NOT EVERY VALUABLE JOURNEY ENDS IN PRODUCTION
I started this blog post a couple of years ago not knowing how it would end, but hoping it would be as we hope all play journeys will end: with production. Starting this post was coping therapy after learning that the play had once again just missed a production opportunity, an event that — in the wake of writing #PLONY interview after #PLONY interview — underscored the reality of living in a place where networking can be elusive, and cold submissions are the primary means to production. I decided to post it today, not because it’s gotten a traditional happy ending, but because I realize now maybe that’s just not the way this story ends, and that doesn’t mean the results aren’t happy.
The play is BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART — if you know me on social media, I’m sure you’ve seen it mentioned. Its first near-miss was in January 2015, the Tucson Association of Dramatic Arts, where it came in fifth place in their TADA! contest. The first four places moved on in the ranks, and, while I was frustrated to have just missed, I was pleased to know that it had beaten out several hundred entries to place there, and knew that meant something else would come up. (And thanks to all of you who offered to Tonya Harding one of the playwrights in front of me!)
It did. A month later, I learned the play was a semi-finalist in the Playwrights First competition, which comes with a $1,000 prize; it did not advance, but, again, I consoled myself that the play had merit and I had to have patience.
Two months later, Core Artists Ensemble emailed me to say they’d chosen the play for a reading in New York City. I flew in for the day, it went very well, and had enthusiastic response. Two months after that, it was invited to the Last Frontier Playwriting Conference and was announced as a top ten finalist for the Woodward/Newman Drama Award. But as we all know, it’s only the play that nabs the top spot that is assured production. I had another shot the next month, when the play was named a top three finalist for the Rising Sage Visiting Playwrights Contest — a 33.3 repeating chance! It was not to be.
But a month after that, the play actually won the Firehouse Festival of New American Plays, which is $1000 prize and production! But not this year… with the theater under new management and in some fiscal difficulty, the prize was cut to $250 and travel to a reading — a wonderfully acted and received reading and an opportunity to meet some great theater people. The week prior, as a winner in the HRC Showcase Theatre Contest (which only does a season of readings), I’d had an equally stellar experience. And I was grateful for both of these, because they allowed me to immerse myself in being playwright for whole days at a time, and that’s what it’s always been about for me — those experiences, the people I met, the chance to create, no matter where it is. But still… I want to see this play on its feet!
I came home after the second reading, tightened up the play, made some judicious edits, and continued to send it out. In October, I got word that it was once again a top-three finalist, this time for Theatre Conspiracy in Fort Myers, Florida, where an excerpt would be read at a fundraiser and audience vote would determine which play would receive a May 2016 production and $750 prize. I even got to send my new, tighter version for consideration. The night of the fundraiser, the message came: the reading went great, it was well-received… but the theater went another way.
For some reason, this one hit me hard. It was getting harder and harder to console myself with the play’s ability to rise above hundreds of other plays (in the case of Woodward/Newman, a thousand) to get the notice when it never seemed to lead to anything. I bemoaned living in a city where there aren’t enough theaters who do new work, and my only options for this play are cold submissions — to date, 312 of them. I had never had another play that had gotten this kind of attention, and I had false expectations about what that meant.
In early November, I got an email from Actors Theatre of Charlotte inquiring about my availability for their nuVoices residency; I responded, and was told a decision would be made imminently. Nearly three weeks later, the word came: top ten. Fortunately, earlier that week, I’d been invited to Playwrights Theatre New Jersey for a February reading, as part of their Soundings Reading Series. It was another great reading.
Core Artist Ensemble Reading in NYC
In the months that followed, I got beautiful rejections from the Public, Clubbed Thumb, Florida Studio Ensemble — theaters that had never even responded to previous submissions but who not only responded to my submission, but also had great praise for the play. There was no way they’d produce it, but they liked it! And asked me to send more work.
And then a prestigious group in New York asked if I could come in for a private reading, which we arranged for May. At this point, the play had had so many readings that I had a stable of actors familiar with the roles. I cast. We read. I thought it went well. But… while the intended listener liked my writing and would like to see more of it, the interpretation was one I’d never even heard before. The idea that, after so many readings, talkbacks, and responses, somebody saw such a unique interpretation bothered me for days. Was that the problem??
In June, the 2016 Kilroys List came out. And lo! BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART was on it!! One of 32 plays on the List. Could this be an entree for the play? Does the List have enough power that even a play by a nobody can get plucked off it for production? Did I just catch the bouquet? I had three agent requests for the play by the end of the day the list dropped. At this point, I realized that not getting any productions thus far was a blessing in disguise, or I may not have wound up with an agent — which, of course, still didn’t guarantee that this play was going to get a production.
