For an explanation of RIPP: Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project, click here.
Just back from a great weekend at the Shaw Festival, where I discovered a new restaurant—Rest—which has an extensive wine list that is all local. I don’t know of another restaurant in the area, in Canada or stateside that can boast that. More than that, the wine—even the red—was good! The cheese was all local as well, and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a meal so much. Covered three plays for Buffalo Spree—Major Barbara, Our Betters, and Guys and Dolls. Our Betters for the win—by a mile. And now for today’s success and wisdom:
JENNY LARSON, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, SALVAGE VANGUARD
“I unfortunately these days don’t read every script because I don’t have time. I usually have an intern read them and pass the ones on to me that fit the Salvage Vanguard aesthetic. The brass tacks: it’s incredibly hard, if not impossible, to become a produced playwright. Frankly, luck and nepotism are usually the keys to success. Every once in a while, someone can break through the barriers, but it is rather infrequently. We have produced a show from an open submission, and the circumstance was that it was an amazing script—a script that “stopped” me. This happens more rarely than you would imagine.
“To be perfectly frank, I rarely produce plays that someone has just submitted to me cold without any prior connection or information. I usually find work among my peers. I create work with writers I already have relationships with, or I get submissions from agents who I know have the same tastes and sensibilities that I have. It’s sad, but it’s true. We are very small organization and I wear a lot of different hats, which cuts down on my time to find brand new never produced writers.
“There is no magic answer. My aesthetic preferences aren’t the same as the other guys’ and theirs aren’t the same as mine. One playwright’s style, or voice, is not going to match another’s. An artist can’t and shouldn’t bend their aesthetics to try to “get the job. Because of that, I won’t share the scripts that “stopped” me, because trying to write like someone else won’t help anyone. I guess I think that if you make the art because you absolutely have to, the story HAS to come out of you—as opposed to making the work because you want it to be produced—nine times out of ten, the quality of the work will be better. I also always ask in reading work and seeing productions: “Is it remarkable?” What is remarkable to me may not be to another, but I can tell you like a moth to flame, I will be drawn to the remarkable.
As for advice, the school you choose makes a huge difference. Brown? Brooklyn College? University of Texas at Austin? There are schools around the country that have better reputations for putting out amazing writers. If you go to one of these schools you are one step closer to someone paying attention to your work.
Engage with the communities you are interested in working with. Volunteer, work on the crew, stage manage, act. Put yourself in the community and become a part of the community that you want to hire you. It may not be right, but it’s true. I am a part of the larger fringe/ avant garde/ experimental theater movement; this tactic would perhaps work against you in regional or more traditional houses. If you work as a stage hand, you might forever be known as the stage hand in the larger rep world, but for smaller and scrappier organizations where everyone is doing everything, I do think “getting in there” works. Nepotism is all. And by that I don’t mean you have to be somebody’s kid, but people by nature work with people they already know and trust and like.
Apply for everything. Every workshop, grant, fellowship. Put your name out there again and again and again. Produce your own work if no one else will produce you. Having successful productions and reviews and buzz and great word of mouth around you and your work is very influential. Producers will start to think “Oh, who is that?” if there is already positive buzz around your work.”
My nutshell takeway: This is a reality check away from the optimistic RIPP #4, but an important one on several levels. To me, the most important is identifying your goals and what you’re willing to do to achieve them. Can you get an MFA from one of those schools (and are you young enough that if you do, it will matter?)? Have you built enough of a reputation to start knocking on the big doors? Have you researched the theaters you’re blindly submitting to see where their new plays are coming from? Have you offered your services at a theater near you? You’re probably asking, “Donna, do you think we’re idiots?” And of course I don’t, but I do think that sometimes, in our desire to be appreciated, we neglect to understand that for everyone involved, this is a business. I know we’re artists, but even so, it’s important to understand how it all works, and what is going to elevate your chance of success—and the definition of success is going to vary from playwright to playwright and be dependent on so many different factors. Nobody really wants to hear outright that luck and nepotism are key, but if we’re honest, we already knew that and, as they say, admitting a problem is the first step to conquering it.
RIPP TIME OUT: The other day, I got a disturbing email from somebody who a) somehow thought Dori Jacob’s words were my own, and that *I* ran the Magic Theatre b) in all that Jacob had to say only saw something about being able to send a script, and c) asked for clarification about which theater this was (are you kidding me?). I know that most people realize this, but that email made me want to reiterate that that is so not the point of RIPP. If reading were listening, this emailer clearly was NOT, which I think only underscores that idea that maybe, even though some of this advice will get repetitive, we still need to listen to it harder instead of only seeing/hearing “we accept unsolicited scripts.” You know?