I want to begin by thanking playwright Lee Blessing for basically writing my column for me this week. The Tony-, Olivier- and Pulitzer-nominated author of A Walk in the Woods and Eleemosynary visited Orlando Shakes last weekend for a reading of his latest script, For the Loyal, as part of Playfest! Harriett’s New Play Series. (That would be local patroness of the arts Harriett Lake, of course.) Before the reading – which featured Sophie Bell, Rus Blackwell and Riley Clermont in a dark fantasia inspired by the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal – Blessing presented the festival keynote speech, a riotously sharp and self-deprecating address directed at fellow potential playwrights in the audience. Here’s a sampling from Blessing’s seven “exhortations and admonitions” to emerging authors in the “amiable slaughterhouse [of] more disappointments than successes” that is the world of theater.
It’s tempting for church-mouse-poor playwrights to take every commission that comes along or even write for free. But as a self-employed contractor, you’re better off working on something “more solid, more central to your development as an artist” than working for others, “no matter how sympathetic or supportive they might be.” Also, don’t wear out your play on the “merry-go-round” of public readings, which can “potentially waste years of your creative life.” (So says the man whose latest play just had its fourth reading this year.)
Comparing a “good play” (like A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia) to a “great play” (like Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?), Blessing advises “swinging for the fences” and deciding whether to “challenge audiences or simply cater to them” before our society forgets the difference between “a good play and one that is merely good enough.”
The New York Times is the only critical judge that matters anymore, so “when the New York Times informs you that you no longer have a career, it’s not personal” but “there is no such thing as your day in court.” With an institutional incentive to rarely reverse itself or reassess past opinions, every NYT-reviewed show must “click or close … be flowers or weeds, with no in-between.” So “when the Times tolls for thee [as it did for Blessing with Frank Rich’s tepid 1988 critique of his otherwise-lauded A Walk in the Woods] be sure to have a backup plan.”
Blessing recalled how he hamstrung the commercial potential of A Walk in the Woods by turning down Alec Guinness’ offer to star on Broadway out of loyalty to director Des McAnuff, against the advice of a shady business associate he described as a “horrible person.” It turns out the shyster was the only one with Blessing’s financial interests at heart; by ignoring him, Lee only earned Obi-Wan’s disdain while losing McAnuff’s friendship anyway.
“Have a trust fund. If you don’t have a trust fund, find out where you can get one [or] take a vow of poverty.” The share of royalties most playwrights earn is gradually eroding and the “financial picture will quite possibly grow worse and worse”; even a successful author like Blessing “can live comfortably in a hollow log.” If you want to make a living, marry someone who works and/or take a year off to write spec scripts and break into television, as his wife did.
“Whales” are the wealthy patrons who make theater possible with financial investments or philanthropic donations (in this business, often the same thing). They “may get a little micro-managey” but artists must be patient and show them respect, “even if they are a pain in the ass. … There are ways to get around dilettantish meddling; there are not ways, generally speaking, to replace money.” Remember, “money talks and talent grouses quietly in the corner, making sure no one can hear it except other drunken artists,” so “render unto Caesar and all his rich friends; it’s how you’ll survive.”
“Playwrights can be ‘typed’ just like actors, and nothing sounds sweeter to a producer’s ear than a phrase like ‘a Neil Simon play’ or ‘a Wendy Wasserstein play.’” A consistent author whose style is a known quantity to audiences feels safer and “makes everyone’s job easier [because] people like buying well-known brands.” Writers like Blessing, who, “like Captain Kirk, actively explore different worlds and boldly go to different genres and styles” find their diversity is “largely an obstacle to success.”
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