I’m taking a sidebar here to talk about missions, because if you’ve been following the Real Inspiration for Playwrights Project (RIPP) for the past five months or so, you know that a recurring complaint from literary managers and artistic directors is that they get plays that don’t fit their missions, and that we are not doing our research in determining whether or not our plays are a good fits for the particular companies we’re sending them to. I want to flip that contention to say that many theaters, when establishing their missionary positions, are not clear about what they want. Here are some real examples pulled from some random theater websites:
“[X Theatre] is committed to producing both classic and contemporary works, giving full voice to a wide range of artists and visions… By dedicating itself to three guiding principles—quality, diversity and community—[X Theatre] seeks to be the premier cultural organization in [insert city here].”
Do you know what kind of plays this theater is seeking? Here’s a few more:
“[This company] engages, inspires, entertains, and challenges audiences with theatrical productions that range from the classics to new works; we train and support the next generation of theatre artists; we celebrate the essential power of the theatre to illuminate our common humanity.”
“To create and produce professional theatre productions, programs, and services of a national standard.”
“The mission of [our company] is to sustain the tradition of professional theatre and contribute to its future viability and vitality.”
Is it just me, or do all of these mean “We make theater”? And this is to say nothing of all the theaters who use vague mission buzzwords like “bold” or “edgy.” And the catchall “as well as outstanding works of literary merit” basically means that many, many theaters are leaving themselves open to produce anything that suits their fancy—and any particular artistic director’s fancy is elusive at best.
I actually asked one AD whose theater does a lot of experimental work how it was that a certain, very naturalistic, playwright was listed among his favorites. Answer: “I’m a big fan of great writing, great characters, and interesting stories, whether the story is simply told or weird and wonderful.” And honestly, is there an AD out there who doesn’t feel that way? In my own town, Irish Classical Theatre last year produced Next to Normal, which is neither Irish nor classic, simply because they wanted to. And they did an astounding job.
This is not to say that theaters don’t stick to their missions most of the time; the problem is that we don’t really know what they are, and they are fluid. I understand the desire for that fluidity—I really do—but then is it fair to say that we are not doing our jobs when the missions are purposely vague enough to include just about anything?
Even companies with very specific missions can easily be misconstrued. Take this one:
“[This company] makes theater of the imagination. Our company thrives on adventure and believes no story is worth telling without a little risk. We love our villains as much as our heroes, especially in those puzzling moments when we can’t quite tell them apart. Above all, we aim to leave you with stories that stick somewhere in your heart, your brain, or your guts.”
It sounds a little vague, but the key to the kingdom is in that first sentence, theater of the imagination: this company loves made-up worlds, and if you look at the plays they produce, you can see that very clearly. But the thing is, you really have to take that look to know that. Otherwise, you might be saying “My play is very imaginative, and you can’t tell the villains from the heroes. I’m sending it.” And it will be totally wrong for this company and that will be on you.
When every company—understandably—wants the ability to say “We want to produce this play,” without having to answer to either patrons or playwrights about their reasons, a solution remains out of reach. For new playwrights, it may be best to stay away from vague-mission companies, and seek out those with missions so specific that there can be no mistake that your play is perfect for them. Historic, Jewish, and Grand Guignol theater companies are quintessential examples. There’s even a company that only does productions of adapted novels, and one that insists on fight scenes between women. Even with my rudimentary math skills, I can figure out that these companies probably don’t get the thousands of submissions that more generically-missioned companies do. So find them. Write for them. They are probably looking for you in a way that those big companies just aren’t.