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02/18/2010

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John Longenbaugh

Hey Paul:

I'll admit that I'm annoyed that Intiman, which has given short shrift to local casting and has shown no interest whatsoever in our playwrights for over a decade, is now patting themselves on the back for this "exciting premiere." My guess is that the playwright, who works in the admin offices at Intiman, was able to carve herself out a slot because Whoriskey's new to town and Bart isn't here.

Now, could the play be amazing? You bet. Does it matter that it was chosen via interoffice politics that seem more like what goes on in a fringe company than a major Equity house? Probably not--plays, including very good plays, are chosen for all sorts of dumb and superficial reasons.

BUT--if this one crashes and burns, the result will be precisely what the staff at the big houses keep telling us: "well, we tried that one play by a Seattle playwright, but it didn't do well at all. Our audiences just didn't respond to it."

Ask Elizabeth Heffron about "New Patagonia" at The Rep sometime if you want to hear another test case outlined.

But then again, maybe I'm just feeling what most Seattle playwrights might feel about Intiman premiering a work by a neophyte writer who just happened to be Bart's personal assistant for years: "when I said more plays by Seattle playwrights, I didn't mean THAT Seattle playwright! I meant someone like me or my friends!"

Paul Mullin

Thanks for kicking it off, John!

Carl Sander

This is commission. "She (Schneider) was tapped for The Thin Place by Andrew Russell, a young director who worked alongside Whoriskey in New York, and who is coming to join her on the Intiman staff this spring. It was Russell who first conceived the play after hearing a segment on This American Life..." Commissions are nice, there's sort of a shared buy in that eases the mind. A commission every year or so for a local writer on a local theme would go a long way toward connecting any theater to its writers and its civic life.

Paul Mullin

I am posting the following on behalf of Steven Dietz, who had some trouble with the Typepad comments tool. It would hardly be fair if I commented on Steven's comment within the comment itself, and besides I have already recused myself on this post, but let me just say this:

Steven Dietz is a mensch. His willingness to engage, with clarity and brilliance, and without rancor, is a credit to playwrights, all of a us. I only wish other players in this grand game were as, well, game as he is. Seattle theatre's administrative leadership is still publicly mum, and privately alternating between obsequiousness and condescension.

So thank you, Steven, for angelically rushing in where tired fools fear to tread.

-------------- Original message from S J Dietz : --------------

Tried to post Hi Paul – I just tried to post this on Just Wrought and got an error message. I’m a posting rookie so maybe I screwed something up. It previewed okay, but wouldn’t post. In any case ... here are some thoughts. Thank you for making this conversation happen. Best from Austin, Steven Dietz.

****19Feb2010**************

First of all, I love Paul's phrase about the "dueling defaults to Steven Dietz", and -- being Steven Dietz -- I will say here what I've said at many events in Seattle: it has to be more than just me. There have to be more local playwrights that receive the opportunities I've been given -- and at the same time I would ask you and your readers to remember that Theatres don't make commitments to playwrights; Directors or Artistic Directors make commitments to playwrights. I've been lucky enough to have 9 plays at ACT, but all of those were because of commitments made to me by Jeff Steitzer and Kurt Beattie. When leadership changed (Gordon Edelstein), I had nothing produced at ACT. As for the Rep, in the 20 years I've been in Seattle, I've had 2 plays done there ... so it's not really much of a "duel".

Trying to game the system and figure out "why he got a production and I didn't" is madness. We all do it, it sells a lot of beer, but it is an illness. I will also tell you this: it's pretty maddening to be on the other side of it, as the lucky playwright who got the production. On more than one occasion in Seattle, after having a show of mine announced, I have been asked in all seriousness by a local playwright: "God, you really must know how to work those guys. Can you teach me how to schmooze like you?"

Every local playwright who gets a production puts a necessary dent in the wall. And every other local playwright who bitches about this happening is hurting the cause. (Bitch about the play, sure; but acknowledge that the writer got the chance.)

Writers who've had those breaks, like me, owe a debt. For my part, I'm trying to give my grad students down in Austin a leg up -- trying to land their plays at the theatres (large and small) around the country that have produced my plays over the years. It's a small gesture; but I believe it helps.

