theater action

ARToberFest

Many people have heard of Oktoberfest, a celebration of German, Volga, and Bavarian culture. It traditionally runs 16-18 days starting in mid to late September and ending around the first of October in Munich. Oktoberfest has since spread to several major cities and college towns. My own town, Hays, KS, has been celebrating for almost 40 years and coincides with Fort Hays State’s Homecoming celebration.

The month of October is also National Arts and Humanities Month, a time to celebrate the arts. As President Obama has said, “The arts embody who we are as a people and have long helped drive the success of our country.”

That’s why I am suggesting a change in October, instead of celebrating Oktoberfest (or in addition to), I want to encourage you to celebrate ARToberFest. See a play or a musical, write a play or a musical, read a book or write a book, read a poem or write a poem, draw or paint or visit an art gallery. Find a way this month to celebrate the arts. Then end the month with “All Hallow’s Read” and give away books with treats at Halloween.

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#PlaywrightRespect and #LowellArts

While on the Official Playwrights of Facebook group, I came across a call for submissions from the LowellArts, a group in Lowell, MI. This particular call for submissions is one of the worst I’ve seen (a $20 fee for a 10-minute play!) so I wrote them. What follows is a copy of my email.

To Whom It May Concern,

I recently came across your call for submissions and even though the deadline has passed, I am writing to you today to voice my concern that your contest is taking advantage of playwrights. To ask for $20 in the hope that my ten-minute play may or may not be produced is one of the highest, if not the highest submission that I’ve seen, particularly for a ten-minute play. Ten-minute plays, in the life of a playwright, are not money makers, are often given away for free as a way to help get a playwright’s name out there or to help benefit community theaters, schools, etc. who may not be able to afford royalty rights. As the playwright, we have already spent time, energy, effort that could be spent making money, into crafting this piece of art, for our own self-fulfillment and again for the promise of no money.

Asking the playwright to pay also raises the question, do you ask your actors to pay for the chance to audition, whether or not they get a part? What about potential directors? If you have 10 directors interested in directing one of the 8 plays you have selected, do you ask all ten to pay $20, use eight of them and keep the additional $40? You may say, and I’ve heard this as an actor myself, that the actor does pay for their part in ways other then in cash. Through bringing their own costumes, props, time, etc. The same with the director. I recently directed a musical for my local community theater and invested a lot of my own personal money into the show, by my choice. However, that argument is flawed when you consider the time the playwright puts into creating their play. A 10-minute play is not written in 10 minutes. Personally, I have spent days or weeks writing the perfect 10 minute play. If you do understand this, and still ask the playwright to spend $20 of their hard earned money, on a play that is not guaranteed a production, then you have great disregard for the art of playwrighting.

If you are targeting this call to playwrights who are not more experienced and are looking for a start, then this call is even more egregious because you are taking advantage of a group of writers who do not know better. In writing circles there is an adage, “money goes to the writer, not the other way around.” And that is the way it should be. in this case, money is going to ONE writer, while others who submit are not even promised a production, only the lucky eight.
I understand you are offering a substantial prize, but I’m not convinced that asking for playwrights to pony up the cash for the prize money and fund your theater is the way to go. There are close to, if not more, 9,000 working playwrights in the United States. If even just a fraction, say 100, send in a play to you, that is $2000 to fund your festival. Subtract the $500 purse, and you still have $1,500. Now I know from experience that putting on a play isn’t cheap, but where does that $1,500 go? Are tickets to the show being sold? What is the size of your house? And why are playwrights being asked to fund your festival? These may seem like hard questions, but as a veteran of the stage for over 20 years, I know some of these questions (cost of tickets and expected house size) are often asked by licensing agencies when rights are sold.  Most licensing agencies will charge you whether or not you are charging for tickets are not and still want to know an average cost and house size. you may not want to disclose this information to a playwright, but you should. Why should the average playwright, who is licensing his or her own material, not be privy to this information? If I put in $20 to your show, I’m essentially an investor in your company and should know how my money is being spent.
You may not see these points the same as I do, but it is the truth of the situation. You are taking advantage of playwrights, we are serving as investors and licencors, and we should know these things before deciding how to spend our money. We are NOT your patrons, we are your artists.
Thank you,
Everett Robert

@WordsPlayers #PlaywrightRespect and an open Letter

The following was posted in the comment section of the Words Players Facebook page, re: the recent controversory over their call for submissions.

