In the days of development ramping up to the world premiere of Louis Slotin Sonata in Los Angeles, I once spent a week in a Hollywood apartment in which the same three inches of scummy water never drained from the bottom of the bathtub. As for the New York premiere of my play Tuesday, even though I had attended early rehearsals and had high hopes, I wound up falling asleep during an actual performance, thereby poisoning forever my relationship with that theatre company and its artistic director. I once sent my most obscure and arcane play The Septarchy to an even more obscure little company in Louisville, Kentucky on the recommendation of a gorgeous stage manager running a Twilight Zone I was acting in at Theater Schmeater. Unaccountably, they produced the play and staged one of the best versions of “The New You Boat”—the quantum particle-crewed, Schrödinger’s Box-based mini-submarine play-within-the-play— that I have ever seen. And I’ve seen them all. That is my shameful little secret. I have seen every full production of every full-length play I have ever written.
If you don’t know already, I am obliged to inform you that, among my fellow American dramatists, this fact identifies me as an abject amateur. Playwrights of a certain caliber simply do not attend every production of their plays. Worse than being impossible it would be unthinkable. It would be tacky, pedestrian. One’s ideal play distribution process goes like this: workshop in Manhattan, and ideally premiere there. Less preferably, emulate that sequence at one of the regional big houses scattered throughout the nation. After a respectable world premiere production (thought don’t even get me started on the esoterica of what constitutes a “world premiere” and how many times an unprincipled playwright can apply that term to the very same play). Finally, trickle the play down through the theatrical food chain, to smaller and smaller houses, not unlike a wholesale supply network.
Needless to say, I don’t do it that way.
While I make more money in a year from theatre than most union card-carrying actors, I will not shrink from being called an amateur, if that is the appellation that seeing every one of my plays earns me. For one, it’s just way too much fun. Even if the production is less than inspiring, going to some new town and partying with perfect strangers who treat me like a cast-mate merely because I wrote the show is arguably the best thing about being a living playwright. (The very best perks, of course, are reserved for the dead.) How else would I know that Louisville has one of the most beautiful graveyards in the nation? Or that Los Angeles, surprisingly, has some of the best breakfast spots. (I wouldn’t have guessed they even ate breakfast in LA.)
(Let’s take a break for a moment and enjoy Gary' Smoot’s 15 minute mash-up illustration for this installation.) (As Gary happily pointed out when he sent this to me, the above crowd would actually represent a pretty good selling night for a lot of my plays.)
I part ways with my colleagues who seek to distribute their plays like wholesale book-sellers. It’s boring. It’s corporate. And, heck, let’s face it: our dying art form, absurdly or not, is starting to look like a lot better bet than the book business. Besides, our nation’s best work has come from amateurs. Our Founding Fathers, for instance, found the notion of professional politicians anathematic. Our best soldiers have always been citizen-soldiers. And give me any day the amateurs Thoreau and Whitman over the professional philosopher Rand and pro poet Pound. Plus, despite all I’ve said, who says a professional playwright can’t see every production of his plays? I suspect Shakespeare saw every one of his before finally leaving London for good.
The day may come when I will not be able to attend a particular production of one of my plays. The coming of that day may mean I have finally become a fully professional playwright.
You know what?
I can wait.