Furthermore, I would ask you to consider these 2 things that I believe and that have been my touchstone during a 30 year career:

1: No one owes you a production of your play. Even if you're local, even if you wrote the "kind of play they say they want", even if they say they love it, even if they commissioned it, even if it's better than the play they did instead, even if "everyone at the reading thought they should do it", even if even if even if. Fact: there is not a slot waiting for you. Your play must MAKE a slot for itself in someone's heart, and on someone's season.

2. No one is "taking a production" from you. Another playwright's gain is not your loss. (I know, but bear with me: this can be a hard one.) The fact that my play did not get that off-Broadway (or whatever) slot I wanted -- the fact that some other playwright (possibly dead) got the slot instead -- that does not COST me anything. Frustrating, yes; unfair, maybe. But I have not LOST anything. In my opinion, if you don't make this distinction, every success by others will cause a little death in you. And however romantic and tragic that may sound, these endless and ongoing little deaths will diminish both you and your work.

It is an insidious seduction at times: to want to control the System, while failing to seize the fact that what we control is the process. We don't hire and fire the leaders. We don't secure the corporate funding. We don't pick the plays. However ... we control our sentences, our stories. We choose our collaborators, we advocate for our plays and those of our comrades. We form companies; we self-produce. We stomp and shout and celebrate the need to be "doom eager" -- to create anew. Should the System change/improve? -- of course it should. But we must not lose sight of our process -- and the fact that our process, while being open to support from theatres, belongs to US. When we don't make the designation between the System and our process, we are at the mercy of the accountants. (And for those of you fully devoted to changing/destroying the System, I say: good on you, but please know what you plan to put in its place.)

Keep the debate alive, please -- I applaud you -- but please let's help each other. In a culture where criticism is routinely mistaken for accomplishment (and where envy is the coin of the realm), a small gesture of support/hope/faith can have great impact.

I make it a point to send quick emails of support (and some measure of gallows humor) to playwrights around the country who have just been trashed by a critic who previously trashed me. (I sent one yesterday, in fact, after reading a review in the NY Times.) I don't know these playwrights at all -- and often I never hear back from them -- but I believe we're in the same Trashed By Critic XYZ Club, and that it's better for me to reach out to this playwright than sit back and say (as I used to do) "see, they should have done MY play, instead. Assholes."

As a writer who owes nearly all my professional success to Seattle, you all have my admiration and support. Seattle writers will define Seattle theatre, period. Great theatre cannot be imported, only exported.

Push on, keep faith, thanks for listening.

John Longenbaugh

Eloquent and generous as always, Mr. Dietz.

As a former critic who both trashed you and praised you (given the play), I have to give particular props to your writing to fellow playwrights and giving them a bit of moral support. When upset artists would contact me back in the day to ask why I didn't like their play, my answer was often "look, this is just my personal opinion. I know it's published in a paper, but that doesn't make it necessarily more valid than anyone else's." I'm guessing your unsolicited letters are helping to remind them of that.

Jane May

Wow! Thanks for sharing Steven and thanks for such a great blog Paul. I'm not a writer, I'm an actor but I could easily plug in "actor" for "writer" at almost any point in your post Mr. Dietz, and the sentiment still rings true as a bell...for me at least. It's so necessary to hold one's self accountable in this profession (and life in general I suppose). I so often have to repeat the phrase, "the only person I have any control over is myself, the only person I have any control over is myself" when dealing with auditions and casting...or lack thereof. If this actor starts trying to get into the mind of anyone else during the process and aftermath, the madness of endless variables begins, and the balance of any sort of equanimity and cheerfulness is shattered.

Thanks also so much for this:

"But I have not LOST anything. In my opinion, if you don't make this distinction, every success by others will cause a little death in you. And however romantic and tragic that may sound, these endless and ongoing little deaths will diminish both you and your work."

So true. I think it's of utmost importance to remember as professional artists that we can't lose what was never ours to begin with. I can feel frustrated and stuck, but instead of bitching or begrudging my fellow actors, I can use those feelings to propel myself forward and use my energy much more efficiently.

Maybe I'm feeling a bit like Pollyanna right now after reading your post, Steven, but this is really good stuff! I'm in a constant state of forgetting and remembering, so I'm always grateful for the gentle reminders.

Cheers.

Wes Andrews

Frankly, we should all be rooting for this show's success. It's a different direction for Intiman -- which was founded in order to do the works of Ibsen, Shakespeare, and other international classics -- and they should be applauded for the risk and the effort.

