilities of the staging of this piece, as it all starts to feel more real. And in the ends, we had a cool drawing of how one designer might set the play.
A rendering of a set design by Seven Devils Design Fellow, Sabrina Reed

Great experience at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference

Table work on Drift. Photo by Maggie Rosenthal
I'm finally getting a chance to catch my breath a little, after an extremely busy start to the year. It was all capped off with a 17-day stay at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in McCall, Idaho, where I workshopped my play, Drift.  I'd had the good fortune to be selected to work on my play, Flight, back in 2011, but had to leave after only a few days, due to a death in our family.  I'd been working and hoping to get back to McCall ever since.
Sheila McDevitt in the reading of Drift. PHoto by Sarah Jessup.
Jonathan Bangs in Drift. Photo by Sarah Jessup
Mirirai Sithole in Drift. Photo by Sarah Jessup.
Danette Baker in Drift. Photo by Sarah Jessup.
It's a gorgeous place, and the first week I was there, I spent every possible moment working on the play with my director, Christy Montour Larson, dramaturg Gay Smith, stage manager Dana Reiland, and our fabulous cast of Sheila McDevitt, Mirirai Sithole, Jonathan Bangs, and Danette Baker.  I'd get up early and write, then rehearse all day, then come back and write some more. On Saturday night, we had a fully staged reading for a sold-out house. And the audiences there, after 17 seasons of the conference, are very smart and sophisticated when it comes to discussing new plays.

For the second week, I helped dramaturg a new play by Dayna Smith, which had a sit-down reading as part of its development. And I got to see readings of all the other plays by my fellow writers, attend a writer's workshop from Elaine Romero, and go to a bunch of other fun events. And spend some time at the Burgdorf hot springs (super rustic, super relaxing) chilling out after a long week.

Seven Devils is the kind of experience that I'd want to give to every playwright at some point in their career. There's an entire artistic community that forms with an intense focus on helping the playwrights explore, change, and refine their scripts. And they've also engaged the greater community--so local businesses donate space and material and money to help make it all work. Local residents help provide housing for almost 50 visiting artists who are coming in from all across the country.

I stayed in a cozy apartment above a garage about five miles out of McCall, surrounded by miles of pastureland, ringed by snow tinged mountains. It's hard to imagine a more perfect spot to work on this particular play.

Now I'm back to my regular life. Excited to see my family, settling into summer . Working on a new play, with Blood on the Snow still running at the Old State House, and Both/And still at the MIT Museum.

But behind it all, I've still got the afterglow my time at Seven Devils. I made solid strides on Drift, and I got to work with some really great people. I hope to work with them again, and to find a way to get back to McCall someday. We'll see what the future holds for Drift.
Seven Devils 2017! photo by Sarah Jessup

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Busy May/June

May is a super busy month for my work.  Here are the events and shows happening around the country. I hope you can check some of them out.  (Please e-mail me if you do, or if you see me, come say Hello.)
  • Stop Rain, a short play, was produced at Actors Workshop in Ithaca, NY, on May 3.
  • My short play, Spitting Image was at Payson High School in Payson, AZ, on May 4.
  • My short play, The Discovery, was produced at the Bethune School, in Bethune, CO, on May 5.
  • My short play, Pumpkin Patch, was produced at the Henry W. Grady High School, in Atlanta, May 5-6.
  • My one-minute play, Polaroids, will be in the Gi60 International Play Festival on May 13, at the University of Leeds, 7:30 p.m.
  • My short play Eden in Chains will be in the Boston Theater Marathon on May 14 at the Calderwood Pavilion Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. This event features 50 ten-minute plays by New England playwrights, from noon until 10 p.m. (My show is in the 9 o’clock hour.) Plus the event supports the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund!
  • On Tuesday, May 16, at 7 p.m., Porter Square Books will host the official launch for
    StageSource’s New England New Play Anthology, a fantastic collection that I edited, by some of New England’s best playwrights. We’ll have actors read from scenes from the plays.
  • On Thursday, May 18, at 6:30 p.m. I’ll be part of the Four Stories reading series at the Middle East Restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge. Actor Marc Pierre will read from my novel, Steering to Freedom, about Civil War hero Robert Smalls.
  • My one-act about quantum entanglement, Both/And, continues to run at the MIT Museum. This month it will play on May 20, 21, 29 at 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
  • My one-act, The Next Big Thing, will be at St. Anne’s School of Annapolis, in Maryland, May 24.
  • On Tuesday, May 25, at 6 p.m., I will be giving a talk with Stephen H. Case at the New England Historic Genealogical Society about Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy Shippen and their plot to betray America during the Revolutionary War. We’ll have actors read scenes from a screenplay that I’ve written based on Stephen’s book, Treacherous Beauty.
  • And at the end of the month (June 1, actually), Blood on the Snow will return to the Old State House for a 12-week run. Last year the show sold out very fast–this year there will be plenty of chances to see this site-specific play about the day after the 1770 Boston Massacre. (But don’t wait to get your tickets.)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The New England New Play Anthology is now published!

After a very long time, and a lot of work and support, all across the Boston and New England theater community, StageSource and the New Play Alliance have finally published the New England New Play Anthology!

