Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Shifting the Goal Posts for my Writing (redefining success, or giving up?)

Daniel Berger Jones and Dale Place in Blood on the Snow
My first one-act play, The Elevator, was produced in 1987, when I was still in college. I wrote my first novel, Tornado Siren, while my daughter was a pre-schooler. She's in graduate school now. So I guess we can say that I've been at this for while. I've written about 20 full-length plays, another 60+ short plays and one-acts, plus screenplays, radio plays, and four novels.

And they have reached audiences. The plays have been performed for well over 120,000 people (more than 10,000 this year alone), in more than 14 countries, while the books have had a much smaller impact--slightly more than 1,500 readers.

I earn a very modest amount of money from my writing (mostly from plays). Prior to 2016, I'd never made more than $10,000 in a year. The past three years saw a jump to over $20K annually, but this year I'll just break $17K (that's all gross, not net). 

So in many ways, my writing career feels like a mix of success and failure. I've written some high quality work and engaged thousands of audience members with the characters and stories I've created. But I'm a 52-year-old man who's been writing for 30 years and am still struggling to have my writing contribute $1,000 a month to my family. I'm a long way from "making a living" as a writer, if making a living means financially helping feed and house my family.

In terms of major theatrical benchmarks, my career is seriously lacking. I've never had a play on Broadway or Off Broadway. (My work isn't well-suited to big Broadway spaces, so that's probably a stupid marker anyway). I've never had a play produced by a large regional theatre (LORT), despite having that on my target list for many years. I've had the good fortune to have my work developed by Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, which is certainly an impressive LORT company, but I haven't made it into their season yet. That's the closest I've gotten. 

Even at the mid-size Equity level in Boston and beyond, my work remains unproduced. Nearly all of my productions have come from small, scrappy theatres, across the U.S., and especially in Boston. But not at companies large enough to introduce me and my work to the higher levels of the theatrical ecosystem. There are other playwrights in Boston whose work has reached that level (and they're all friends of mine)--Kirsten Greenidge, Melinda Lopez, David Valdes, Lila Rose Kaplan, Ronan Noone--mine has not.

A few obvious questions arise:
  • After trying to reach this level of success for 30 years, is it time to give up? 
  • Have I failed to achieve a meaningful career as a playwright? (Certainly this is true of my career as a novelist.) 
  • Am I not a good enough writer? 
  • Is my work just not interesting to larger venues?
  • Is the market not interested in my voice right now? Will it ever be?

Do I need to redefine what constitutes success for me and my writing?
(and if I do, is that just giving up and calling it by another name?)

Cerulean Blue at Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2019
Here's the thing: I think I've already been doing it.

In 2013, I was hired to write and help produce a site-specific play called Blood on the Snow for the Old State House Museum. After a few years of raising money, it was produced in 2016 to critical acclaim and a month of sold-out houses. We brought it back in 2017 for a sold-out 12-week run. It reached thousands of people, in a deep way. The museum still gets calls every week asking when the show will return.

This was my first full-length full Equity production, ever. And it was kind of self-produced. I was intensely embarrassed by never having had one before this. That lack of a full Equity production, after so many years, made me feel like a fraud.

I started writing site-specific plays in Denver in the '90s, and now that it was happening again, I rediscovered how much I LOVE writing this kind of work. Enough to start my own theatre company, Plays in Place, to make it easier for historic sites and museums to commission me to create the work.

This past year, I produced two more Equity productions at Mount Auburn Cemetery, The Nature Plays and The America Plays, as part of my two-year stint as artist-in-residence. Audiences were completely engaged and enthralled. I loved the entire experience of it. 

This was the first time I'd ever served as producer for a full-length Equity production. I did it twice this year. I'll keep on doing it.

Stephen Sampson and Marge Dunn in Cato & Dolly
Another commissioned Plays in Place production, Cato & Dolly, returned  this summer for a second run at Boston's Old State House, for an 8-week run (7 days a week, 3 shows a day) that reached more than 4,000 audience members over 160 performances.

What surprises me is how completely satisfying the experience has been. The writing challenge of each site and project is completely different. I'm working with top-notch actors, who have been enthusiastic partners in the process. I've formed a strong artistic relationship with director Courtney O'Connor, who has directed Blood on the Snow, Cato & Dolly, and the Mount Auburn Plays. I'm learning intense amounts about history, nature, and theatre. I'm getting paid. I'm creating theatrical experiences where we bring in all kinds of new audiences, not just traditional theatre-goers, and we're really getting to know them. I've developed writing and producing skills for this kind of work that feel meaningful. I'm providing paid employment for dozens of Boston-area theatre artists.

