What is a #PLONY? Find out here, and also read an explanation as to why I’m writing a series of #PLONY Profiles.
Here are my two encounters with William Missouri Downs prior to doing this interview:
1) Naked Playwriting, his book, was the first I ever picked up on the craft.
2) When I won the Todd McNerney, I saw that Bill had also won, and asked him whether it was worth heading down for the reading. He asked that I call him and we had a great chat.
Both times, I was impressed by his knowledge, generosity, and wisdom. This time, I was impressed by his dedication, pragmatism, sense of self—and success. I think you will be, too.
Before we even talk about where you do live and write plays, it’s probably just as important to talk about where you’re not living and what you’re not doing—in L.A. and television.
That’s right, I no longer live in L.A. or write for television. Many years ago my wife was accepted into the MFA program at the National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She wanted me to move to Denver with her but I was determined to hold on to my Hollywood career until she got back. The week she left an episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air of mine aired. All writers in Hollywood are rewritten, it’s just standard operating procedure, but this episode was different. The changes were so massive that, although my name was on it, I hardly recognized it. After it aired the phone rang; it was a friend who said, “Bill, I was just channel surfing and ran into your episode of Fresh Prince. It’s wonderful! Matter of fact, I think it’s your best writing!” I hung up, turned to my wife and said, “I’m coming with.”
Lou Anne Wright and her husband, William Missouri Downs
That was a major life change in so many ways.
I went into terrible panic attacks because I was giving up my career as a television writer and then, slowly over time, I began realizing that my first love had always been playwriting. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more and I got over [those feelings].
Writing for television is truly an awful life, aspiring to be a screenwriter is a lot like aspiring to be a copilot. You don’t own your words, you have to write what other people tell you to write, and you constantly have to consider the market.
When had you written plays previously, i.e. to realize that they were your first love?
I started as an actor, but I was a terrible actor, and then the very first play I ever wrote won my acceptance to Circle Rep in New York, where I learned playwriting, but I’ve only had in my life, gosh, I think one, maybe two university playwriting classes. I’m basically self-taught. I have no formal degree in playwriting. I’ve written two books on playwriting and over twenty plays, but my MFAs are in acting and screenwriting.
So did you actually live in New York for a time?
Yes, for almost three years, many years ago, just out of college, I lived in a transient hotel on the corner of 77th and Broadway. (It’s now a luxury hotel called “On The Ave,” but in those days, it was a fleapit.) I had to work like a dog as a waiter just to make ends meet so when I finally sat down to write, I was often so tired that I got very little done. As a young man, I thought maybe screenwriting and television would be better, so I applied to UCLA and got my second MFA—this one in screenwriting.
And once you were in LA, no more plays?
In the decade I lived in LA, I wrote only one play. Writing for sitcoms was soul-sucking; it truly was. I sold two movies but they were never made and wrote for several sitcoms but my soul wasn’t in it. I have lots of friends who are still in Hollywood. I’ll say to them, “Oh, you sold a movie? Where’s the project at?” and they say, “I don’t know; it’s none of my business.” There’s no pride of ownership for writers in Hollywood. When my screenwriting agent found out that I left Los Angeles, she called and said, “Call me when you want to be a serious writer” and dropped me. Then I got a playwriting agent but she died three months later.
But you have an agent now.
Yes. I’m with the Bret Adams Agency in New York. I think the only way to get a playwriting agent today is by recommendation, that’s how I got my first and second playwriting agents. There are so few playwriting agents that if you don’t have one, I wouldn’t worry about it. I operated for years without one. It’s not like Hollywood where you need an agent, in the theater, 90 percent of theaters will accept your script without an agent so most playwrights don’t need one. Don’t worry about getting an agent; just get good productions, and someday you’ll be in the right place at the right time and someone will recommend you.
Okay, now we’re caught up. How long have you been in Wyoming?
Twenty years, but I also lived down in the Gulf of Mexico. But I just sold that house, because with global warming, I decided now is the time to sell before people realize that those beach houses won’t be there much longer. Global warming is not a problem in Wyoming.
When you first decided to start writing plays again, did it take you a while to get going so that you had things to send out?
I just sat down and started writing; since then, I’ve averaged one full-length a year, rarely two. Each one takes me between six and eighteen months to write. I write every day. I wake up around four in the morning and I write and write and write. I’m a morning person. Every day is different, but I usually quit around eight to ten o’clock. On days I can’t write, I read or go for long walks and try to come up with ideas or I send scripts out.
Is there a theater scene there at all?
There is nowhere to get produced locally, and no community of playwrights. Wyoming is the least populated state; we have less population than Alaska. Less population than North or South Dakota; we just recently went above the half million mark, that’s only five people per square mile, so you can imagine the isolation I have.
There should be a special hashtag for #PLONY like you! What kind of reaction do you get from people in the business about living there?
