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May 18th, 2017 donnahoke


Playwrights active online know the names Adam Szymkowicz and Aurin Squire. Not only are they both prolific, productive, and produced playwrights, they’re also the kind who give back. Adam writes the popular I Interview Playwrights blog, and Aurin contributes a monthly Get What You Want list of opportunities on his long-running Six Perfections blog. Both have impressive careers, which are due, in no small part, to tenacity and participation in their own marketing. And because they’re those kinds of artists, they also both agreed to share what they do and what they know with fellow playwrights.


For months, I’d been planning to introduce a new series—Artists Helping Artists (#AHAinTheater), and these two are perfect first subjects. Originally, I thought I might interview them together, but I had no efficient way to do that, and, also, Aurin is busy writing television in Los Angeles, so his marketing has taken on a bit of a different flavor lately. To that end, I’m making them installments one and two of #AHAinTheater. Last week, we heard about Adam’s tools for the submission trade; this week, here’s Aurin with Part 2.


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Can you just trace the trajectory of your career a bit? When did you start, where’d you go to school?

I was born and raised in Florida, mostly played sports. Because I was in the newspaper a lot as captain of different teams—football, wrestling, debates—I got to know reporters who let me sit in the newsroom, and that led to writing for one paper, then two or three newspapers, and then three newspapers and two magazines by the time I graduated from high school. I went to Northwestern and fell into theater, because friends were doing it, and it was cheaper than movies. From there, I went to New York City to the New School, and then years later to Juilliard. After Juilliard, I was a staff writer on Brain Dead, and a story editor/writer on This Is Us, as well as continuing theater projects and fellowships.


How did you get your agent?

Back in 2005, I got my first agent at Gersh when I was finishing at the New School, and my first job adapting a novel into a screenplay for Moxie Pictures, an indie label in New York. Then my dad got sick in 2006, and I was in Ars Nova as well as other groups, and all that fell away because I was going home so much. I lost my agent, and most of my contacts over the next five or six years that I was taking care of my dad. In 2012, his condition stabilized, I got into Juilliard, and that’s when I signed with Paradigm.


You sort of have to start over, because, after a few years, people forget about you. I had a career that was headed in a certain direction, with Gersh, getting jobs here and there, being in Ars Nova, getting a play off-Broadway—but you lose all those contacts and have to begin again. Sometimes people remember you from ten years ago… and then I sort of rose again like a phoenix and this is the second iteration.


It’s a pretty awesome second round. Were you always a prolific submitter? How have your methods evolved?

I would submit more than the average person. But when I got into Juilliard, I said, “Let’s try this again.” I ran into an article about a New Yorker cartoonist who said in his most successful year, he had a return of five to seven percent accepted, so I wanted to see if that would hold true. I did the math, and thought if I submitted to ten things a month for a year, that’s 120, and should be roughly seven or eight things I might get, if I’m a writer who has any worth according to the current model and system that exists in American theater.


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And did you find the same success rate?

You don’t really realize at first. I do spreadsheets month by month, and add up at the end of each quarter, and then the end of the year. Six months in, you begin seeing one or two things pop up, and, then the third quarter, a little more pops up, and, by the end of the year, you see not just the contests that have been “won,” but the things that have been selected as finalist, or gotten special notices beyond just out-and-out rejection get an asterisk. When you scroll, you see most red x, red x, asterisk, red x, maybe once a month a finalist or notice, someone paid attention. And maybe once or twice a quarter, you might get a green light that you won or were a finalist. So it was the O’Neill last year; two years ago, I was a semi-finalist, and I marked that as a notice.


Mostly of the stuff I did years ago, and more than half of what I do now are cold submissions. I use the Playwrights Center and NYCPlaywrights and my old list, so I can look last year, see what’s coming up, and keep track of everything.


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So you’ve got some notices, and attention, then what?