A year later, none of the nibblers had opted for the full meal. There was one small Toronto company very excited about the play, but, on second thought, the directors decided they’d have difficulty casting the older man, and chose to produce THE WAY IT IS instead; then they bailed on that, too. I’d been told I had a year to make something happen from the Kilroys list, and now my time was up. I was losing hope for BRILLIANT WORKS.
The 2017 Kilroys list came and went. A new play became a 2017 O’Neill finalist, and another play became my favorite to try to break some barriers. An artistic director in Los Angeles told me he was still hoping that his recommendations could get the play produced. And a reading organizer in Portland chose BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART for The Reading Parlor, a monthly reading series for the theater community. I’m told it went well. (Later, I got an invite to the JAW Festival; was it because of this play?) a friend/mentor who recently moved to Portland said he was irked that this play had never been produced, as it’s great work that’s ready to go. He vowed to become its champion.
Opportunities to send out this play are becoming fewer and further between. The #metoo movement might also make it a difficult sell, because at a time when we’re trying to raise awareness about women being taken advantage of by men, some audience members might not see the empowerment in this play; even before #metoo, they had some choice words for the protagonist. And truth: I’ve heard from more than a few people that while they like the play, it’s too controversial for their audiences.
Last month, I had a request to have the play read at a theater in the west. I opted not to pay the exorbitant travel expenses to get there and see yet another reading of this play. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up on it, just that if it’s going to find the right home, it’s probably not going to be through those channels any longer.
So what’s the point of this post? There are several:
1) Sometimes having an excellent play isn’t enough. It needs to be the right subject at the right time for the right company. That combination of factors is everything.
2) Even a play doesn’t get produced, it’s still working for you. BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART introduced me to so many theater people, artistic directors, students, etc. There are people out there who still love this play, and who are interested in my next play because of it. The way things work in this glacial business, one of those connections might pay off, though probably not with this play.
3) As strong as I feel this piece is, I never sat around waiting for it to perform. In the wake of each disappointment, I worked on new stuff. I’m now nine full-length plays past this one, and while I still would love to see it produced, I know that there’s nothing to be gained by making waiting for that to happen any kind of priority.
4) As long as this took, and while this was going on, I had an experience that was the complete opposite. I wrote THE WAY IT IS, a play I’d sent to a mere 72 places when it was chosen for production in June, without so much as a lick of development or a single reading. It’s since been produced twice more. Don’t ever try to figure out how this business works. Just write another play instead.
–Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.
–To read #PLONY (Playwrights Living Outside New York) interviews, click here or #PLONY in the category listing at upper right.
–To read the #365gratefulplaywright series, click here or the category listing at upper right.
–For more #AHAinTheater posts, click here or the category listing at upper right.
Dramatists Guild Council member and ensemble playwright-in-residence at Road Less Traveled Productions, Kilroys List and award-winning playwright Donna Hoke’s work has been seen in 46 states, and on five continents. Her full-length plays include ELEVATOR GIRL (2017 O’Neill finalist), THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (Princess Grace semi-finalist, currently in its fourth year in rep in Romania), SEEDS (Artie award winner for Outstanding New Play), SAFE (winner of the Todd McNerney, Naatak, and Great Gay Play and Musical Contests), and BRILLIANT WORKS OF ART (2016 Kilroys List, Winner HRC Showcase, Firehouse Festival of New American Plays); she’s also authored more than three dozen short plays that have had hundreds of productions, and has been nominated for both the Francesca Primus and Susan Blackburn prizes. Donna is also a New York Times-published crossword puzzle constructor; author of Neko and the Twiggets, a children’s book; and founder/co-curator of BUA Takes 10: GLBT Short Stories. For three consecutive years, she was named Buffalo’s Best Writer by Artvoice, the only woman to ever receive the designation.
In addition, Donna is a blogger, advocate, and moderator of the 11,000+-member Official Playwrights of Facebook. Recent speaking engagements include Citywrights, Kenyon Playwrights Conference, the Dramatists Guild National Conference, Chicago Dramatists, Austin Film Festival, and a live Dramatists Guild webinar. Her commentary has been read at #2amt, howlround, the Official Playwrights of Facebook, the newly released Workshopping the New Play, and donnahoke.com.
Originally published at blog.donnahoke.com.