Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On Beginnings: Trust and Patience

A few weeks ago, I learned that I will be the next artist-in-residence at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. It's a two-year gig, that pays quite well ($10K/year) as these things go. My task is to explore this historic and beautiful place, where 98,000 people are buried with their stories, and create and produce new, site-specific theatrical work to be staged at Mt. Auburn.

I'm the third artist-in-residence, being preceded by filmmaker/multi-media artist Roberto Mighty and composer Mary Bichner. In doing preliminary research for the project, I've had a chance to explore some of the work they created at and for Mt. Auburn--Roberto Mighty's project Earth.Sky  and Mary Bichner's Spring & Autumn Suites. Talk about setting a high bar.  Sublimely beautiful work that meshes so well with the atmosphere and landscape of the site.

Beginning a project like this is an interesting exercise, because it requires both great eagerness and great patience.  An eagerness to dive in and explore is required, but it's just as important to have the patience to hold back on committing to any one structure or story or set of characters. I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I don’t want to go in with too many preconceived notions right now. I need to read and listen and watch, and let the place and the stories of the place wash over me.

Equally important is trust, both in my experience and whatever talent I have. I have to trust that what I find interesting enough to explore and express will find a form that is useful and suitable and beautiful, not just for myself but also for the audience.  If I start thinking too early about how to make it good, or what will the audience think, I’ll crash the car. Sure, I want whatever I make to be excellent and impressive, and better than anything I’ve ever done before. But thinking about that too early in the process introduces the judge and editor to the seedling of an idea, and they will surely stunt it.

I’m getting a sense of the scope of what I’ve taken on, and it’s scary and awesome. And feels more like an honor to have been selected than ever. Doing my best means approaching the project mindfully and with energy and commitment. The rest will follow.

I think both patience and trust are possible only because I've been gaining experience with commissions and site specific work over the past few years. My work with the Bostonian Society on Blood on the Snow, and with the MIT Museum on Both/And were both situations where the initial approach wasn't necessarily obvious, and both required a lot of research on my own, as well as research that was guided by experts. At Mt. Auburn, their staff can help guide me in my explorations and I certainly won't be shy about asking questions.

So if you're looking for me over the next six months or more, you might want to look at Mt. Auburn Cemetery--I'll be wandering and looking and reading and listening and thinking. Which feels like a pretty great job.

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.