Theater Fears and Failings

Confront your demons, face your fears, isn’t that what people always say? Well, I’m not the confrontational type, and my fears have a way of staring me down. But last week, damnit, I had a small victory.

logo_tru_sm The scene was a playwriting workshop in New York at Theater Resources Unlimited, which I joined after returning to CT. I’d worried about being cut off from other theater folks, especially writers, after making the move back east. Despite the presence of the Yale School of Drama, New Haven does not seem to have much a theater community outside the ivied walls. Certainly not like what I found in Chicago, where I was just starting to feel I was making good connections, and friendships, in the theater world. Obviously, New York is the place to go around here to build those ties, but taking the train into the city is not like bopping on the L from one part of the North Side to the other. Joining TRU, I figured, would give me the opportunity to take classes and attend talks, as well motivate me to make the trip into New York.

Our  instructor

Our instructor

The workshop I took was on writing for the commercial theater. I don’t think most of us there had any delusions of Broadway grandeur; getting any kind of professional NYC production would be a coup. Everyone seemed to have some previous theatrical success, even if only on my level of the occasional community-theater production. One woman had some impressive credits, including a recent reading that featured a Tony-winning actor. Our instructor, Diana Amsterdam, had her own substantial theater resume; she was an effective teacher and personable to boot.

One key to getting commercially produced, of course, is to write a good play, and Diana spent some time going over structure: having a series of events, choices and decisions and dilemmas, that drive the narrative forward. We all know these things, intuitively, when we read a good book or watch a gripping film. We don’t sit there thinking, “There’s an event. There’s another. The action is humming now.” Some playwrights can build the events into their narrative without even thinking. Some of us – me – struggle to structure our plays so they have that forward momentum as well as all the other elements of a successful play.

Creating events, structure, is the craft of playwriting. It can be taught and practiced, like learning scales on an instrument. But as with music, the true artists know how to improvise in ways that dazzle. The best playwrights nail the structure and then take flight with metaphor and poetic passages and deep themes.

I do not. I create marginally interesting characters who sometimes say something a little witty, or profess a semi-profundity that rises above cliche. But don’t hold your breath from one to the next. I guess if nothing else, I can see my own flaws, while acknowledging I can write, sporadically, plays that audiences seem to enjoy. But I don’t practice the craft aspect hard enough, or don’t have the talent to transcend the basics of it and really shine. Which discourages me. Given that, it was good to get that refresher on structure, so when (if?) I tackle that next full-length play, the craft aspect will be in the fore and maybe guide me a bit.

The rest of the workshop was about getting that play in front of audiences, which of course is the rub for anyone not named Mamet or Parks or Kushner, along with a few others. Producing plays, at the highest levels, is a business. Your play, Amsterdam said, is a product. You have to sell it to producers and directors if you hope an audience will ever see it.

What’s the trick? Well, see above – write a good play. But then you have to market yourself and the work. It helps to write a marketable play, which means small casts, simple staging requirements, maybe a built-in audience for some aspect of the play. One workshop participant has a play about NASCAR racers, which would certainly have appeal to NASCAR fans, assuming they go to the theater much. But before you get too calculating in the marketing aspect, I think, you have to write a play you care about it, with characters you and others relate too.

Other marketing steps: Learn how to write a good query letter. Perfect a pitch in case you ever get the chance to meet with a producer. Make connections and schmooze. All the things I don’t do very well.

The last part of the workshop is where the fears and demons came in. I didn’t understand this when I signed up for the class, and I tried to deny it once it sank in a few days before, but we weren’t only going to learn how to pitch a play. We were going to pitch one of our plays, to real NYC producers.



Try to talk while you've got one of these little suckers in your mouth...

At one point, Diana said doing the pitch would be optional. Then TRU’s director kinda said it wasn’t. I hate speaking in public. Especially about myself (hard to tell from reading C?WC?, eh?). Or if I’m going to be judged. Even in the practice pitching we did with other students, split into groups of three and four, my mouth dried as if I were sucking one of those little desiccant packs like it were a Lifesaver. My pulse went into overdrive with the flow of my words matching it, severely limiting their comprehensibility.

Then, the producers came in. I asked Diana if I could skip the pitch. Well, she wasn’t going to force me or anyone else to do it. It was, she told the whole group before the pitches began, entirely up to us. But it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity of pitching to real producers and getting their feedback on what was good, what could be improved. The subtext – ah,  there’s always subtext with us theater folks – was “Don’t be a wuss.”


Patrick Blake, an honest-to-God NYC producer with such credits as The Exonerater and Into the Continuum

About halfway through, I raised my hand to go. Diana seemed a little surprised, but welcomed me. The pitch was a little rushed, though not too bad. The producers made good comments. Within minutes, the pulse dropped down to the normal range. I did it! Yea!

Yes, we go for the small victories here at the Crisis. More important than what I or the producers said was taking on that little bit of fear that erupts when forced out of my comfort zone. I should probably do it more often. I will try. Though I doubt I’ll be making any real pitches soon. Not until I write a better play.


~ by mburgan on November 1, 2009.

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