I’ve been thinking a lot about the successful artist* narrative. It goes a bit like this: X was working a 9-5 and was unhappy so they cashed out their 401k and moved to New York. They then went to NYU (or had already gone there) and met Y who helped them get their first show. And that was just the beginning of a long, successful career. Now X is on Broadway! X sold a TV show! X wrote a movie. Look at what happens when you take a leap of faith…
I wish there was more nuance to these stories. Is the takeaway that we should all quit our jobs and move to New York? What about those of us that have and it still didn’t work out? I keep quitting jobs thinking “this time will be the last time.” I’ve taken so many leaps of faith at this point that I don’t think I’m on solid ground anymore; I’m just perpetually falling. All of the “big” things that were supposedly going to kick off my career and change my life forever….kind of didn’t. About six months after taking a leap of faith I usually have to get a day job again. And then about a year after getting that job, I end up quitting to take yet another leap.
My story is simple and all over this blog. The hero’s journey version: Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with theatre. I thought it was for white people. And even though in high school, I usually wrote the play for the spring show, I didn’t think I’d ever be a playwright. I didn’t think that was a job. I wanted to be a lawyer. I went to Notre Dame to be a lawyer, haaated it, and had to change course. I landed on film major with a minor in Italian but had to take a “fine arts” class so I took script analysis.
And it felt like my life took a course correction. That class literally changed me. I didn’t realize plays could do that.I switched my major to theatre, added on gender studies, kept the Italian minor all in my junior year and somehow still graduated on time with a horrible GPA. At this point, I wanted to be a literary manager or artistic director, still not a playwright.
(I did take a playwriting class twice in college. The first one I walked away thinking I’d rather be a lighting designer. The second one had magic in it. I think four of us from that class are working playwrights with a couple of awards under our names. That class was taught by Anne and I sometimes wonder if she knew then how influential that class would be.)
I moved to Arkansas for a stage management internship. It was a big move and I didn’t really know a ton of people. I was lonely and isolated. My boss/mentor suggested I join the playwrights’ workshop which I thought was kind of weird but I couldn’t find a poetry workshop at the time. I joined the workshop and liked it a lot. I got to read plays and it encouraged me to keep writing plays. They suggested I apply to grad school. I thought “sure why not.” I only applied to U of Arkansas and Brown. Didn’t get into Brown so to U of A I went.
Grad school kind of broke me a bit. And I won’t get into that too much but it did light a fire under me about teaching and being an artistic director all over again. Not so much playwriting. I took graduate English classes to get a break from theatre and started my own company where I, with little to no help, produced festivals and workshops. I refused to include any of my own plays in these festivals.
Then my play got accepted to KCACTF but not the MFA Playwright’s workshop. Some playwrights went to bat for me and I ended up going to the workshop as a stage manager. This pretty much cemented for me that I was not a playwright. Came back that summer and wrote Breathe Me In as a goodbye letter to theatre.
Meanwhile, post grad schoool, I was working as an adjunct making $14k/year. Then as a company manager making $28k. Then as a production manager making $30k. Then a bunch of company manager/artist services jobs making $35k. Then teaching for $40k. I kept quitting these jobs thinking I’d gotten the thing that’ll launch my career. And they were
(1) Had a sold-out show at Capital Fringe that went to the Kennedy Center and packed the house
(2) Had my first world premiere of Well-Intentioned White People
(3) Readings all over the country
(4) Had 3 productions in one year lined up — then 2020 happened
(5) Started my own company only producing my plays but I got burned out quickly and got tired of people telling me I wasn’t famous or important enough to do that
(6) Won some awards, made some lists
(7) Staffed on a TV show
But after all of these amazing things, which don’t get me wrong I’m super thankful for, none of them meant I could stop having day jobs. Not for a substantial amount of time. Money would run out (and I mean run out) and I’d have to get another job to keep me afloat. I’d have to answer why I quit so many jobs before and I couldn’t exactly say “because ultimately this is just a right-now thing until the next false hope opportunity comes along” so I’d have to come up with reasons on why, as my dad puts it, I can’t hold a job. And coming up with a reason felt like picking a random card out of the most random deck.
It’s all bullshit. I can’t keep a day job because I don’t want one. But my bills don’t care about what I want.
I wish it was as simple as cashing out a 401k. And maybe for those who are great, it is that simple and I’m just not great. Maybe at some point, I’ll accept that. But even so, there should be more than one story. I don’t know if I’m a playwright. I’m not really sure what that means anymore. I haven’t written a full-length play in over 6 months and no one’s asked me to either. I’ve written pilots no one wants to read but that’s a whole other blog post.
To sum it up, whether I’m a playwright or not, there should be more than one “this is how you do it” story out there. I have friends who have totally walked away from the 9-5 and making freelance work and I’m so excited for and proud of them. I tried that and I was working myself to death. It wasn’t for me. But I do know I will take another leap of faith if another big thing comes my way.
And maybe I’m just falling but I don’t know how to be happy on solid ground anyway. Instead of saying playwriting is taking one big chance on yourself, maybe we should instead say it’s taking a lot of big chances, all the time.
*There are a few. I’m speaking specifically of artists who do not come from money and do not have spouses supporting them. For the millionth time, there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re all handed different cards.