Well… it’s been a long time since I’ve written a RIPP post. (If you don’t know what RIPP: Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project is about, please click here (the original idea) and here (the evolution of that idea) to get some context before reading.)
Part of the reason it’s been so long is that I’ve been super busy following all the advice from the previous RIPPs and trying to get some momentum going, but the bigger part is that I’d been hearing from some people that the posts were beginning to get repetitive, and I was trying to decide how to proceed. I don’t want to be disrespectful of the time that artistic directors gave me—in some cases, it was a LOT—nor do I want to bore anybody or not offer valuable information. So what I’ve decided is that I’ll give a little bit of both in order to use up the remaining source material I have. Sometimes, like today, you’ll get a post reminiscent of the first 46, and other times, I’ll consolidate a few tidbits into one post. And then when my material is gone, RIPP will RIP (see how I did that, RIPP haters? ;)).
If you’ve never read it, use the RIPP link at the side to go back to the beginning. Be inspired, and stop reading if you get bored or the inspiration stops. And now, without further ado:
From KYLE BASS, RESIDENT DRAMATURG, SYRACUSE STAGE
“Not only am I the Resident Dramaturg at Syracuse Stage, I’m also a playwright; I know the walls, rivers and chasms we ‘less-than-known’ playwrights encounter when we try to get our work out there. Nor is it lost on me that as a dramaturg (and I also serve as literary manager and de facto associate artistic director) I erect the very walls, maintain the very rivers and chasms that so very many playwrights face when trying to submit their work.
“As a LORT C theatre, Syracuse Stage is fortunate to have a Resident Dramaturg, one who serves all the other functions—and then some—I mentioned above. The truth is I’m a one-man show. I don’t have a staff to read all the plays that were coming to us unsolicited and I couldn’t bear any longer the piles of scripts collecting dusk in my office. I know how hard it is to write a play, especially a good one. And I know what it feels like to be waiting for word back when you’ve cast your play, like a letter in bottle, into some theater’s submission portal in the hopes that is reaches someone—anyone!—and gets read, let alone produced.
“Syracuse Stage does not have a new-play development program. Nor do we really have a second space apart from our 500-seat house in which to ‘take a chance” on plays that come with a bunch of “unknowns.’ I don’t have to tell you that the fiscal climate right now is unkind to the sort of risk-taking producing unknown plays by unknown playwrights carries, especially in the smaller regionals.
“Finally (gosh, this is more words than I intended to exhaust—we’ve hit a nerve) when I was accepting unsolicited scripts and could finally read them, aside from the simply poorly written, so many—the vast majority—left me underwhelmed: pages full of snarky irony, inarticulately inarticulate characters, cynicism passing for understanding, TV-show plots, dialogue without musicality, sketched-in characters traced from characters I’ve seen too many times before, and an overall lack of theatricality—and I’m not talking about rain and wild horses onstage, I mean, why does this story belong on the stage? Yes, the theater is many things, but mostly it’s an enchantment machine, and it’s magic, or at least something special—in language, in settings, in the allure of a play’s conceit—that fuels that enchantment.
“I don’t know what to say to all the playwrights out there pounding on doors that never get answered. Maybe this from Becket: ‘Ever tired? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’”
I wish it weren’t so hard.”
This is what Kyle sent to me via email. And I loved it. I loved that he took the time, I loved the honesty, not just about how hard it is, but also about the general quality of the plays received. Both of things were inspiring to me because a) it makes every success that much sweeter and b) working toward writing better plays is a very important goal that could actually do something to cut through the clutter. But while I was marveling at what Kyle wrote, he got in touch again, feeling bad about what he’d said, and wanting to say more. So we talked on the phone. Much of what he said was much the same, lamenting “being someone who is throwing stuff up against the wall and also being the wall,” sharing his own experiences with his last world premiere, bemoaning how subscriptions plummeted in the nineties when there were more new plays on the docket, and apologizing for not being able to “paint a more optimistic picture.” But I took away this:
“Get your play produced any way you can. If that means your first production is with a community theater, do that. You’ll learn a lot about your play any time it’s read, any time it’s produced on whatever level. Horton Foote used to advise against trimming your sails to fit current fashion; beware. It’s tough, because even when there are plays by known and established and emerging playwrights that have being propelled by national productions on the west or east coast or Chicago and their plays are being talked about in circles of people who talk about plays, where does this play fit in our season, as much as we want to believe it’s the case, it’s not art for art’s sake. In some ways, it’s all commodity, we license the right to do someone’s play and to my great disappointment, our audiences come looking for value, not art.
People come thinking, ‘This better be good.’ This better be good, as opposed to taking in the experience. You don’t walk into a museum saying this painting better good; you go make a judgment and you leave. We see theater through more comedies, more musicals, more known—those things seem to fulfill value expectations that the audience might have. So write the play you want to see; that’s the only play you can write. Louis Armstrong used to say there are two kinds of music, good and bad, and there are two kinds of plays. Write good ones! There are a lot of crap out there, so get really smart about how to send your plays out and make those relationships.
I will say this. Some of my short plays I’ve sent to literary journals that publish plays and I’ve had success there. I write them to be performed, and a number of those short pieces have been but I’m as happy to have people read them. I also write the plays I like to see but also the plays I like to read. I tell my students this is something you do because you can’t help it and be prepared for a lot of disappointment. It’s tough. It’s very, very, very tough, and it’s hard to write a play. And it’s particularly hard to write a good one.”
My nutshell takeaway: We’re understood. We’re not alone. Some days, that’s more than enough.
Until next time,