Not much new to report this week, Constant Reader. There rarely is in January, even in the best of times, and we are clearly not living in the best of times. With much of New York’s independent theater scene still dark, without many productions on the horizon to audition for, and with long-range playwriting submission opportunities still unclear, I am at least blessedly free from distractions. I’m still working on a rough draft for a February submission; what I thought was a February 1st deadline turns out to be February 28 instead, so I have a whole additional month in which to work on the script. In which to pound my head on my desk in frustration. In which to slave away over a few sentences a night, only to delete my work the next work. In which to wallow in doubt and wonder if the product of all this work is any good at all.
In talking with my fellow playwrights, we’re all feeling the same frustrations. We wrestle with our doubts even in the best of times, and as I mentioned above, these are not the best of times. We worry if our work measures up both to our own standards – which at least we know and can define for ourselves – and those of the anonymous gatekeepers we’re constantly trying to second-guess. Thanks to the pandemic, and the loss of theatrical productions it’s caused, we’re more aware of those hurdles than ever, and more anxious than ever to be rid of those hurdles somehow. Time and again, in our conversations, I keep hearing my fellow playwrights express the same utopian thought – of a world, of a theater company, where gatekeeping didn’t happen at all. Where theaters took a chance on a writer because they knew what that writer was capable, and gave them all the resources they needed, regardless of their level of fame, regardless of box office vagaries. To use the wishful phrase I hear time and time again, a place “where we have the freedom to suck.”
And I understand this – we need laboratory spaces, we need to write without fear of judgment, we need to experiment. And often those experiments will fail. So the writer in me hears this and exclaims, “right on! Preach it!”
But the actor in me listens to this and goes, “what the hell?”
Because there’s few things worse for an actor than being in a play they don’t believe in, being in a show that’s not “working,” putting themselves out on the line in the service of a script that doesn’t resonate. You’re looking to say something as a performer, to use the playwright’s words as a springboard for your own soul to take flight, and if the playwright hasn’t built that springboard for you, you won’t get off the ground. At best, you’ll flail about in an entertaining fashion.
Is this a fair thing for a writer to take into account? I absolutely think it is, because theater is a collaborative art form. Everything you write is intended for other people to say, hopefully eight times a week. And for them to say it to throngs of other people, come to hear a story that might illuminate their lives and the world around them. There’s definitely moments in your life when you need to scribble out “I don’t know what the heck to say but I’m still important, darn it.” We’ve all been there. But our collaborators aren’t there to give us that validation.
They’re there to do their jobs, not ours.
(Feel free to use that sentence as a guide for delineating “there,” “they’re,” and “their,” by the way.)
I don’t mean to sound as harsh as this might come across; again, we’re not living in the best of things, and we could all use a little encouragement. But we’ve been cooped up in our apartments by ourselves for a long while now, and writers are solitary creatures anyway. It takes more of a leap of faith than ever to believe that collaborators and an audience are out there, somewhere. But they are, and believe it or not, they need us. And they need us at our best.
We won’t reach our best without failing along the way, of course. But to the extent that it’s possible, out of respect for those collaborators, we need to try and fail on our own time, not theirs. Our freedom to suck shouldn’t come at the expense of their freedom to soar.