You might take issue with the whole notion of a one-person show, or you might be irked by the process of its selection (or your speculations thereof, John), but if this is successful on any level it's a win for all Seattle artists. Particularly if the institution uses it as a teaching moment for their audience on the value of local material.

Yes, it might flop. Yes, that might contribute to a culture of conservatism. But those are not reasons for other writers or theatre-makers to adopt pre-emptive cowardice or suspicion.

Paul Mullin

Thanks, Wes.

Sounds like we can safely sort your reaction into the "Good Omen" pile.

Paul Mullin

With her permission, I am re-posting a reply that Kelleen Conway Blanchard made to my Face Book link to Steven's comment. (Stuff on FB tends to disappear, and I thought Kelleen's point deserved to stand for a good long time, just as Steven's does. Plus, I think she and her plays are the bees' knees.)

"Really well put. However, I do think it can be easy to take these kind of wise words and use them to justify silence and stagnation. Obviously, we want to support each other and our community. And of course, no one owes us nothing. Except.. as public art institutions they do. We get to have opinions about their policies on new work and that doesn't make us petty or selfish. That's part of the collaboration. I don't think that's what Mr. Dietz was saying at all. But, it's a quick leap. Often, in this culture we demonize critical thinking as not nice or divisive, when the divide is already there."

Wes Andrews

I don't think it's a good omen or bad omen; it's a moment with meaning for local and upcoming artists, and we should seize the moment to drive future decision-making in a positive direction.

Paul Mullin

Okay, okay, Wes. I'm pulling your reply out of the "good omen" pile and creating a WHOLE NEW pile called "moment worth seizing". Good?

Sheesh! Writers! I can see I'm going to have like 50 piles by the time we're done here.

S.P. Miskowski

I agree with Kelleen. And...

The pursuit of glamor is a fatal Seattle flaw that causes one disaster after another. It almost killed ACT before the board finally turned the theater back over to a local artist. It killed off the fringe festival. It forces Intiman to kowtow to AD demands that sound crazy.

Everybody wants to be New York. Seattle is not New York, and never will be. And in trying so hard to be what it is not, it strains credibility with artists and audiences, alienates the neighborhood, and hurts its own business. It isn't New York, AND it isn't the Seattle it could be.

The best situation would be a combination of imported and local artists, working at the same theaters. This is healthy. This is how artists learn from one another and get new ideas.

Every time the prejudice against local artists is addressed, the answers are: But it's unrealistic to expect to make a full-time living. Good art rises to the top. Just because you make art doesn't mean someone should pay you for it, or produce it. Cooperation is good for all of us...

I think we already know these things. What we need to know is what Seattle would look like if the boards making decisions had equal respect for talented artists in Seattle and in other cities.

My view of the boards and imported ADs comes from what I have heard them say about the city, and what my friends have heard them say. So it's no use pretending that the respect is already there--much as they would love for you to believe that, so you would shut up and sit down.

If Intiman is producing a new play, great. I hope it turns out well. That would be terrific.

I watched Intiman produce a new musical about the life of Catherine the Great years ago. (I worked in the box office at the time.) They did not workshop the script enough. There wasn't any honesty in how they treated the script, which needed a lot of work. It went up in a theater space much too large for a new, untried show. It bombed. Big time. And for years afterward they used it as an example of what happens when you support new, local work.

It bombed because they handled it stupidly. But they blamed the writer and new work itself.

I have friends who have experienced this hateful process, and it demonstrates the need for a bigger, more heartfelt commitment on the part of the entire Seattle theater scene. You have the talent right there. All you lack is a real commitment to it.

This is not a situation that is inevitable. This is where you're stuck as a city, because you keep bowing down and pretending the issues will go away. They won't, until you employ critical thinking and challenge boards and ADs to try harder, to do a better job of integrating imported and local talent.

Paul keeps calling for "world class theater." But that doesn't mean striving for glamor. It means striving to make the work better, together, instead of dismissing one another.

Account Deleted

Lots of good dialog on this.

But what about the simple questions of talent and skill and quality and voice? The talent and skill of the playwright? The quality of their current play? The maturity and experience to establish a voice? Aren't these the real filters that sort out most of what gets done and what doesn't?