There are some here who believe that the playwrights who have voiced our concerns have somehow “bullied” Words Players, Mr Driscoll, or their young actors and directors. I have been closely following the hashtag on Twitter and the @WordsPlayers twitter account and have seen snark but not bulling. We have not in any way threatened violence or made fun of you personally. We did not dox anyone or threaten to. We have not once, that I can find, attacked any of the young actors or directors. Many of us have stated, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Blogs, that our biggest concern is the education of these students. That we want everyone to treat playwrights with respect. In the original call, as it stood, many of us felt that we were not being respected, both by tone, word choice, and by the implication that our words would be changed with or without our permission. Mr Driscoll has graciously acknowledged that it could be read this way. But we still have questions and we still have concerns. I think just about anyone who has ever spent time in the theater has seen actors “go up” or have paraphrased because they either couldn’t be bothered to memorize or just couldn’t memorize. I have been involved in theater for a quarter of century. The majority of my life has been spent acting, writing, directing, producing, live theater. And most of that has been on the high school or collegiate level. I have worked in churches and in bars. And I’ve seen it happen. But just because it does happen does not make it right. As someone who has just finished directing a production of Legally Blonde, I strove every day to make sure that my young actors (most were between the ages of 16-22) got every word, word perfect. At one point there was some confusion, the book said one girl sang a part of a song, the score another. I contacted MTI and said, “hey we have a question here…” and they answered it within 24 hours and apologized for not answering it sooner. Does that mean we had a word perfect show? No. Because it happens. Bt my actors knew that was what I was striving for. In my training, I was taught “you aren’t the writer of this play, you cannot change the words no matter how much you want to.” And that has never limited my artistic ability to create something new and fresh and original. In my adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, I wrote “Hatter enters, sits down and the chair breaks. He tries to fix the chair” (that isn’t word perfect to the script btw I just don’t have it handy in front of me to copy and paste), when it was performed in Atlanta, I saw 2 minutes of some of the funniest physical comedy I’ve ever seen. That is not modification of the script, it is an interpretation.

There are those who have asked, why we have held this amateur theater to a professional standard. My first response is, don’t you want everyone to be treated like they are a profession, regardless if they are or not? Wouldn’t you want your children to learn how to act and react in a professional environment and learn the proper “professional” way of handling things in the theater? My second response is this, Mr Driscoll is a college professor and is a mentor to the young students of Words Players. As such, he should be aware of the current standards and practices in the theater world (which for decades have included not changing writers words without their permission, provided the writer’s works are not in the public domain.) As an educator, he SHOULD be held to a higher standard. Just because this is “art” doesn’t mean that there isn’t a professional behavior to be taught, and our main concern was that the next generation of theater creators (actors, writers, directors) were not being taught that. Surely you would want your business teacher to teach your children the proper way to do accounting, or build a computer or cook or whatever. Before you can bend the rules, before you can “break” the rules, you must learn the rules, I was always taught (and that there are some rules that shouldn’t be broken) and again, our concern, based upon this call, was that an unprofessional behavior would be taught.

