RIPP #9: MICHELLE HENSLEY, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, TEN THOUSAND THINGS

May 27th, 2013 donnahoke

 

If you don’t know what RIPP: Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project, please click here to get some context before reading. I have a feeling not everyone is doing this, as I keep getting emails from playwrights wanting to send me their plays or asking how to get produced which, again, is not the point of RIPP.

 

From MICHELLE HENSLEY, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, TEN THOUSAND THINGS

 

“At Ten Thousand Things, though we’d love to do more new plays, the biggest challenge we face is playwrights who fail to grasp the enormity of our audiences. We perform for inmates, homeless people, adult education students, immigrants, suburban housewives, and corporate CEOs. Most contemporary playwrights, we find, tend to write, perhaps unconsciously, for audiences who are primarily upper middle class and white—because that is who generally comes to theater these days. Their plays are just too small, and the stakes are just not really high enough to interest many in our audiences who truly live at humanity’s extremes. We also need plays set in another time, another place –fairy tales I like to call them—where no one, rich or poor, can be an expert in the details of the world, because we’re all making it up together. Thus, we find ourselves doing a lot of Shakespeare, Greeks and musicals, plays whose audiences had everyone, people of all classes, in them.

 

In frustration, we held a competition about five years ago, called “What if You Knew EVERYONE Would be in the Audience?” It asked playwrights to submit a one-page synopsis of the story they would tell if they knew this to be true. The winner was actually a woman who lived 12 blocks away from me, Kira Obolensky, whom I hadn’t really known, but who proposed a retelling of Crime and Punishment using improvisational jazz. Kira had seen several of our productions before, however, and I think that it was no accident that she won, as she really understood not only our audiences, but the necessity of our very bare bones production style, with no lighting, very little in terms of set and costumes, and the necessity of a very strong story. She thrived in fairy tale worlds, and her language was simple, but also beautifully lifted out of the ordinary every day contemporary realistic world.

 

What I would say to playwrights is know the theater you want your work done in as intimately as you can.  Know why your play is right for them. Let the theater know why you think it’s right.  Always submit a quick synopsis; no one has time to read an entire script just to figure out if it’s right or not. Directors are artists, too, and need to “fall in love” with what they’re going to work on, just like you need to “fall in love” with what you’re writing about. So if you can find a director who loves your work, let her help you find the right theaters. Or else, if you know you’ve written something that really needs to be seen in the world—not to promote your career—but because it has things in it we all need to pay attention to, find a way to do it yourself, with other people who also believe in your work. Don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how to ingratiate yourself with others. Life is too short.”

 

My nutshell takeway: This is another example of a theater that has a specific mission—and ironically, specific because it is so broadly inclusive—that it has trouble finding plays to meet it. This is fascinating to me on a couple of levels. First, I think more theaters than we think have missions that are just as defined; they just aren’t spelled out this way on websites, but that’s a subject for a post of its own at a later date. Second, it seems as though more and more theaters are specializing in order to differentiate themselves, but that playwrights are not writing diverse enough material to fill those niches. Is this true? As a group, are we writing to the same audiences? Or to too narrow of an audience? Are we covering too much of the same ground? I’m very intrigued by the idea of different iterations of the same play for different audiences. Without pandering, how can we write to have greater reach? Here is a theater that wants to reach everyone, and asks why more playwrights aren’t writing plays that do that—plays that aren’t specific. How would thinking this way change the play you’re writing right now? Is it even desirable that everybody start writing plays that appeal to everyone? I would love your thoughts on this.

 

Until next time,
Donna

 

Written by donnahoke

donnahoke

Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 40 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include ELEVATOR GIRL (2017 O’Neill finalist), THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its fourth year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney, Naatak, and Great Gay Play and Musical Contests), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays); she’s also authored more than two dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.

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2 Comments on “RIPP #9: MICHELLE HENSLEY, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, TEN THOUSAND THINGS”

  1. 1 Chas Belov said at 12:55 am on May 28th, 2013:

    That reminds me of reading where Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was done by a visiting theatre company in prison with prisoners as actors and the audience totally got it. So, writing for everyone does not necessarily mean writing the broadest work possible.

    That said, I think one, and only one, of my plays might be right for them, and it’s not ready to send out yet.

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 1:37 am on May 28th, 2013:

    That’s true. This is talking about reaching broader audiences, which isn’t the same as writing broadly. But the idea that out of six full-length plays, I don’t have one that is right for them–and you only have one–does say a lot about who we’re writing for, even if unwittingly. That’s why I find fascinating. How many plays can we even think of that would be right for Ten Thousand Things?


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