I'm so proud to share these fabulous plays with the rest of the world. Our authors are:
Walt McGough, Melinda Lopez, Marisa Smith, Kirsten Greenidge, Johnny Kuntz, Steven Barkhimer, MJ Halberstadt, and John Minigan.

Special thanks are due to Laura Neill, Julie Hennrikus, Emma B Putnam, Brian Michael Balduzzi, Haley Fluke, Ty Furman, Alicia Bettano, Daniel Begin, Clare Lockhart, Jake Catsaros (who designed the fabulous cover), Naomi Ibasitas, Mary Frances Nosser, Michaela Tucci, Juliet Bowler, Steven Bergman, Ellen Davis Sullivan, Amy Merrill, Lisa Rafferty, Stefanie Cloutier, and Karla Sorenson, Ilana Brownstein, Charles Haugland, Jessie Baxter, and many more.

I hope you'll buy a copy (via StageSource, but bookstores and Amazon also have it), not just to support new plays in New England, but to read these fantastic scripts by some of New England's most talented playwrights.
http://bit.ly/NPAbook

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Binge Tidal Wave: Submission Binge #30 Survey

Image result for abacus

The Playwright Submission Binge, an online community dedicated to helping playwrights market their work that I started 15 years ago, just finished our 30th "Binge." For each Binge, we take up the challenge of trying to send out a submission a day, every day, for 30 days. After each submission, member are encourage to post to the group what they sent, where, and why (and often share the contact info for the opportunity in question).
 
It's an amazingly positive and supportive group, that now functions year-round as a source information and support. Many of us have become friends, outside the list. Our membership has continued to grow, and our list now has more than 950 playwrights from around the world. Not all of them are active, and not all of them post, but during the binge we had more than 50 different writers post to the group. It's hard to know how many people are actively reading the list and submitting on their own.

Back in 2011 (when the group has only 640 members), we conducted a survey, to see what sort of impact the group was having on its members and on the rest of the theater world. Despite its size, our group seems to operate a little under the radar--I run into playwrights all the time who haven't heard of the Binge. But I guarantee you that when a submission opportunity gets posted to our list, the company receives a solid wave of submissions. If a company posts a call for scripts that feels abusive to playwrights, they will also get strongly worded e-mails from our members with suggestions on how to improve.

I figured it was time to do another survey, and see what the impact is like these days. In some ways, with sites like NYCPlaywrights.org and Playwright Submission Helper, it may be that the notion of a binge of submissions isn't as necessary for some writers. For my own marketing, the Binge helps me get super focused and make marketing a priority at least two months of every year.  (Binges happen in March and September.)
 
For the survey of Binge #30, 90 writers responded. Those writers sent out 1,765 submissions (down from the totals of the Binge #19 respondents), or an average of almost 20 submissions per writer for the month of March. More than 97% of these playwrights have already been produced (93% have been paid for their work), and more than 60% have received productions as a result of past Binge submissions.  More than half of the respondents were women.

All of which continues to make me feel like our group is having an impact on both the writers involved and on the companies to whom they are submitting.  There's some potentially interesting data here, and I might start conducting these surveys after every binge.  (I'm guessing there's a difference between Spring and Fall binges.) 

I'm still considering possible trends. From 2011, the percentage of writers who have been produced and paid has risen. The number of writers actively posting to our group has declined. Two data points don't really give enough information to identify trends more strongly.

I'll post all the data below. Please comment and let me know your thoughts or questions.
 

2017 Binge #30 Survey Results:  (percentages based on people who answered question)
(I am including 2011 percentages in parentheses, for comparison.)

Number of  Writers Who Completed Survey: 90 
Total number of scripts and queries submitted during Binge #30 (by these 90 writers): 1,765
238 queries, 1,527 complete scripts
(In 2011, 74 people responded, with a total of 2,270 submission)

How many years have you Binged? 
First time.  12.5%   (15.1% in 2011 survey)
1-2 years   22.7%    (26.0%)
3-4 years   28.4%   (24.7%)
5-6 years    11.7%   (19.2%)
7-8 years   11.7%    (4.1% )
9-+ years   13.6%    (10.9% )


Has your work ever been produced? 
Yes  97.7%  (94.4% in 2011 survey)
No   2.3%   (5.6%)

Has your work ever been published? 
Yes  72.2%  (69.9%)
No   27.8%  (30.1%)

Has your work ever received a reading? 
Yes  100% (97.3%)
No   0%  (2.7%)

Have you ever been paid for any of the readings/productions/publications of your work? 
Yes  93.3%   (87.8%)
No   6.7%    (12.2%) 

Have you ever received a reading, production, or publication as a result of a Binge submission?
Reading    51.1%    (54.1%) 
Production  61.1%  (67.6%)
Publication  21.1% (21.6%) 
Not yet    27.8%     (27.0%) 

How often do you post to the Binge list?
Often    15.7%  (23.0%)
A couple times each Binge  15.7%   (27.0%)
A couple times a year  20.2%  (14.9%)
Rarely  31.5%   (23.0%)
Never  16.9%  (12.2%) 

Are you male or female? 
Male  43.3%  (39.2%)
Female   56.7%  (60.8%)
Non-Binary Gender  0%    (These two options were added very late, and were not present in 2011.)
Prefer not to answer 0%