I’d promote it. Take it to some artistic directors or literary managers I know, try to get a reading of it, try to get people to see it, and give it some heat or momentum; after a year, you can figure out what people are responding to and what to push, the things that people most care about. I wrote a play at Juilliard that everyone loved, but it’s an experimental play with people of color, which is hard to come by in American theater, and it’s easy to see why, because we’re not conceived of outside of our limited scope. Kennedy Center wanted to workshop a play for a week, so I chose RUNNING ON FIRE, because it fits the PC aesthetics of what’s going on in theater, and it’s not going to have a lot of opportunities to be seen by people. It’s not about quality; the aesthetics and form just aren’t what’s going on in theater; it doesn’t mean it’s not good.


And then the play was selected by the O’Neill, and has a production scheduled. What else will you do to promote it?

Even before the O’Neill, I thought, “What resources do I have?” There’s always Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and I got into New Dramatists last September, so I use that as a platform. Laura Marks was a staff writer on Brain Dead, and she had a play she read at New Dramatists for that reason, “This has some heat; let me put it out there,” and her play, MINE, is now going to a theater company and might be adapted into a movie. So use whatever platform you have when it’s ready to be presented—a school, community college or center, or just people getting together.

In LA, we have a workshop of people’s TV scripts at the Hillel Center once a month on Sundays. We came up with a banner, and it attracted ten or fifteen people, and then guests artists, and a writer who is on The Good Neighbor, and a literary manager, people with credits. And it all started from someone saying, “What resources do I have? What space can I get?


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That’s a good segue to talk about your move to LA. What’s that been like, theater-wise?

Theater in LA isn’t as connected as theater in New York. It’s out here, there is a lot, but it seems to off to the side. There isn’t a lot of experimental theater. I’ve been meeting with people and theaters about OBAMA-OLOGY, and networking, and the National New Play Network had their fundraiser reception out there, so I agreed to host, and I’m meeting playwrights, and just getting to know people and figuring out what they’re interested in.


You’ve mentioned a couple times “what people are interested in,” “the current model and system,” and what current “aesthetics and form” are in theater right now. Can you talk about this idea, and how it affects what you write, and how you pitch?

I think American mainstream theatre is mostly about well-made, secrets-being-revealed *gasp* “I found this letter in the second act,” sort of thing. In light of the election, people are starting to get more interested in political theater, but in a very staid 1960s aesthetic. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I didn’t grow up with those protest plays. They do not speak to me, my friends, or the feel of the time. So there are a lot of earnest attempts at addressing the times by people who aren’t as connected as younger people, which creates this aesthetic/content/audience disconnect. The other thing is that people in theater generally agree, so they’re very averse to plays that challenge neoliberalism. I’m very liberal, but if a play is only reconfirming my views, I get bored.


So I have to pitch myself as a provocateur, while being on their side of the other artists. I am here to poke the flabby underbelly of liberal smugness, but I am not doing it simply to be a contrarian. I am doing it because it makes me a better liberal, a more engaged artist, and a more thoughtful citizen. I don’t want my mind to get flabby, inflexible, and smug. Theater is an excellent form of spiritual and social yoga.


Are you still finding time to submit in LA?

It’s been more like a combination with pitches, because I include TV and film in that, so it has equaled ten a month. When I looked at what I was doing in January and February, it was over ten projects I was pitching, outlining, writing, and then a musical, and film projects. I can’t always do ten pitches a month, because it takes so long to sit down, write ten pages, practice it, and meet with people. All of it together might be ten things I’m submitting in theater, TV, and film.


The amount of time you have to submit is greatly reduced when you’re struggling with multiple jobs. I feel like when you hit a certain level, you don’t have to submit ten things a month because the jobs come to you. I’m not there yet, but I feel like people are starting to ask, “can you do a pitch on this project?” and I can say, “Sure,” or “I’m not interested.”


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You’ve been involved with television from early on; was it always both, or did it just happen that way?