Much of what I've read across this blog and the others you link to seem to echo the following sentiments:
- big houses are boringly run by boring people who love museum theatre
- big houses are conspiring against local playwrights
- big houses are run by egos who place their own career growth and notoriety over the cultivation of a local voice
- big houses cater to boring patrons who really only want to watch boring, safe plays that reflect back to them their own illusions.
- big houses don't wright; they only know how to produce
- big houses move too slow and are handcuffed by their big budgets

Yet, I guess I still just wonder if the problem is that much of what gets written is just frankly crap. Perhaps there are good ideas but those are in the hands of inexperienced playwrights who can't run with them. Or, great ideas in the hands of (merely) good playwrights. Or, dumb ideas in the hands of very good playwrights.

I guess what I wonder is if the market isn't simply doing its job.

Does talent, skill, experience, voice matter?

Or, is the frustration that many local playwrights feel that their work "is as good as..." but because the other guy is from NYC (or Berlin or Paris or Austin) they are the ones getting produced?

For me, talent is too often overlooked in these discussions.

Wes Andrews

Jeffrey: I don't know if that question is overlooked, but it is difficult, since "quality" and "talent" are such slippery things to define. One great point that Outrageous Fortune makes is that there aren't pathways in place for a good writer to become a great writer over the course of their career, so often someone talented ends up with stunted artistic growth by virtue of not practicing enough.

Account Deleted

Yes, that is the curse of every collaborative artist. You can't really practice wrighting without your fellow wrights. All you can practice is the writing part. I get that. It's true for actors, directors, dancers, choreographers, filmmakers, set designers, light designers, costume designers, etc.

Does it suck? Yes. Is it part of the reality of the art forms? Yes. Unfortunately, not only is it just a tough reality of the business, playwrights sit at the top of the pyramid. For every play, there are scores of other collaborators working together to realize the work. One playwright keeps a lot of other artists and artisans busy.

What a fucking tough career!

Paul Mullin

Jeff,

The talent question is a fascinating one, and I'm sure great grist for a different mill. But as a playwright, advocating for myself and my fellow local playwrights, I am completely blind AND biased. I can't see my own face and the faces of my fellow local playwrights: Heffron, Augustson, Nichols, Conway Blanchard just to name a few have become so beautiful to me through my close familiarity with them that I confess I am no qualified judge.

I suggest you ask the entrenched. That is if you can get through to them. They claim they're going to show at the OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE discussion. Why not come to that and ask them in person and point blank if it's a question of talent? Because whenever they talk to us they always gush on and on about how amazingly talented we all are and how they wish they could produce all of our plays in a perfect world.

Surely they wouldn't lie to us. Would they?

As for talk of markets? It reminds me of a fabulously nasty thing Goebbels used to say: "When someone mentions "culture" I reach for my gun." I feel the same way about markets. It's not that I don't believe in them. It's just that I don't think I've encountered a fair one. They're like that one honest man Diogenes looked so long and hopelessly for. People like to believe that talent rises to the top. But I've seen the top of too many arts organizations, and the plays they held beautiful enough to produce, to affirm the efficacy of whatever market burbled that crap to its putative apogee.


Rebecca Olson

I’m a little hesitant to elbow my way into the company of such venerable artists as you, but I’ve noticed that there’s something lacking from the discussion (or perhaps briefly touched upon, but something I think is truly at the crux of the issue.) When I talk about artists supporting each other’s work, (playwrights, actors, designers, etc.) I am not referring to buying someone a drink after the show and saying “great job”, or gushing about my peers, or any other lackadaisical back-patting (because while it feels nice, as many people have cautioned, it doesn’t get anyone anywhere.) When I talk about supporting my fellow artists, I am imagining an intentional, active collaboration which is the heart of the performing arts and the key feature that is missing from almost every production I’ve ever been involved with.

Many people have mentioned the dry, rigid shape that the rehearsal/performance structure for American Theater has been pushed into (Mike Daisey is who comes to mind for me) and as an actor, it is not only disheartening, but oftentimes downright frustrating. Let me digress into my world for just a moment (and I promise I’ll bring it back around to local playwrights). I show up to rehearsal #1 with the script completed, the design elements already under construction, and sometimes even the blocking pre-set. My creative input about my character and the world she lives in is clearly not needed – my job as an actor is to take every one else’s ideas and make them work. I have experienced many an unjustified stage picture, costume design, set piece, sound cue in my time – but since we’re only three weeks out at this point, they don’t have the time/budget to make any changes, so we (meaning I) have to just “make it work.” Which frankly, is kind of boring.

