Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Juggler Interviews, #8: Donna Hoke

Donna is a fellow member of the Playwright Submission Binge, the big online community dedicated to marketing for playwrights that I started about ten years ago.  In addition to being a playwright, she also edits and writes for magazines and newspapers, creates crossword puzzles, oh, and also happens to be a single mom of two sets of twins.  If that doesn't qualify her as an extreme juggler, I don't know what does.  She took a few minutes to answer questions on how she does it.

Okay, you’re a single mom with four kids, and you’re writing plays, magazine articles, a children’s book, crossword puzzles.  How do you find the time to get any writing done?   (Or get anything done.)

My girls are 17 and my boys are 11 (two sets of twins), so obviously getting things done is a little easier now than it was when they were younger, but this season, I'm juggling three baseball teams, so very often it's not by much! In my old house, my desk was in the playroom; in this house, my office is often where everybody ends up even though it's the smallest room in the house. When they were younger, and I needed a couple of hours, I'd send them to clean their room because I knew they'd get caught up in something and, thinking they were supposed to be cleaning, not come back for a while. When they were younger still, I sometimes had an interview scheduled and would have to stick them in their cribs for thirty minutes so I knew they'd be safe while I was on the phone. I really hated that.

Having twins did make it easier in some ways because they always had someone to play with, so it wasn't always "Mom, come play Barbies." Still, I've been on my own with them since they were three and eight, and it's forever been a case of squeezing work in between the cracks, which has included some pretty late hours, a lot of sacrificed time, and a lot of guilt. I don't recommend it as a way to work, but I was always here, and I hope that there's something to be said for quantity time over quality time. (I worry that they'll ultimately remember me as "that woman behind the desk"!) I do try to make sure we always sit down to dinner together and, that when things are slow, I give the time to them. I schedule time with them, too, actually put it on the calendar, so I know we'll do it. And I have a self-imposed rule to not be out more than two nights unless absolutely necessary. One saving grace is that they think the things I do are cool, and have told me they're proud of me. That helps.

So on top of all this, I started writing plays four years ago! Since I don't really make any money at it, people always ask why and, especially how. Why? Because it was a writing outlet I needed to have after years of writing magazine articles. I'd tried short stories, and I dabble in poetry, but after writing my first scene, I knew this was it. And how? Whenever I can. Because of my lifestyle, my writing is a lot of percolating and note taking and then, when I can find a few quiet hours, I turn those things into pages. Years of practice writing on deadline is helpful then.    

It seems like you’re working on a lot of things at once.  Do you find that you work on one project until it’s at a good stopping point, and then move to the next, or are you able to move back and forth fairly fluidly?

It's all ongoing. At any given time, I might have editorial planning (I'm the editor of four local semi-annual magazines), assigning, editing, proofreading, writing, a crossword assignment, and a play in the works. In fact, right now is one of those times! I prioritize everything according to deadline and, every day, I have a list that I do my best to work through. I live by that list. If my kids need me to do things, they know how to get them done: put them on the list. When there is no paid work that needs to be done on a given day, I do playwriting. That's the best way I can find to balance it.

I’m intrigued by your work with crosswords.  How long does it take to construct one?  Do you find that it helps your other writing?  I would think the mental nimbleness would actually be helpful for both writing both plays and articles.

How long it takes depends on the size: the bigger it is, the longer it takes. And if a theme for a larger puzzle is particularly complicated, it can take a very long time. I think making crosswords makes me better at doing crosswords but I'm not sure it helps with writing, at least not in any quantifiable way. Ironically, I never did them before I made them, but now I enjoy them very much. I got into making them through a combination of ignorance and audacity, but it's been a fun ride. When I set up my website, I added custom crosswords and I've been surprised by the response. I've recently made gift puzzles for a Washington Post columnist and a Texas state senator. It's fun working with the clients because they're so excited that they have thought of this perfect gift; they really get into working on it with me. And when I've had puzzles in the New York Times, it's fun to know that Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton are doing them.

Donna's also written a children's book.

How did you get into writing magazine and newspaper articles?  I’ve often thought about doing it, to make some extra money, but it seems very hard to break into.  Have you been doing it long enough that you have relationships with editors, so they come to you, or are you constantly writing proposals for more articles?