I want to do as much of this work as I possibly can. Blood on the Snow will return in 2020, and I have a new project coming for Mount Auburn Cemetery. I'm currently in talks with a dozen different museums and historic sites. 

It feels awfully good.

Mathew Ryan and Ken Baltin in Man of Vision at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Which, if you're a writer, you know also feels suspicious. Because so much of our existence is trying to reach these goalposts and never quite getting there, or else trying for the next marker. We are taught, through our culture, that feeling satisfaction is deadly--we need to be working ourselves to death, and we need to keep shooting for something higher up the theatrical food chain.

I'm not sure I care about that stuff anymore. Sure, I'd like my other plays to be produced at larger venues. And it'd be nice for my work to impact the national theatrical zeitgeist. I've spent a LOT of years chasing those things, and helping other people chase those goals, too--through my work publishing Market InSight for Playwrights and then creating and managing The Playwright Submission Binge (an online community of more than 1,000 playwrights that focuses on marketing and submitting scripts).

But instead of submitting scripts to more and more theatres week after week, I craft proposals to museums, trying to convince them to commission me for a new project. My theatre company is an odd entity that only works in partnership with other institutions--museums and historic sites, not other theatres. Instead of going to theatre confabs, I'm more likely to attend a museum conference.

This drifting away from goals I've set for so many years feels unsettling. I'm not even sure they ever made sense for me to have as goals, but they seemed like the highest, most important targets out there. And it felt like what playwrights were supposed to want.

I will keep sending scripts to calls for submissions, because stopping feels like I'd be abandoning those plays, and I do still believe in them. But I won't submit as often. I'm not sure I believe in the hamster wheel of submission/play development/sparse productions that I've been on for so long. Getting off makes me feel a little dizzy.

Perhaps reaching middle age has allowed me to take a step back and realize that satisfaction isn't as deadly as I feared. Creating strong plays that fully engage audiences, in collaboration with other talented artists might be what I've been after this whole time. Now that I'm here, I'd better pay attention and make the most out of the opportunity I've been given. And savor it.

That might not be giving up after all.

Amanda Collins and Robert Najarian in The America Plays


Unknown said...

A great article, Patrick, and as usual you inspire the reader. Years ago, at the Last Frontier Conference, an Australian playwright suggested that neglected playwrights look into what he called "boutique" theatre--actually he called it "BO-dik"(Australian, y'know). I think this is what you have found as your new home. Finely crafted, one-of-a-kind creations for a special place and discerning audience.

Unknown said...

Enjoyed reading this. I'm about the same age with about the same level of "success," however you want to define it. I live by the credo attributed to Jonathan Winters: "If your ship doesn't come in, swim out to it." In the past year, I've had plays done at restaurants, legal conferences, nature preserves, nursing homes, and, yes, a theatre or two. I am involved with two growing theatre companies and one local -- and I find a lot of satisfaction helping others develop their work and create opportunities. (I've also started to add to my income by being a dramaturg.) I have also benefited from and found opportunities through the Playwright Binge, and I appreciate all that others have given me (and when I say "others," that's a big attribution to you, Patrick), which keeps me mindful to give to others. After all, we work in a collaborative art. As I get older, I try to find success in ways that our personal. Am I giving of myself - in terms of time, spirit and authenticity. Sure, it's nice and wonderfully gratifying to get a significant production, and I keep plugging away to make that happen. Meanwhile, I find joy in the process, in single lines of dialogue, of picking up one of my plays I hadn't considered in a while and think "I really enjoyed writing this, and I'm really enjoying reading this. " Be well. Thanks for sharing. I consider you an important, and perhaps, unsung part of our community.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks so much to you both. I agree that finding these small opportunities to craft material has been a fascinating and productive new world. I love that quote from Jonathan Winters!

Unknown said...

I'm glad you're opening up this can of worms. I'm 56, a writer with a mixed bag of accomplishments. As a marketing writer, I've done OK; I'm no Seth Goden, but I've written Writing Copy for Dummies and I make a decent living. As a fiction writer...as a fiction writer, "success" remains the most fictional part of my work. I've published a handful of short stories in periodicals sustained by the parents and grandparents of the people who get published in them, and one novel that got slammed by Kirkus and PW -- and subsequently evaporated into obscurity.

But you know something? I've wanted to be a writer since I was fourteen. And that's the problem. In what other aspect of my life would I allow an adolescent boy to make my adult decisions? None.

The light at the end of the tunnel is the headlamp of the locomotive, Time. And that's really ok, because I think it's time for me to take on some adult ambitions. As in: how can I make myself useful to others? What do I know or do that would add to the public good?

I don't have the answers, but I suspect I'm beginning to ask the right questions.

