#playwright

Another Facebook Status Update, turned essay, this one about the morning I spent giving “advice” to my fellow writers.

Today I started my day by talking to a group of playwrights who wanted insight and advice on the industry and how to break into it and asked totally valid questions like “Is it worth it?” and “Will it lead anywhere?” and I replied with my standard response that only you can decide for yourself if it’s worth it, and that you have to determine what success means to you, whether that’s “making a living from your art” (not my measurement of success) or who you get to work with (more my measurement of success) and what you get to do with those folks and the potential impact that work may have (my ultimate measurement of success).

I then talked about all the various ways you can try to “ensure” that you will meet your goals (whatever they are) but cautioned that there was no sure fire way to predict or promise outcomes, mentioning everything from how I once shared an agent with Thornton Wilder who did jack all for my career, to how I’d been lucky enough to work with a Nobel prize winner, two of my childhood idols, and have my work done on the other side of the planet, all because I’d taken the initiative to create relationships with people who I admired vs. trying to be strategic about things but just because that worked for me didn’t mean it would work for them.

And then I conceded that without doubt had my “upward mobility” been, at times, derailed by my “artistic principals” or my lack of shrewdness or my laziness or my unwillingness to play certain games, resulting in a trajectory that meant I wasn’t as desirable a commodity as maybe I could have been and was certainly not as vital a step for social climbers as I should have been AND YET by some barometers I was not only successful but admirably if not even enviably so YET STILL at the end of the day I often vacillated, like virtually every artist I knew, between feeling like I could point to a body of work and be proud of it, and despairing that I would ever create some of the things I most wanted to create or be recognized for a brilliance that, while debatable, wasn’t always being debated as often as some people, myself included, wished it to be.

In a moment of utter truthfulness I even went so far as to say that if one was lucky enough to ever see even one of their works done well and to their liking, they were already in an elite group of playwrights because the vast majority of folks who aspire to create for the theater never get that far and that one of the greatest struggles of my own personal career was not so much finding opportunities or climbing any kind of ladder as truly being grateful for the opportunities I was given and recognizing the value of everything I achieved because what I personally found most elusive was not the common concerns of resume building and prestige cultivation or financial gain, but rather feeling like I had ever made, for more than the briefest moments, art that made me feel as inspired as the artwork of the artists I most loved and admired. That I liked and believed in my work, I could say without flinching or fibbing, most of the time. That it caused in me the excitement I so often felt at everything from pop songs to medieval tapestries was definitely more of an occasional than a given. “But to be clear,” I clarified, “I say this not to disappoint, but in solidarity so those who know can know they’re not alone.”

And then we talked about gatekeeping and how if you let others determine your worthiness you will always be found lacking but the fact of the industry often was and often would be (no matter how much anyone touted their inclusivity) a matter of both who you knew but also who knew you (and acknowledged that) and how I’d found ways around some of those gates and through others but still also found myself running up against gates new and old and obvious and subtle and how that always would be the case and how that was also, generally speaking, true of every artist I knew because at the end of the day it was rare to get to make what you wanted to so long as someone else was paying for it, be the criteria for their patronage due to some checklist you had to meet to justify the grant money or the fears you needed to assuage and the greed you needed to appeal to in order to convince them you were worth the gamble that they might make a killing (since there is no making a living in art, don’t let people lie to you about that, even if they lie to themselves). Rarely was someone not a success because they hadn’t tried hard enough or wasn’t good. Which on one hand means, Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down but on the other means, Your Talent And Ability Aren’t The Variables In The Equation You’ve Been Lead To Believe They Should Be. And your passion doesn’t entitle you to anything, while we’re at it.

So my advice was the advice that, of all people, Tilda Swinton had once given to me and it was basically, “Just keep putting yourself out there because it’s a numbers game and essentially you need to overwhelm the walls of opposition which will come in waves of varrying frequency but which will never ever cease entirely.” And the pre-amble to this sage wisdom was that her own career had been a bit of a fluke: she had met Derek Jarman at a party and he had needed an actress. But he was only able to make films because he had inherited a farm and enough money to turn it into a small movie studio. “You use what you have,” she said, and because she’s an honest Puck, had added: “And it definitely helps when you have something to start with.”

But she was also quick to point out, it didn’t have to be a lot.

And I agreed. So much so that I basically repeated this to a certain Chronicle journalist many years later when, while interviewed in my stylish flat, I was asked how I’d managed to be myself, myself being someone worthy of an article in the Chronicle, amongst other things. “By creating a body of work that couldn’t be ignored,” I’d replied, thinking on all those self-funded productions and lucky breaks, from the ones that only broke because I’d first self funded a production to the whole part where being able to do that was a lucky break unto itself (though: I funded it with the salary I made working at a hardware store while many of my colleagues went to grad school), but also I was thinking about all those people who could and did (and do) ignore me anyway. “We’re all on the outside of something,” a character in my play, THE EXILED, says to her friend who in that moment is telling her something she’d rather not hear.

So I guess this is why I don’t get asked to do a lot of panels, but one of my favorite collaborators (one who understands not only what my characters are saying but why they talk at all) showed up half an hour later and we went down to the humble little theater that took me in over a decade ago when I was just one more person who felt like there was stuff he needed to say no matter what it took to say it. There in the bowels of a neighborhood some patrons deem too real for them to pass through in pursuit of a night’s entertainment, we sang snippets of mainstream musicals while we tore apart boxes and trunks and storage bins of props and fake flowers and old costumes and used curtains until we found those things which, while balanced on shaking ladders, we clamped into place at the back of the stage where a few weeks from now, we will once more volley at telling a story against all odds for people who might or might not “understand it”, but for now, in this moment, remembered once again, laughing, that for all the tatted tatters and shoestring budgets, we were amongst the lucky ones.