I went to school for Speech Pathology and Audiology; I loved the subject matter and did well with it, but it became painfully clear to everyone once I began working in schools that it wasn't for me. I graduated with a BS, then stayed on another year taking 21 credits of English a semester to get a BA. After I got the BA, I moved to the New York city area and applied for magazine jobs. I worked for seven years full-time, freelancing even as I did for former employers and as the Entertainment Editor for Silent News, the newspaper for deaf readers (a great way to combine my degrees). When my daughters were born prematurely and I'd used all my leave for bedrest, I opted to stay home. When a couple of calls started coming in, I realized I didn't have to go back to full-time work. Without that full-time experience, though, I don't know that I'd have been able to succeed as a freelancer. It helps enormously to know how the whole thing works, to gain experience being edited, etc. It also helps you make contacts; I still get work from editors I worked with in my very first job. I think I've been able to maintain it for so long because I rarely say no to an assignment (you never know where it might lead), and I never miss a deadline. You wouldn't believe how many writers think deadlines are suggestions.

Parker Morrison, Amber Scott and Justin Hambey rehearse Write This Way at Santa Ana's Theatre Out

When did you start writing plays?  What drew you to theatre after working in other forms for so long?  (It certainly wasn’t for the money.)

I've always loved theater, though living in New Jersey with young children, I didn't get to as much as I would have liked. When I moved to Buffalo in 2004, there was so much theater and it was so accessible. I immediately got a subscription to Road Less Traveled Theater because I liked their dual mission: to bring younger people into theater and to showcase local playwrights. RLTT had a new play workshop and, back in 2004, it had few members and it seemed they produced nearly everything that came out of it. At some point, I thought, "I should try this." So I wrote my first play, COCKEYED TODAY, and applied for and got into the 2009 workshop.

That year, it had really taken off and had ten playwrights; at the same time, RLTT adjusted its mission so that were not doing only local playwrights. This was a good thing, because it raised the bar for everything they did.  I loved the workshop and the playwright community, and I learned so much. The following year, I submitted another play, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR; RLTT opened their season with it in 2010, and the play become their second highest-grossing play in their eight-year history, and the highest-grossing world premiere. That gave me a little more confidence, so I started sending out my work. I've had quite a few nibbles and readings on COUPLE, but no second production yet, and my short plays have been produced in cities across the country, and also in Seoul and Manchester.


The Buffalo theater community has been very good to me. I've had or will have work produced in four theaters here, and read in a fifth. And last month, I became an ensemble playwright at RLTT, which is an honor because I really believe in this company. I love that I can be so active locally because it's very hard for me to do the physical networking that seems to be necessary to get things done. Maybe someday when my kids are grown, I can go to conferences more easily or, with any luck, a residency. I have eight years to get to that point so it's a goal.

As for the scene for new plays, it's pretty incredible; we're able to support a pretty large playwriting community here. In November, I wrote a blog post for 2amt, and I counted that up to that early point in the season, we'd already seen productions of thirteen new plays in Buffalo. Nobody realizes what a vibrant and active theater community we have here, the second largest in the state outside of New York, with twenty-plus professional or semi-professional theater companies and the second largest free outdoor Shakespeare festival in the country, second only to NYC. I'm starting to sound like a commercial, so I'll share this video for anybody who really wants to know more: 

But in short, I'm a fan of and an ambassador for all we do here. In fact, I should also mention that this past Sunday, for the first time, the Dramatists Guild came to run a town hall meeting here for our playwrights and named me their newest regional rep. It's exciting for us that we're being noticed, and they seemed impressed with the opportunity here.

You’re offering a free online play workshop—what’s that all about?  How does it work?

Essentially, I thought I would be a liaison for playwrights who want feedback on their plays from other playwrights. If you give me your name, I put you on a list. If you read somebody's play and offer quality feedback, you earn a credit which you can then use to have a play of yours read. It's very informal, and is just another tool that playwrights can use when they're developing plays.    

What’s coming up for you, in terms of new plays being produced or developed, or articles and books?    

I'm currently co-curating a play festival for Buffalo United Artists called BUA Takes Ten: GLBT short plays, and I'll also have a play in it, as well as in Subversive Shorts in June. Road Less Traveled will premiere my play, SEEDS, in March 2013, and I am developing FLOWERS IN THE DESERT in the current workshop. I've also got short plays coming up in Montana, California, Washington. Magazine-wise, I'm always either assigning, editing, proofing, writing, or closing one. I just did a profile of A.R. Gurney, who will visit Buffalo in May as Road Less Traveled's American Theater Master; it's fun when I can combine interests that way. And I'm marketing my kids' book, Neko and the Twiggets ( a family of mice who live in a an orchestra member's double bass-- to orchestra gift shops across the country.

Any tips for writers who are also parents on how to balance writing and family?
I think being organized helps tremendously, but you know, it's like when people ask me, "How do you manage two sets of twins?" I don't know any different, and I just do it. I know that's not very helpful!

That's the way it works, though isn't it?  Thanks for taking the time, Donna!

You can learn more about Donna's work at her website: