Wednesday, February 20, 2008

yesterday and today

An email I wrote yesterday to my friend Larry followed by his response: I'm going to Joe's undergrad playwriting class tomorrow. This is what I told him I would say: I'll start by saying, "no playwright is happy. It's a miserable life. Even the most successful are completely miserable, even if they somehow are capable of making a lot of money." then I'll move on to "no one reads plays anymore. even if you get your play published someday, no one will ever read it. There was a time when it was literature, but that time is long gone." then "if you want a lot of people to see your work, you should somehow land a job in tv or write a film. Most likely you will never get a film made or land a job in tv but if you do, the work you make will be forcibly watered down by your bosses or by executives." "On the other hand, if you want to work in theater, the only way to do so is to water down your work yourself. round all the rough edges. make the "arc" that everyone likes. you must appear to be doing something edgy or new or risky. You must appear to write a play about something but if you actually write a play about something, or write something edgy, no one will ever do that play. which is why you may as well write for tv. you're more likely to get something risky on hbo than on an american stage. although honestly, none of you kids will ever get anywhere near either of those places unless you have a famous parent." "you may think that you have some sort of control in theater that you don't in hollywood but you don't really. and you will never make a living unless you write a big musical that isn't about anything that people like to sing." how's that for an opener? To which my friend Larry replied: There is one alternative to the bleak (and mostly true) options that you present. The artist can work independently. Funding the work him- or herself. Or at least privately, through donations. This obviously means doing things on the cheap. But doing things on the cheap on your own dime often yields greater freedom than working with the crass for-profit bigwigs or through the pernicious and often petty non-profit sector. Anything that's away from institutions. Making it a truly personal kind of art. There are enormous limitations and risks one takes in such a venture, but, at the end of the day, one owns every triumph, along with every mistake. And don't I know that firsthand. I truly believe that the main hope for theatre in this country is for more theatre artists to work independently. Even if it means a parlour-theater, or a living room-theatre, or a studio-apartment-with-or-without-a-bed-that-folds-up-theatre, or an abandoned-school auditorium-theatre, or an empty-barn-theatre, or a conference-room-when-the-suits-aren't-around theatre, rather than renting a costly off- or off-off-broadway house, which is always an option, but a financially costly one. when the people like you, Adam, and the people like myself, and all the bloggers, and all the people in Joe's class, and all the downtown crowd, and all the people that the downtown crowd would never give a second glance to in midtown, and all the people who like what's happening in midtown but have run out of options for what to see or what to be involved in, when all of us are willing to attend and/or produce this independent - and by that I mean TRULY and NOT CHICLY independent - theatre, then theatre as an art form will finally grow its balls back. Theatre seems so lamentably and inescapably middle class to me. If we take capitalism out of the mix, or at least try to, the way a garage band does in rock before they sign to a major label, the way any busker passing the hat does, the way poets reading in a café do, then we would take our art, at first, off the grid, but onto, at a certain point, a larger canvas beyond the grid. Please feel free to quote me in this class and to refer anyone with questions or arguments directly to me. l [NOTE: Joe, of course, does not want me to say those things. I’ll let you know how it goes. Class is at 5.]


meeegan said...

And are you going to suggest to those budding young playwrights that they plan to start their own theatres, so that their work has a guaranteed opportunity for production? It works for Alan Ayckbourn...

Adam said...

honestly, I'm not sure what I'll say. If they're serious about playwriting, they should do that if they can. (I never managed to.) But I think Marsha's article (below) about playwrights needing to have a group of actors they work with over and over is true. Personally I have a few people I have worked with multiple times, which has been great when i can swing it.

Probably all I'll talk about really is the joy of the ten minute play. I think that's what they're working on now.

But the advice I usually give is to read and see lots of plays. Host readings so you can hear your work out loud, and yes, if you can put up your own work, do so. Of course, that last one is not advice I can take myself right now. I barely have time to write and I have no money to spare, but people I know do it successfuly.

Anthony said...

Well, if the kids find this post, then...

But seriously, I'm glad you posted this. I'm considering an MFA and I appreciate your real-world perspective.

Adam said...

Thanks, Anthony. Definitely research how much the MFA costs. Brown is free and Yale is much cheaper than it used to be. Juilliard, while not an MFA is free and amazing.

Anonymous said...

Please discuss further playwriting MFA pros cons. Open thread, maybe? I've been poking round the internet for discussions on the topic, and haven't found any that are active, or focused on playwriting.

I'll start. I didn't apply to any schools that didn't at least offer the chance of good funding (the Columbia School of Soul-Crushing Debt was out.) Waiting on tenterhooks for most responses. Have an early offer from a school with less of a name, but the program seems lovely, and I'd get tuition plus stipend. Any thoughts on the value of such an MFA, besides getting paid for writing? Adam- as someone who's done both a free program and a crazy expensive program, how much should I be willing to pay, if anything?

Sorry to babble, but this is like undergrad college decisions, only lonelier. I just want to go to the senior common room and wig out in company.

