But now until forever love, I’ll live to dance with you.
I’m thinking about breaking up with theatre. I’ve been thinking about it since before the pandemic, to be honest. And I guess, to be specific, I am thinking about breaking up with white American theatre.
Like a lot of playwrights right now, I am working HARD to get in a writer’s room for TV. Unlike a lot of playwrights I know, I’ve always been adamant that I did not want to write for TV. I had this sort of fantasy that I’d be fully immersed in theatre. In my mind, I would teach playwriting and theatre history at Northwestern, while also being the AD of my own theatre company, while also working as a freelance playwright with companies all over the country. I wanted theatre 24/7.
When I fall in love with something (or someone), I’m all in. Always. You get my time, my attention, my care. I remember taking Script Analysis and reading Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill. I liked the play so much that without knowing much about Churchill, I bought all of her published plays. I have an addictive-type personality. I fully invest, for better or worse.
And for a while, it felt like theatre loved me back. When I was taking script analysis, I was hanging out in the common area with some theatre majors and saying out loud, very casually, that I’d like to get more into theatre. And then someone goes “As You Like It is looking for a ASM if you want to do that.” And I said yes, even though I had no idea what “ASM” stood for. Then, while I was taking stage management, another classmate said she was directing a play and asked if I could SM. I remember laughing thinking “But I’m still in the intro class.” Didn’t matter. Next thing I knew, I was SM-ing the show. A 13-character show.
My whole theatre career kind of went like this. I stumbled into something and theatre was like “gotcha!” and it all somehow in the end worked out.
But now it’s been 11 years. Over a decade of dedication. Since graduating college, I have not had a job that wasn’t at the very least theatre-adjacent. Not once. Even now as I say I’m “unemployed”, I am working with five different companies right now for playwriting, I’m the AD of my own company, and the Exec Director of Page by Page. I don’t have a free 120 min block until Thanksgiving (outside of the times of 11 pm – 10 am).
And that’s great. But the pandemic has me looking at theatre differently.
When the pandemic hit, it really felt like a time where theatre would really take a closer look at their abusive and problematic practices…
NOPE. They all released these thorough Black Lives Matter statements and started contracting people of color but did nothing to fix the culture that made POC not want to work there in the first place.
One of the glaring examples of this to me is the Artistic Director-Director-Playwright relationship*. A Black playwright writes a play with Black characters. The white AD loves the play and wants to do the show. The Black playwright says it has to have a Black director and the white AD agrees. So, in the development process, in the room, all Black folx work collaboratively to edit the play, to get the play to best possible place where it feels genuine. Then the AD, who hasn’t been in the room, swoops in and mandates changes that water down the message of the play to make it more palatable to their white audience.
Then, the critics (who are also white) come and destroy the play in the reviews.
Of course the other option is to say no, burn that bridge, and now suddenly there’s a network of theatres who are calling you difficult. It’s a rigged system and it’s rigged against Black and Indigenous playwrights.
Another problem: the nonprofit structure.
The board wants to run theatre like a corporation. The artists on staff want to run it like a collective. There’s an immediate clash. And instead of finding a middle ground, instead we just stifle the artists and tell them that this is the only way it can work. So what ends up happening is artists who want to work collectively end up working in a highly competitive rank-driven environment and everyone is trying to fight for independence and their power so they take whatever power they can find and lord it over whoever they deem as below them. When, really, we should all be working together.
It’s a nightmare.
Then there’s the worst offense: Playwrights are expected to “lead the way” in the pandemic for how theatre can operate digitally but no one is listening to us or paying us fairly. We’re getting more commissions (which is great) but are being constricted into parameters that don’t fit. Write a play that can be performed live if we’re back but also it needs to work for a digital platform but it also can’t drag with a lot of dialogue because that doesn’t really work but it can’t be just monologues because that’s boring. And it needs to be written for Zoom but we’re using this other software and you also need to write
I joke that I got into sewing so I could stab something while looking someone in the eye in a way that was socially appropriate.
I cannot tell you how often on these phones calls I am stabbing fabric and trying really hard not to scream as loudly as I can.
Let us write plays! Let it be okay that it’s virtual and let it be an actual workshop opportunity instead of something you just slap on your website for 3 weeks so you can show your donors you’re still creating theatre. That’s not fair to the playwrights or the directors or the actors.
Or, if you want us to write movies, then pay us more. Because that’s a completely different medium and a completely different way of thinking about it.
So why TV now? Because theatre isn’t really giving me a choice. If I’m going to write TV shows either way, I might as well be doing it intentionally.
And lately, I’ve been thinking if I do get into a TV room, I may not come back to playwriting. Not for a while, I think. I’m tired of playwrights being an afterthought while we’re simultaneously expected to save the art form. It’s a bummer because I have given my whole life to theatre. Aside from poverty, constant rejection, and the ever so often reminder that I’m “nothing special”, I’m not sure what theatre has given me back.
*I’ve been lucky that so far this year, I have not had to deal with this to an excessive extent. But that’s mostly because I’m making myself hyper aware of when I’m making edits and why. And pushing back more. And getting called “hard to work with” a lot more. Oh, also, I just started producing my own work.