Friday, January 14, 2011

My List of Outrageous Demands (and it can be yours, too)

When I was starting out my fellowship with the Huntington Theatre last year, Todd London's Outrageous Fortune had just come out, and we were all giving it some thought.   I was curious about to the obvious disconnect mentioned between artistic staff and playwrights, and also the perceived (by artistic staff) gap between playwrights and audience.  At one of our meetings, I showed up with my list of "outrageous demands" of things that I thought the theatre could do for us playwrights, as part of our program. 

It's actually a list that could be used by any theater thinking more about how to work with playwrights and get them more intimately involved with their company, without breaking the bank.

Here's a slightly modified version of my list (which was actually handwritten on the back of my invoice for my copy of Outragegous Fortune):

  1. I want our meetings to be in the theatre spaces.  Artistic directors often complain that writers don't write for their spaces, especially companies with really big spaces.  Being in an empty theatre inspires me, whether it's standing on someone else's set or (even better) on the blank stage.  It is hard to write for the big stage in an 800-seat house, if I've never had the chance to stroll around on it.
  2. Quick feedback.  One of the most frustrating parts about being a playwright is waiting forever to hear back from theatres about scripts.  If a theatre has an in-house group of writers, trying to respond to new drafts/submissions within a few weeks is a big boon that the artistic staff can provide. 
  3. Ability to see shows for free.  More than once.  The Huntington already gives free opening night tickets to all the HPF fellows, which I think is amazing.  Most theatres paper the house for press openings anyway, so giving tickets to their core writers doesn't change that balance.  And it's a huge bonus for the writers--I can't afford to see nearly as much theatre as I'd like.  Getting to attend multiple times (I'm happy to stand in the back), is an important addition.  The first time I watch a show, I'm busy taking it all in, focusing on my own experience.  The second or third time, I'm able to be more critical, and I get to watch the audience.  In Outrageous Fortune, some artistic directors complained that playwrights don't know the theatre's audience.  I am very interested in audiences, and I want to watch them watching plays.  (To be honest, my schedule this year has been overly full, so I haven't gotten to do this yet, but the Huntington has been more than willing to let me come back to see shows for multiple viewings.)
  4. Meet the artistic director and managing director, for more than just a handshake and a ten-second chat at a show.  One thing theatres can provide for playwrights is real, honest access to the people who run the place.  I'm not talking about weekly pow-wows, but even just an hour, once a year, of a one-on-one meeting, or even a meeting with the writers' group as a whole.  For large institutions, this is tougher than it sounds, but it's an important meeting to make happen.
  5. Let me sit in on some rehearsals.  Ideally some very early in the process, and some late in the process.  I don't want to get in the way, and I don't want to interrupt the most intimate discussions between directors and actors/designers/playwrights.  But, to be honest, I mostly operate at the very tiny theatre scale.  I know how those meetings and rehearsals work, but I don't have experience at the big budget venues.  Large and mid-size theatres have an opportunity to educate playwrights (like me) about how the process works on a larger scale.  I'm very good at sitting in the background and keeping my mouth shut when I need to.  (Honest.)  I'm extremely curious about how other artists collaborate--I want to learn from what they do to improve my own process and collaboration.
  6. Let me meet some directors brought in to direct shows.  (Sort of like #4 above.)  Various directors come in from out of town to work on shows at large and medium regional theatres.  Try to set aside just an hour for a quick beer between the director and the playwrights' group.  The director is already in town, so it doesn't cost anything extra.  I'll even buy the beer.  Yeah, yeah, I know the woman is scheduled every second.  Half an hour.  These kinds of connections/meetings can be extremely valuable, and are a way of leveraging work that theatre has already undertaken in order to have a greater impact, beyond just the show at hand.  (I promise not to come with a theatre in my backpack.)
  7. Let me attend talkback sessions after the show, even if I'm not there to see the performance that night.  (This is super easy to do at the Huntington.)  Again, like seeing the show multiple times, this is a way for writers to get to know the audience.  I want to hear their voices and comments.

That's about it.  Notice that I didn't say: produce more work by emerging playwrights, or more work by me.   I didn't even ask for more readings of my plays.  (Not that I don't want those things.) 

Any theatre, small, medium, or large, could put together a playwrights' unit and provide them with the things on this list for an extremely low cost, and doing so would help their local writers build important relationships and enable them to be more likely to write plays suitable for the theatre in question (theoretically).

As I said in a previous post--it never hurts to ask.  Let's start issuing this list of outrageous demands to as many theatres as we dare.


Robert Boulrice said...

Patrick- as co-curator of Central Sq. Theatre's PlayPen, I believe our writer's group may have more check marks next to your seven than many. And I would enjoy an opportunity to discuss your suggestions with you at a bar or some other fitting locale. To turn a phrase from the New Yorker, Artistic directors, playwrights and theater staff lead complicated lives. It can therefore be difficult to get them into the same room at the same time. Much less on the same page. Decision making rarely occurs on a time frame playwrights prefer. Nevertheless, decisions do occur. Your list is a wonderful outline for how these decisions might be more easily made. Thanks.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Robert, thanks for the comment. I think PlayPen is doing a lot of good things (and would love to get together to talk more about it). I think we need more theatres to make a commitment like CST is making (and we need to find a way to fully fund these programs).