Adam said...

The first thing you should do is send me an email. I know a surprising amount about this. adamszymkowicz at yahoo. a good thing about a program like Brown or Yale is that careerwise it is helpful after. Columbia, where I went originally is less so. Juilliard is also very helpful, probably more so than the ones above. It goes without saying that all three are hard to get into. Juilliard took me 3 tries.

The bad thing about Yale and Brown is that they're not in New York. New York is a school in itself, especially if you spend the time seeing as much theater as possible. and we had to do internships which were invaluable.

The bad thing about new york is that it is very very expensive and going to school there is very very expensive too. Apart from Columbia, there is NYU (Which is dramatic writing, not strictly playwriting) and Brooklyn College (For Mac Wellman downtown theater folks) and the New School. Lee Blessing teaches at Rutgers which is not far, but not close. I've heard good things about their program but am unsure what sort of reputation they have. Research who is teaching at the school and talk to students who went there. I know people from all of these schools who would probably talk to you.

Paula Vogel has a reputation for teaching "poets for the stage" If you are one, go to her, but if not, don't. She just left Brown for Yale.

I don't know a lot about UCSD or UCLA or UT Austin. But I know people who went there who might tell you about it. My inclination is that if people are giving you money to study playwriting for 2 or 3 years and it's a place you could see yourself living, then it's a good idea.

The big 3 I mentioned above give you more of a jumpstart in the career dept, or might but there are many other things you could apply to like the Jerome, the O'Neill, Princess Grace, Sundance, Playpenn, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, New Harmony, etc which could do something similar. In other words, if you don't have a benediction from one of the big schools, all is not lost. Send to the theaters you can and write and revise and write more and get your work done. Like Meeegan says above, if you're not getting produced, produce yourself. An MFA allows you to teach (in theory) and it gives you time to write and immerse youself in theater, but it also shows that you take playwriting seriously.

Now there are still people who go through the MFA who stop writing plays after. Being a playwright is not easy and there are lots of good plays out there so competition is stiff. I don't know if you are one of those people or not. But if you know you want to be a playwright, an MFA is helpful.

is it necessary? not at all. And I can give you two guys to talk to who never went to school. the norm though more and more is the MFA.

Adam said...

I should say, more than 2 guys.

Adam said...

also this:

Anonymous said...

Do you love writing?

Do you love writing plays?

Do you love it more than everything else?

More than a coffee table?

Because if you don't love it more than you love the freedom of not having "soul-crushing" debt, it doesn't really matter where you go. You don't love it enough.

Playwrights make plays. They don't just write them.

Adam said...

Sure, anonymous, but my soul crushing debt is getting in the way of my writing right now. You don't have to go to school to write plays. I did, more than most, but it is not absolutely necessary.

Anonymous said...

A coffee table? Other anonymous, you have named one of the few objects about which I have no feelings whatsoever. You confuse me.

Also, the choice is between a free program and a less free program. Either one would would at least put up my plays while I was in attendance.

Adam said...

that's another thing to look into. Not all programs do that.

Anonymous said...

You went because you loved it, did you not?

Finances almost always get in the way.

Did you read the Brooke Berman piece in the Times?

It didn't say anything about debt.

But I don't get the idea that her financial situation has made it easier for her to write.

All I'm saying is that if you love something, you do it.

When you don't do something because it costs too much, you usually end up spending that money somewhere else anyway.

Theatre will almost never make anybody any money.

Oh, and to the other anonymous, about the coffee table, it's a metaphor. You know what that is, don't you?

Adam said...

I went because I loved it, but I could have gone somewhere cheaper and then I would be having an easier time now. Possibly. The biggest reason I have to work full time is the 600 a month I'm paying for loans. I could work 30 hours a week somehow and have 10 more hours of writing. At the moment, because I spent three years doing a lot of writing, I can't write as much now that I have become a better writer.

and you can love it and not go to grad school. You can immerse yourself in theater without grad school. Grad school is probably the easier way to go, but not the cheaper way, at least not the way I did it.

Malachy Walsh said...

Adam, sorry to weigh in here, but I've been reading the thread with interest and, obviously, I know debt in ways that many do not (the amount I pay when combined with my wife's debt makes my responsibilities quite a bit higher than most).

I think what you say about less expensive places to study playwriting is true.

But the path you took, it was the only path you could take.

What I mean is, sure, it's possible that you could've gone to a cheaper school.

But you would've been on a different path. And perhaps Julliard then wouldn't have happened.

Which means other things would've happened - many good things I'm sure.

But the plays you wrote there would've been different and you'd be different and there's no telling whether or not you'd still be writing plays.

You might, instead, be paying for a house that required you to work a billion hours more than you do now.

600, by the way, seems like a lot to you, but in the bigger, longer scheme, it's nothing.

And perhaps it will push you to do something that you will like more than you know.

I find regret about pathes taken to do what we love very unhelpful. That's what I'm really trying to say.