I get “Why the hell do you live there?” as if I have some sort of mental problem, or perhaps I’m hiding from the law. Or sometimes they take pity on me, like, “You do know that that’s not the center of the theater world?”
The problem with not living in New York is the people who do live in New York, because they have this idea that the only place to live is New York, and if you don’t, you must not be so serious or are a second-rate writer. They turn up their noses and look at you with disbelief.
I just had a meeting with a director in LA, and he said, “I can’t believe you live in Wyoming. What are there, a lot of cows?” and I said, “No, not really. We live in the mountains, and cliffs aren’t really a great place to raise cows.” He said, “Oh so the land is worthless.” People born and raised in big cities believe their own propaganda and start to think the flyover states are wastelands of people who buy pickup trucks.
I hope this series will help make people think differently about that, at least where writers are concerned. Especially because you’ve been pretty successful—more than 150 productions of full-length plays, including several overseas. Two rolling world premieres from the National New Play Network. NNPN is pretty hard to crack; how did you break in?
William Missouri Downs’ first NNPN Rolling World Premiere was THE EXIT INTERVIEW
About a decade ago, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre (an NNPN theatre) did a workshop staged reading of a little comedy of mine during their new play fest—the Harriet Lake—and then, of course, I immediately submitted a different script and they rejected it, and submitted again, and they rejected it, and again, but then four years ago, they accepted a comedy of mine called THE EXIT INTERVIEW. I went back to Orlando and they did a reading of the play in front of an audience—and it was a dud. I mean, it was a terrible crash and burn and then they give you I think 24 or 48 hours to write, and I fixed the play very quickly and the next reading went much better.
About a month later, they called and said, “We’re going to submit your play to the NNPN national showcase of new plays and by the way, there’s no chance of it making it. They have 50 scripts submitted, and they’ll choose four or five, but I want you to know that it’s just a great honor to be chosen to be submitted and this’ll be the end of it.” A month later, they called back and said, “You made it. You’re in.”
So I went to the showcase reading, and it was a great reading, and immediately after, three artistic directors walked up and said, “We want to do it,” and then three more came forward, so I had a rolling premiere with six theaters. Since then, I’ve had a second rolling premiere and several NNPN theaters have done plays of mine which has led to Sam French and Playscripts picking them up.
THE EXIT INTERVIEW at San Diego Rep
That was a great tipping point!
I’ve been lucky several times in my life. I’ve had slow years with only two or three productions, and good years with twelve to fifteen, and I’m on a roll right now with three good years in a row, averaging one production a month from tiny hole-in-the-wall theaters to larger Equity productions.
What is your marketing process?
I do everything. I go to the Playwrights Center, look through those opportunities. I keep a huge file of everywhere I’ve ever submitted and go through and start at the top when I have a new script. Now, generally, I try to contact NNPN theaters first, and then I go to the next level. Every single theater that has ever produced a play of mine gets a message, an email, a copy, and then I start down the lists of contests, readings, and go on the web and read theater script submission policies and send off into the great darkness. I try to set a goal of submitting five scripts a week.
WOMEN PLAYING HAMLET is William Missouri Downs’ second NNPN Rolling World Premiere
I have a closet full of rejections, but, very slowly, if you’re out there enough, luck falls into your lap. One little playwriting contest, the guy called me and said, “Do you know how you won? I was done reading 150 scripts, and we were throwing away the empty boxes, and as I started to throw the last box out, I heard a noise, and there stuck in the flap was one more script, and all I could think was ‘Oh crap, I have to read one more.’” So he sat down and started reading, and a few minutes later, the person in the next office said, “What are you laughing at?” and he said, “I think I just found our winner.”
MAD GRAVITY was the winner of the 2013 Todd McNerney National Playwriting Contest
How do you network?
It takes a massive amount of time and money. I was trained in playwriting at the Circle Rep, and there is an alumni celebration coming up in New York in late September, and I’ll be there networking. When NNPN meets, I’m there networking. I just got back from L.A., where I networked. I spend thousands of dollars a year getting out of Wyoming so I can network.
Beyond those expenses, have you felt a disadvantage to not being in New York?
Living in New York would cost more than those expenses! But I guess if I were in New York, it would add some sort of legitimacy, but there’s so many playwrights and 90 percent of them suck as playwrights, so if the majority of good playwrights live there, also the majority of sucky playwrights live there.
In New York, the only thing would be different there would be a few people who I’d met at parties and/or theater that I could go walk up to and say I have a new script and they know me.
I talk to my friends in big cities and they don’t get any writing done; they’re too busy trying to earn a living and living in a terrible walk-up apartment. Networking is critical, but you have to have something to network with, and I have the one thing most playwrights don’t: I have time to write.