I was a film major at Northwestern, but my writing was more welcome and better received in theater because I wrote about social issues and black culture, and, at the time, in film and TV, that received no interest or support. In theater, I received readings and encouragement, so that’s how I flowed into theater. But I never gave up on TV, just now’s not my time; so the winds shifted, but they can shift back. Maybe next I’ll be writing a book or a bunch of poems or be a journalist again.


Tell us how the production of OBAMA-OLOGY happened at Finborough in London. It’s a great example of networking.

I went to the Dramatists Guild breakfast to network and talk to people, and one of the writers had a play up there, and said, “I’ll help you out if you help me out.” I sent his stuff to my people, and he introduced me to three or four in London, and then Finborough said they had an interest in producing something, and I said, “Can you do this play, because I’m going to be workshopping it this summer and it would be a mini pipeline to you,” and they said that was a good idea. For next year, they asked if I had another play, and I’ve introduced them to other playwrights.


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Again, I would say look at your resources that you have, a church, theater, schoolhouse, outhouse, write it down, catalog it, make it unemotional and just about results. If you’re making it unemotional, you’re looking at results of a large amount of submissions over the course of a year. Don’t have to submit every day, but a certain amount a month or quarter. Stick to email submissions unless it’s a very high quality target like Sundance or the O’Neill. Unless it’s high quality, do not pay money for it, do not print out hard copies, keep it very streamlined. Aim hard at the top tier, medium tier, and lower tier, and have a good mix of full-length, one-act and ten-minute plays. Once you have the resources, galvanize people to come together for readings or workshops, tell them what you’re up to, and what you’re excited about, and what’s coming down the pipeline.


At the Dramatists Guild breakfast, it was just seeing what people want and what would make them happy, and how we can exchange information. Information is key, and that’s what people don’t realize. They think they need money, but what they need is information, and they need to use it in an effective amount of time. So if you have that email now, make the introduction, and make sure you know something about the company and previous production, and use that to pitch the play that fits best.


When you have a new play that you feel is ready, what do you do with it?

It really depends on where you’re at and how you feel about the play. Over ten years ago, I was developing a play at Vital Theatre, and I knew they were never going to do it, and I thought, “I’m going to get this play produced.” So that evening I went from Vital to to Ars Nova to a Christmas party, and thought, “If I put out the energy…” Somebody introduced me to a director, and I said, “I just finished a play you’d be great for; we should meet and talk.” He read the play, thought it was great, and I said, “I feel like I can get this done off-Broadway and we can win some awards, even if it takes a while.” It got into the Fresh Fruit Festival, and he said we shouldn’t do it, but I thought about it, and did it, cobbled together the money, glommed onto some people who had U-Hauls, and ended up winning some awards at Fresh Fruit and was picked up by a producer a year later and produced off-Broadway. And that all started by finishing a play and walking out the door saying, “I’m going to get my play produced.”


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When and why did you begin your Six Perfections blog and Get What You Want list?

I was the director of new play development at Freedom Train, so one of my goals was that every play would find a home somewhere, if not production then strong development. I sat down with each person and came up with a game plan to submit stuff to different places, and that grew into me releasing a list to writers, i.e. “here’s my update and what I’m doing for you.” I only had the job a few years, but every single play I was in charge of was able to link up to a theater company or production, because I would doggedly pursue everything we put into writing.


I’d been doing the list for a year or two when the job ended at Freedom Train, and, for a split second, I thought, “at least I don’t have to do this list anymore,” then I thought about how this list is helping people out, and started having this conversation with myself about how I could still help people out by sending the list to friends and playwrights. So after Freedom Train ended, I’d send the list to maybe 50 people, and playwrights would ask to be added, and it grew from that, and I figured I’d put it on the blog, and it’s grown from there. It’s been at least ten years.  


Do you submit to that stuff yourself?

Oh absolutely, I just submitted to a bunch of stuff a few weeks ago. There was a radio contest I submitted to two or three times. They asked six months ago, then they asked again, they said they were interested, then someone else posted a list on their site. Until I get a no, I’m going to keep resubmitting.


And that seems like both a mantra and the perfect place to end.


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