Delmore Schwartz said, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. It's truer than we all know.

I'm not arguing there is only one way. Or that people should choose the expensive way. Or that schools shouldn't find ways to make it easier (they should).

But it isn't what you haven't got that defines you or limits you. It's what you're doing with what you have.

Adam said...

Hey Malachy,

Although your debt is higher, you also have a skill that pays well. I have not managed to get paid well yet. I'm working a day job I hate and am unable to save money. I want other people to avoid this.

But yeah, you're right, regrets are not helpful and Columbia probably helped me get into Juilliard. It definitely got me to new york.

Honestly, I'm not really happy with the plays I wrote during Columbia. I'm not sure if was something I had to get through to be where I am now or not but I stopped sending out the plays from those three years except my thesis. I think it's helpful to explore and be immersed in theater, but I wasn't thrilled with the support at Columbia during or after the program.

I'm not sure if I would have chosen differently if I knew then what I know now--I knew it was hard to make a living as a playwright, but I didn't know it was near impossible. I knew there was competition but I didn't know there was this much. I didn't know it was as hard as it is to get the attention of the large theaters. And I didn't know that I would be paid so low, that food would be so expensive, that the debt would be the burden that it is.

And i think it's important that the kids know this. Because the middle class is poorer and it's harder than it used to be the be a playwright.

Malachy Walsh said...

Obviously, we have two different feelings about Columbia. I didn't expect much except time to write from the program, so everything after was gravy for me.

And I knew going in that playwriting didn't pay. If anything, it cost. Sam Shepard, from what I heard, said that he made more from one movie (THE RIGHT STUFF) than he made on all his playwriting combined - and this was after his Pulitzer.

Being a huge fan of his, I took that at face value.

And then, too, having been a fan of many writers, I knew that the kind of writer I was likely to be wasn't going down a road paved with gold. Terry Southern, for instance, one of my favorites who penned DR. STRANGELOVE, died bankrupt.

Jack Kerouac died penniless - in his mother's house no less.

Fitzgerald was in and out of the money and died a bit pathetically.

And Ray Carver, loved as he was, never lived in any palaces.

It's just not easy to be an actual writer in America. Period.

Theatre, the kind that is valued for its attempt to convey ideas and emotions in an engaging way (and not simply slide off in clouds of laughter and vaporously good feelings as so much does these days) does not usually make any kind of real steady money. (You know the phrase - You can't make a living in theatre, just a killing.)

I never believed that money could be made in theatre, but I loved writing and wanted to give it a real try, so I went.

Columbia, however, confirmed my understanding of the difficulties of making a living under the proscenium. For one, the faculty clearly were all working very hard to get productions - this despite the fact that all of them were accomplished.

Then, doing the internships at regional theatres - well, it was clear there was no money anywhere that wasn't inherited or borrowed. Or begged for.

I haven't inherited any money. I don't like begging. And so I borrowed.

Despite the difficulties of this, I'm still happy about it. It was definitely a good decision for me - both as a playwright and a writer.

And though I do have other "skills" - they don't guarantee anything. I don't have any real money. I have to scrounge for work all the time and I'm never sure I'll make the next month's rent.

Still, that's my story. And that doesn't make what you're saying less true.

I just prefer to put it differently to people.

Finally, just as an observer from the outside, I'd say you got a lot more from Columbia than you suggest. You get on the radar in NY. And across the country with work that, while you no longer like, still got noticed.

The program also put you in contact with your agent - an important credential.

The stretching it forced you to do - though you may have not liked the immediate results - got you to try new things and eventually write a play that received very good notices in the NYTimes. No small thing.

That notice, in turn, I'm sure helps you every time you send a play to a theater somewhere else in the country. And it always will.

I'm pretty sure that play also helped you at Julliard, but I don't know what you applied with, so I'm only guessing....

So, while Machado and Stuart didn't get you productions, they may in fact have forced you to do something more important: Figure out what kind of writer you are.

Since I find that no program has any real track record with finding opportunities for playwrights, this is actually a pretty great thing.

Adam said...

Hi Malachy,

Yes, I guess I'm a little pessimistic right now. This too will pass. Or I will take my writing to another arena as I keep threatening to do.

I think this is a good point(but not your only good point):
"So, while Machado and Stuart didn't get you productions, they may in fact have forced you to do something more important: Figure out what kind of writer you are."

That's true. I think that's what grad school should do. It is a discovery process. But it's not the only way to make these discoveries, and some people don't need it.

In some ways Columbia both helped and hurt my writing. It'll take a few more years before I can look back with any accuracy, but I was definitely doing something.

I hope I have a reason to come to LA soon so we can have a meal.

Malachy Walsh said...

Dude, you'll be out here.

And we'll eat at some place expensive and have big steaks - or whatever - and you'll pay the tab and I'll wonder why I wrote all those unproduceable plays and you'll say, because you loved it and I'll say yep, that's right, just like you.

Adam said...

Ha! maybe.