Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What We're Up Against

I finished reading Outrageous Fortune yesterday and will probably have lots of things to say in response to it, and to the discussion that has sprung up around it. Especially because two weeks from now, Todd London, the author of the study, will be coming to speak in the Bay Area, and I've already made plans to take the day off from work and attend!

But for now I just want to get down my initial impression. Which, surprisingly, is one of relief. I had been worried that Outrageous Fortune was going to depress the hell out of me. Before reading it, I'd seen its most shocking statistics quoted on theater blogs, and had heard about how the book has the power to demoralize and infuriate... and that made me all anxious and stressed-out. Nevertheless, I thought, "I have to read it. It's always better to know what you are up against."

And thus--because knowledge is power--I actually feel a lot better now that I have read it. It is a relief to see a formal study that tells you what you are up against, rather than having to rely on piecemeal anecdotal evidence. It is a relief to know that things that you've privately thought, experiences you've had, are also shared by other people in the American theater. It is a relief to have this all down on paper, where it seems more substantial than when it was floating around the internet. Because, frankly, not a lot of its findings are new--it has new evidence for them, and a new way of fitting all the pieces together, but it mostly confirms things that people have been thinking and wondering.

So, for instance, when I was 18 years old and the literary intern at PCS, I had the best summer of my life and was convinced that the LORT system was the most wonderful and vital part of the American theater. But then, gradually, I started feeling more and more dubious. Like, if I wanted to earn any money from my summer internship, I'd have to intern in the Marketing department, not the Literary one--and why should that be the case? Or, I learned a lot about playwriting do's and don'ts from sorting through the slush pile... but why did I feel that even the greatest slush-pile scripts would never, seriously, get produced at PCS? Or, three years ago, when my friend Rachel was planning her senior-thesis project (which turned into the Dynamo Theater Lab), didn't she say "New plays in this country seem to get a lot of workshops, but they never get performed... But this project is devoted to finding a new way to produce new plays"?

Well, Outrageous Fortune is all about that--the precarious position of LORT theaters' literary departments, the way that new plays get workshopped but hardly ever produced, and how even the plays that are workshopped are rarely the ones from the slush pile... It lays it all out. Gets it into the open. Clears the air--I hope!

And also, Outrageous Fortune has made me feel better about some of the choices I've made. I know what you're thinking: "Marissa, you just read a study that says that most playwrights make under $40,000 a year even when they're middle-aged, and that makes you feel good about your choices?" Well... what I mean is that I feel better now about taking this playwriting thing slowly. Frankly, a lot of my stress since graduating from college has been centered around the issue of what I "should" be doing if I want to be a writer. My mindset was always "you gotta hustle, you gotta work three times as hard as everyone else, because there is always someone younger, smarter, and better than you nipping at your heels." And so I would totally beat myself up for not working hard enough to get in the game and stay there. I thought I should be going to the theater four nights a week, I should be writing five pages a day, I should be sending my scripts to theaters all over the country and trying to get them developed, perhaps I should have moved to NYC?

But Outrageous Fortune implies--and other people, smarter people than I, have outright stated--that "the only way to win is not to play." If I were out there hustling, I'd be perpetuating a broken system, perpetuating the idea that it's all a rat race and that we playwrights are a desperate breed. So therefore--it's OK that I'm not as "ambitious" as I thought I was. It's OK that I'm writing some shorter pieces and trying to form connections with small local theaters, rather than trying to break into the LORT crowd. It's OK that I moved to San Francisco. (actually, I now feel smug that this is the region that Outrageous Fortune singles out for having a healthy and supportive playwriting community!) It's OK that I'm not doing what my résumé would seem to suit me for. I am trying to figure out how to do things on my own terms, and that's OK.

The Mission Paradox Blog says it today, "save yourself, save the industry." Now, the part of me that says I "should this" and "should that" is hard to shut up... but at least now I know what I "should not" do, which is to perpetuate the status quo and play into the hands of a system that is barely functioning.


jonathan said...

Hey Marissa,

I've been enjoying your blog-posts. I'll be at Todd's convening next week too - please introduce yourself. I'm always happy to get to know more Bay Area Playwrights.
-Jonathan Spector

Marissa said...

Thanks, Jonathan! Will do!