Also, I have an idea I want to discuss: I'd like to collaborate on a musical about civil governance. Not a spoof, not a parody -- an educational, explicitly pedagogical tool for teaching people (through entertainment) how town government works. What's a "town meeting"? Why do I need a variance for home addition? How are zoning regulations made, enforced, and revised? Etc.

Anonymous said...

Dear Patrick, thank you so much for writing this! I too have been feeling very frustrated lately even with lots of near-misses and positive rejections and a few opportunities (like recent readings in well respected places) this playwriting gig is really not happening for me, and I need to figure out what to do instead. My knuckles are getting bloody from knocking on so many doors. So what to do is the next big question. I am glad you have answered yours. I am deep in thought over how to move on. I am sure there are many options.

Patrick Gabridge said...

(You're all posting anonymously! I so much want to respond to you personally.)

A musical about civil governance sounds pretty cool (it certainly worked for Schoolhouse Rocks). I think if you found the right county or state, you might be able to drum up some good financing for it.

I do think when we hit 50, suddenly these kinds of questions become inevitable--we know our time is getting shorter, fast.

DW Gregory said...

Patrick it sounds to me like you've found a very exciting niche -- you are doing theatre with real impact for very specific audiences. I think your theatre company sounds incredibly cool as did the America Plays.

Most of us struggle with this question of how to define success; it's a very tough business and we're not always in control -- some of it just boils down to dumb stupid luck sometimes. But you're making your own luck and that is truly inspirational.

Mel Nieves said...

Thank you Patrick for this article.

Christine Evans said...

Patrick, it was great to read this and I'm sure many, many of us relate to the questions. I really admire what you're doing - taking charge of your own creative path. (And yes, I think "success" defined vertically, is a chimera). The part that most chimed for me was reading "I LOVE doing this". That is surely the sweet spot--finding how to do what you love, with people that inspire you.

The times I've had absolute joy in the theater are when I'm working with a collaborator (or team) who really inspire me, making something on our own terms. (The money part doesn't seem to join up with that very often.)

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks, Mel!

And thanks, Christine. Yes, I think I'm constantly searching for that sweet spot, where the subject matter, collaborators, audience, and institutional/financial support all are in alignment. For various reasons (some within my control and some not), that's working out a lot more often in the site-specific world with museums and historic sites. And I do love it. (I'm a bit obsessed with this model.)

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Thank you for posting this. I think we're all chasing satisfying experiences.

joel said...

I don't have a coherent comment I dont think but thank you for posting this. I think we are all entitled to put our own goalposts where we want them, and that can be in different places at different times. I feel the same way about my fiction as you do about your plays to some extent - I have not reached the success that I wanted, and every day I feel differently about that and the modest successes I have had. (Plenty good enough? Worth zip? Well, what time is it?) At least we have put something out there, which most do not.

Bear Kosik said...

As someone who was rendered unemployable seven years ago and finally decided to turn to writing at the age of 53 as the only possible source of income from work, I would be out-of-my-mind thrilled to pull in $17-20k a year from my writing. The most I have made to date is $2400 in one year and that was from ghost writing that has dried up. Yet, I am a successful writer. I have had fourteen short pieces published by literary magazines and e-zines this year. I had seventeen last year. I had to turn down two festivals willing to include my plays this summer because I didn't have the resources to produce them. I was fortunate to be able to produce six plays in festivals in 2016-18. Now, I have a patron willing to put up the money for a three week run of one of my plays at The Players Theater in Manhattan in July 2020. My novels have gone nowhere despite good Kirkus reviews because I could never find anyone who took a free copy to keep their promise to write a review on Amazon. And I have won over fifteen laurels in screenplay and teleplay competitions. For me, the success comes from being acknowledged as a writer. That said, I have this enormous hole in my life from not being able to obtain a steady income from anything after working for 35 years. My writing is valued to the extent that it is accepted for publication or production. It has not replaced what I did before as a source of income. I am left dependent on my spouse for my basic needs. I do not have money of my own to spend other than from the generosity of relatives. If I was making the kind of money you are from writing, I never would have written an essay like this.

Patrick Gabridge said...

Thanks for writing, Bear. It's great that you're finding many venues for your work, and that you're finding steady production and publication. As you've seen from my post, I also depend on my spouse's job to meet the basic needs of our family (Boston is a very expensive place to live). I'm certainly very pleased to be earning the money that I am from writing right now, but the point of my essay is more that my focus is shifting away from goals about certain types of production (which is related to money, but far beyond that) that have become less important than reaching audiences in a new and more direct way, with different challenges.

Good luck with your run in NYC next July! I hope it's a smashing success.