I sincerely believe Mr Driscoll, North Words and Words Players have the very best intentions at heart. I do believe that they respect writers, but that respect isn’t reflected in the call for scripts that we saw (on your public website, and yes as I mentioned in my follow up comment above, it is a public website that anyone can access and does access. If you did not mean for this call to be spread, a simple “this submission opportunity is by invitation only” and would not be posted on your website OR you could have put, much like the Barnyard Players in Kansas City have done, “this submission is limited to people within 300 miles of Rochester, MN” or anything similar.) Writers have had the words abused, as I said, and almost every writer can attest to seeing it happen, or actor, or whatever. And in light of last years incidents with the transgender casting of Olenna without David Mamet’s permission and the incident with DGA president Doug Wright’s play, Hands On A Hard Body, and the rearranging of words, songs, scenes, etc without permisison and the arrogance displayed there (the director reportedly said “But you have to admit I made it better” to the writer) and in follow-up investigation on TUTS in Houston, I hope all of you can see why many writers are defensive and take up this cause as being quite personal. Words Players is not the first to have had this happen nor will it be the last. It was just a perfect combination of events, bloggers, and writers taking up a cause that was quite important to us. The continued silence on the issue, the deleting of posts criticizing the call for submissions (and I saw some of those that were deleted and they were not in any way “bulling” or “vulgar” or anything else.) fueled us on, encouraged us to make our voice heard louder and louder until the Dramatist’s Guild, Doug Wright, Playbill and Broadway World had no choice but to hear us. And at that point you did what you had to do.

I understand why Mr. Driscoll granted an exclusive with Playbill, but I would have loved to have seen him reach out to those that first started this call, particularly Donna Hoke and Howard Sherman.

I know this was long, and I appreciate anyone taking the time to read it and hopefully the critics of #playwrightrespect understand where we come from.

Reading their letter to the Dramatist Guild, I can sympathize. They describe a collective environment where writers, directors and actors helped each other. I love that style of theater. I love workshops, and I love that kids spearheded this.  My first couple of plays were done in the same guerrilla style “hey my dad has a barn, lets put on a play” style. Hell, directing Legally Blonde, I had no budget; props, costumes, set decoration came from actors closest, homes, or out of mine or my co-director’s pocket (and I wasn’t working much so that made it difficult). I understand where they are coming from, but that doesn’t make it any less right or wrong, how it was suggested it would be handled. There is growing up as a theater and growing out and then there is remaining stagnant. I hope this was simply a sign of growing pains.

#PlaywrightRespect and why it’s important

If you missed the hullabaloo over the weekend regarding the #PlaywrightRespect hashtag on Twitter, here is an overview. Saturday, the talented Donna Hoke posted a call for new, never produced, never published ten-minute plays from a group called Words Players. Donna went into great detail about WHY this call was offensive to playwrights in her blog post (which I linked to in a previous blog) and suggested tweeting about, using Facebook to spread the word, etc, using the hashtag #PlaywrightRespect. If you follow me on Twitter or on Facebook, you saw that I was madly tweeting and retweeting about it. Words Players responded by not allowing anyone to post on their Facebook page and ignoring the tweets and hashtag. When this same issue was presented last year at this time, the management at Words Players responded with,”if you don’t like it, don’t submit”. Which is a response many of us chose to not do last year and this year.

The respected theater producer and blogger Howard Sherman picked up on the issue and blogged about it himself on Sunday. In that blog, a commentator who works with Words Players asked why this was such a big deal.

This is why.

I’m a working playwright, involved primarily in Theater for Young Audiences and community theater. I work with a lot of bright kids, smart talented kids, with aspirations of being theater teachers, dance teachers, English teachers or performers. During a recent rehearsal of a big name Music Theater International (MTI) licensed musical, I noticed the actors were taking minor liberties. Skipping a word here, a line there, rearranging words. To most people, this would not be a big deal, but I wanted to take this opportunity to teach these 16-21 years old (with a few 30 year olds and older thrown in) something. I sat down and opened up MTI’s licensing agreement at the front of the script and read to them and had them read along, the agreement that we are not allowed to change words, etc as written. It was like seeing a light bulb go off. This was something they had never been taught.  As I explained, “even if I wasn’t a writer and this wasn’t a hot button issue with me, I would still be talking to you about this because this is what the license says we have to do.”

