They tell you as an actor that as soon as you’ve left the audition room, you should forget about it and move on to the next thing. It makes sense; apart from ensuring that you approach each new audition and performance opportunity fresh, without any baggage, it does wonders for your mental health. So much so, in fact, that I’ve applied this advice to my life as a playwright as well. Once I’ve emailed a pdf, filled out a google form, or done whatever else I need to know to submit a piece, I tend to forget I’ve done so. It keeps me from wasting time wondering about the fate of such and such a piece, or what such and such a theater company might think of me, and lets me get on to the next project. It also means, of course, then I periodically get an unwelcome surprise in the form of a rejection email, from a company I’d forgotten I’d submitted to.
The rejection email I received this past week took the slightly unusual form not of telling me that I’d been rejected, but of announcing the winner of the competition and letting the reader deduce the rest. The American Blues Theater of Chicago announced that this year’s Blue Ink Award, the winner of their annual open submission competition, is Things With Friends by Kristoffer Diaz. Diaz is, of course, an accomplished and award-winning playwright who is probably best known for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a fantasia on race, class, and professional wrestling which was a 2010 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
It’s an honor losing to the guy.
Now, I want to be very clear what the purpose of this blog post is; this is not a helping of sour grapes on my part. American Blues Theater receives tons of submissions. They announced finalists and semifinalists along with Diaz; my play isn’t one of those, either. (I do have one friend who is a finalist this year, and I know two of this year’s semifinalists. Congratulations, guys!) So I do not believe, for a second, that I somehow missed out on anything here. Never in million years would I ask why Kristoffer Diaz, author of one of the absolute best pieces of theater I’ve ever seen, won an award instead of me.
No, my question is this – why on Earth does Kristoffer Frickin’ Diaz need to submit to competitions along with the rest of us?!
Remember, the Blue Ink Award invites open submissions of currently unpublished plays. How does a Pulitzer Prize finalist have unpublished plays? Why on earth wouldn’t there be an immediate publication offer for the latest offering of somebody who wrote one of the definitive plays of the last decade? How could the latest script from a writer of that echelon not already be optioned by producers?
I know the answer to that question, of course – the business of theater isn’t what it was decades ago, when major playwrights could have these sorts of guarantees. And it’s a far, far bigger problem than opportunities drying up all around, of (temporarily) minor playwrights like myself losing development opportunities to artists who, in other economic circumstances, wouldn’t need them. Because it’s not simply a question of economics, it’s a question of values.
As I mentioned, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity is one of the most thrilling, thought-provoking pieces of theatre I’ve seen. And there was a good run there, a little over a decade ago, when folks like Diaz, Robert Askins, Brandon Jenkins-Jennings were creating the most consistently outstanding work I’ve seen in my lifetime – I started playwriting around that time largely out of a fear of missing out. But in the years since, these pieces, while they haven’t exactly been ignored, haven’t had anywhere near the commercial success they could have had in another time. Their authors have gone to Netflix, and the theater audiences have retreated into jukebox musicals and other comfort food at precisely the moment where theatrical risk-taking is most needed. And as long as this is the case, as long as the mainstream audiences are ignoring the outstanding work produced by our major artists, then the rest of us have fewer opportunities to develop our own craft as a result. Isn’t there any way we can increase overall theatrical activity, and overall theatrical awareness, for everybody? For writers at all professional levels? So we don’t have to be in competition with each other in the first place?
That would be a far more welcome surprise.