This may be the reality of theater today, but from what I understand, it wasn’t always this way. Not that I believe that there was some magical golden age where theaters had buckets of money and three years to develop every single play and no one ever had to take a note they didn’t like – but from my limited understanding of theater history, the great playwrights were *not* scribbling away like mad geniuses in some darkened room, hawking their scripts to theaters like the orange women outside, some to sink to oblivion and others produced from the void into critical acclaim.

From what I can tell, great playwrights were (or are) often part of great theater companies (Shakespeare, Odets, O’Neil, Chekov, Mamet, etc.) They are not (like Paul admitted) just chasing some fantastic idea they have that no one wants to see or produce, and their collaborative artists are not brought in piecemeal four weeks before opening. World class playwrights write for and with their company. They write plays based on what their audience (who they know and understand) wants to see, or will want to see once they see it. They don’t have formal workshops – they bring the first draft in and the company reads it and gives feedback and then they tweak whatever they need to tweak. They do this as much as they want to or can, before it’s time to start rehearsal, without the nuisance of staged readings that get them nowhere, but with the promise (or threat) of production no matter what. They work with the same director(s) time and time again, whose critical eye helps shape their work on the page as much as the productions themselves. They have designers who are designing, with input from the company, throughout the process – not just isolated phone calls and emails to the director two months before rehearsals start.

The entire company is (in a way) responsible for every aspect of the production, and because they are a company in the truest sense of the word, each artist has a vested interest in the success of not just that particular production, but in the continued growth and success of each artist in the room. That is what I mean when I say that theater artists should support each other across disciplines. By commissioning a local playwright to write a play based on a theme that matters (they hope) to Seattle audiences, with an actor already chosen for the playwright to have in mind while writing, the Intiman is actually moving more closely to the idea of company than any other big theater in Seattle – and I think that is fantastic (although it would be even more fantastic if they had cast a local actor.)

I made a joking reference to Paul about why actors need to show up to the “Outrageous Fortune” discussion: “because what actor doesn’t want a role written for them? And the best way to have that happen is to make friends with a local playwright and help them produce their work.” But the comment, which popped out sarcastically on facebook, has been niggling at me the last few days and I realize now that I wasn’t joking. If a playwright came to me and said “you are an excellent actor, and I’m going to write a role for you” I would say “Where and when – I’m there from the first draft to closing night. What do you need me to do?” And I don’t think that I would be alone in that sentiment.

So my challenge to the playwrights then, is this: if you want your work produced, let’s get it done. Stop writing alone in a darkened room with the hopes of someday being produced at one of the Big Houses – because it seems to me that writing a play to get produced somewhere “important” is no different than one of the Big Houses trying to produce a play because they think it will get the attention of New York. Yes, of course you should be paid for your work, as should actors, and directors, and everyone else – but you aren’t getting paid to remain isolated and tear your hair out, either. Instead, why don’t we gather the artists we want to work with around us, and make some plays. It may take a while to build a company, an audience, a budget – but producing a play in a bare room with no costumes is still better than scribbling (or drinking) alone. God knows there are plenty of theater artists in this town who would love to have a chance to be theater artists. Let’s commit to each other first – and let success come as a natural step from what we build together, rather than something clawed at and doled out by the Big Houses.

Louis Broome

"What Gus is saying is..." the not-for-profit model simply doesn't have the need or the ability to innovate and is entirely risk adverse. Writing a brilliant play and expecting a LORT house to recognize its brilliance and make a hit of it is like encouraging a third-grader do a knife throwing act for the school talent show. "All you have to do is not stab your sister."

Developing and producing new plays isn't fundamental to the not-for-profit business model and few not-for-profits attempt it with any regularity or have a well-developed system for doing it.

For the millionth time, if you want to read something truly fascinating about story development and taking risk, read about Pixar - http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2008/08/how_pixars_ed_catmull_empowers.html

Entertainment is a high risk, high reward venture. Not-for-profits have no experience managing risk. The world isn't suffering from a dearth of great plays. The reality is, the theater we have simply doesn't know how to find them or what to do with them when they land in their laps.

That's why I'm all about moving on.

I always read these thing days after they're stale.


Paul Mullin

Louis,

You may often come late to the game, but like a brilliant closing pitcher, you always bring heat across the plate.

I hope I see you tomorrow.

Paul

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