Coming into 2019, I had 1 thing: an amazing commission. And I am so grateful for that. But having just one thing really, really messed me up. Because of my other playwright friends were like “2019 is gonna be my year” or “Wait until you hear what I’m up to in 2019.”
Well. Since January 1, literally just since then, I have (1) a nomination for a playwriting award, (2) a semi-finalist for a prestigious opportunity, (3) invited to a new play fest I never, ever thought I’d be invited to, (4) a reading in a new city in the south, a region I’m trying to break into, (5) not playwriting but an opportunity to be AD of a company I love and (6) TWO more commissions.
A friend of mine told me once that I was unaware of my power. That I didn’t understand how much I pulled people in or (something I didn’t buy into a while) how much I scared people.
Not scared them in a dangerous way. She told me I challenged people to genuine and if they weren’t I had no patience for it and that for a lot of people that can be scary.
She also told me that whether or not it’s true I come off as a very confident and capable person. And for people who aren’t, it’s challenging. Outside looking in, I’m (apparently) a force to be reckoned with.
Truth is, I don’t see myself that way at all. I am incredibly insecure. I hide behind my intelligence and charm.
Just like everyone else.
Plus, whenever we talk about playwrights, we often talk about how they have the least amount of power in the room. I have had friends (good friends!) tell me to my face that they changed dialogue or cut moments from published plays while they were directing. I have had directors ask me “but is that really necessary?” because they didn’t like a character choice. (That comes up a lot when I say “not white.” They’re often like “but why” and then turn around and claim they care about diversity.) I hear a lot about how “[changing or cutting dialogue] doesn’t really matter.”
And it takes everything in me not to start yelling at the top of my lungs. Playwriting isn’t screenwriting. Imagine if a bookstore ripped out pages of a book because it didn’t “vibe” with their store. That’s what you’re doing when you decide to edit a play without the playwright’s permission. Yet, it happens all the time.
As a playwright, we’re told to just be happy we’re being produced at all. No one tells us anything about even having power much less how to wield it.
So where does that leave us?
I recently realized I had been short-changing myself. I’m not the kind of person who likes to flaunt her accomplishments (not that there’s anything wrong that. IF YOU GOT IT, FLAUNT IT). My only reason for not is I don’t like to be the center of the attention and I was taught from birth to hide my strengths and surprise people later on.
I don’t know if anyone else did this. But I had to for survival reasons. Back in high school, I played dumb and used to beg the principal not to announce that I was on the honor roll. I remember when she did anyway a lot of my friends were like “wait, you’re smart?” I’ve carried this with me my whole life. I’m both a POC and a woman. It was safer for me to let people assume what they wanted and then use my real gifts only if I had to. If people think you’re dumb, they let their guard down. If people think you have no ambition, they trust you more.
Problem is, as good as I was at hiding it, I was never that good. It seeped out of me. You could just sense it from me.
Plus after a while, pretending to be dumber than I was got exhausting. So even though I still to this day dumb myself down, I don’t dumb myself down that much. I usually figure out how smart my supervisors are and make sure I don’t seem smarter than them. And even that doesn’t work every time.
I’m going on this long aside to essentially say I know how to hold my power inside. I don’t know how to use it. Until recently, I wasn’t even aware of it. And I’m getting to a point in my career where I may need to start using it.
Also, I’d like to clarify by “power,” I don’t mean power over other people. To me, when people say “you don’t know how much power you have” what they mean is “you don’t know your worth.” Just in a prettier package.
And…I don’t. I’m in a weird place where I’m still emerging (do we ever stop emerging) but I have solid contacts now. There was an opportunity I got recently that I would’ve killed for three years ago but now, when it was offered to me, I literally thought “Do I really want to do this? Is it worth it?” I actually had to take a minute to think about it.
How’d I get here? What exactly is my worth? I’m not famous yet (obviously) but I keep reaching out to literary managers who say they know my work already. So I have some name recognition.
But is that power? Knowing my name and wanting to produce me isn’t the same thing. But I am getting paid to write plays (which is amazing). But obviously not paid enough to quit my day job. Not recognizable enough to get a university gig. I can’t even get an interview. So…is it even measurable at this point?
And I look around and maybe I’m just surrounded by incredibly successful people because it feels like I’m playing catch up.
But is some of that because I can’t see my own successes? Because I can’t see who feels like they’re trying to catch up to me?
I think about this a lot. I have a friend who is KILLING it right now. But she’s hyper-focused on financial success which isn’t really feasible in her field. But also, money is important. What good is success if you can’t pay your bills? If you have to overdraft to get groceries? I’m not saying this is her situation but it’s definitely the situation of a lot of artists. (It’s definitely my situation most of the time.)
How can feel powerful if you’re literally poor as f*ck?
We talk a lot about being a “good egg.” About turning things on time. About making sure to be kind to the staffs at theatre companies. About not being too controlling about our work. (All things I agree with)
But I think it’s also time to start wielding our power. To start knowing our worth. Not every connection is a good one. If an artistic director is shitty to you, know your worth and walk away. If a designer ignores something massive in your script, call them out. Of course, this is within reason. I still believe theatre should be collaborative. And I think it works best when everyone is working together.
I just think that we, playwrights, need to remember that we are the architects. We made the ground plans. And without us, there would be nothing to collaborate on.
And there’s a lot of power in that alone.