Writers, lawyers, business people, you name it, emigrate to places like New York and Hollywood for opportunity, to catch a break, to have “their shot”, to network, to “make it!” But there’s a problem with these opportunity centers when it comes to writing, because good writing takes time, lots of it and seclusion, two things that places like Hollywood and New York (and other opportunity centers) lack.
But is there indeed more opportunity?
Big cities don’t create that many opportunities, mostly because they’re overloaded with creative types looking for opportunities. The joke in LA is that everyone is working on a screenplay, and I’ve found it’s often true. Last week I walked into a small inconsequential coffee house near the Santa Monica Airport. There were five people there, all five had their laptops open, and all five were working on screenplays.
Writing in big cities is like robbing a bank. You plan for years; you work out every detail and calculate for every possibility. Finally one morning you storm the bank lobby and yell, “Hands up!” only to discover there are two thousand other thieves there that morning who are also robbing the bank. But more, the tellers are also robbing the bank. And so are your neighbors.
Do you think not living in New York gives you a different idea of what “success” is?
The problem is that we often let what it means to “make it” be defined by others. Few of us have the self-awareness to set and keep our own definitions. I’ve published four books, written over twenty full length plays that have had over one hundred and fifty productions, won a dozen national playwriting awards, and published ten plays, but when someone finds out that I once wrote an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, that’s all they want to talk about. It was twenty years ago! I don’t remember what the hell I wrote. I crapped out a superficial sitcom script in a week and handed it over to an apathetic secretary at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. The only words she said to me were, “put it in that pile over there.” Then the hackneyed producers rewrote it, aired it, and I recorded it on an old VCR tape, which I later lost; I don’t even remember what I spent the money on. How does that constitute “making it?”
Opportunity centers can corrupt the writer’s concept of what it means to make it. We all want to “make it,” but after years in New York or Hollywood, making it often means selling out. We say those words—“selling out”—with such disdain. But let’s face it: all writers sell out. You can’t get a play produced unless you sell out, at least a little bit. But if you sell out a lot, (in other words if you become nothing but a writer-for-hire writing only what the corporations, the producers, the director, the audience or your mother want you to write), you’ll discover that writing loses its luster. You might get paid well, but you’ll quickly forget what you write because it has no meaning except for the physical objects you bought with your paycheck.
Now don’t get me wrong, I would never erase the years I spent writing for television. I made good money, but none of what I wrote in Hollywood made an iota of difference. Any one of 20,000 less-lucky writers could have punched out the same pages. But no matter who wrote it, it changed nothing.
I just got back from Ventura California where a petite 40-seat theatre located next to a decrepit coin-operated laundry in a rundown strip mall is doing a play of mine. That production, which will be seen during its five week run by fewer than 500 people, will make a greater difference than my episode, or any episode, of Fresh Prince.
Do you make a living at playwriting?
No. No one does. All playwrights do something else. I’ve written several textbooks that have done pretty well and that along with my Hollywood residuals, I make a nice living. Back when I was writing on sitcoms, I made a damn good living. I managed to save and invest and so I can today spend more of my time writing. But from playwriting I make a fraction of what I once made in Hollywood.
Well, they say even Tony Kushner doesn’t make a living at playwriting.
You have to celebrate everything. I try not to set goals. All I try to do is work hard, send the scripts out, and have very low expectations, and then when something does happen, I’m pleasantly surprised. But I can’t expect success because the failure rate is extraordinary, even good plays fail.
How did you get branch into overseas markets?
I put my plays up on the Web and I’ve had weird things happen. I got an email in broken English from a theater in Singapore saying they wanted to do my play in English. I got another call in a thick German accent saying, “We like your play. We want to translate it into German.” I thought someone was pulling my leg, but it turned out to be legit. They flew me over to Vienna, and it was one of the best productions I’ve had. I’m funnier in German.
Final words for your fellow #PLONY?
Every writer who lives in the boondocks desires to move to the city and every writer in the city dreams of leaving it. All I know is that here in the mountains of Wyoming, in my own personal writing colony of one, I can breathe fresh air and I can create opportunities.
When it comes right down to it, what really matters is not how well you network, or who you know, or how creative you are, or even how many opportunities you have, what matters most is can you write good scripts that you like and that people want to produce? And even that only counts some of the time.
In Wyoming, although I’m not perfect, I can generally keep my personal idea of “making it” intact. What is making it? My definition doesn’t matter to you. It’s mine. It won’t work for you. You have to come up with your own. But I can say there is one key to success that works for everyone. And that’s to work hard, very hard, every day and then keep your expectations very low. High expectations lead to disappointment, and it’s difficult to write when you’re disappointed. And playwriting is filled with disappointment, and rejection, and absurdity, and assholes who screw up your play, and royalty checks that bounce, and thoughtless reviewers who blame the playwright for everything. But once in a while it comes together and one evening at the theater makes a difference.
NEXT UP: A female #PLONY! I’m sure you’re all recognize her name!
Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
To read more entries in this series, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.