The #PlaywrightRespect hashtag was chosen because that is what theaters are not doing when they make blanket changes, lines, gender, etc. without at least consulting the playwright. There is a difference between interpretation and changes to the script. Here’s an example, I recently had a production of my TYA adaption of Alice in Wonderland done by a children’s theater education program in Atlanta. My script says this:

HATTER crosses to the table, sits down and the chair breaks. He sighs and begins to work on it.

What they did was one of the funniest, couple of minutes of physical comedy I’ve seen a young actor do. It wasn’t anything I had imagined, but it was a legit choice that respected what I wrote. However, they respected every written word. They had a chair break and they had the Mad Hatter work on the chair. They said every word of dialogue as written.

We could choose to not send in our plays, and many of us have made that choice. HOWEVER, the reason this is an issue to many of us is because we share the same goals as you and your company do, to educate the next generation of theater and art creators and that starts with teaching respect for the writer’s words. The writer’s who have spent hours, days, weeks, etc into crafting a play that you want to produce. By asking us to write a brand new work, even one that is ten minutes long, without respecting the words and the time it takes to write that, is insulting to us. It’s like asking for a gift and then breaking it because it wasn’t the right color, or whatever. It doesn’t teach children about the collaborative nature of theater but rather encourages a culture of entitlement.

I have No Mouth and I Must Scream – A playwright’s response to #Ferguson

One of my favorite writers is the incomparable Harlan Ellison. Harlan once wrote a short story about a fickle “god” (in reality a computer) who manipulated and changed and warped a group of people for it’s own amusement. In the end there was one man who had no mouth and had to scream. Can you think of something so horrible? A need to scream, a warning to shout, anger to release, fear to vocalize and yet you have no mouth.

I am not that man. I have a voice. I am a writer, a wordsmith, an artist, a talespinner and a storyteller. I have a few publishing credits and a few people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I have a blog (obviously, you’re reading it now) and a few followers there who may read it (like you). I come form a place and background of some privilege (not as much as some, but more than others.) I have been blessed to travel to parts of the world that some of you never will go, I have stood on a volcano in Guatemala and on a beach in the Philippines. I have seen these countries natural beauty but also the dark side. Children in hospitals crying out and street urchins reaching, begging for a dollar. I’ve seen homes, shacks, that were barely liveable and offered no protection, let alone amenities. I have cried over the things I’ve seen. I can still feel the pull on my shirt of children going “Joe. Joe. Hey Joe, gotta dollar Joe?” 

But I haven’t just seen poverty in foreign countries. I’ve seen it here too. I spent formative summers in high school working on Mississippi Delta, working on homes that should have been demolished, or watching dozens of people living in a house made for a few. 

Some people will say I shouldn’t say anything even if I have a voice. To them I say, “If I don’t speak up who will” or as the famous saying goes “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So I will not stay silent, not about Ferguson, not about ISIS, not about arts in schools and arts education or any other subject I feel passionate about. 

There are people out there, in American towns like Ferguson, MO, who until two weeks ago, probably felt they didn’t have a voice. I KNOW that they felt they didn’t have a voice. I’ve heard their stories, people I know who are African-American and have experienced fear that what happened to Michael Brown, might happen to them. Fear, anger, and a lack of a voice lead to violence. When you answer violence WITH violence, the result is simply MORE violence.

When I was a kid, my folks had a gas grill, one day I was told to light the grill. I went outside, turned the gas on to high like I had done hundreds of times before, and went to light the match. Nothing. The wind was blowing and the matches wouldn’t take. I got more matches and finally got one to light the grill. However, I spent so much time messing around with the matches that when i touched the match to the grill, a flame leaped out and toward my face. I was lucky, I singed a few eyebrow hairs that’s all. What I didn’t know is that while I was trying to lit the grill to control the fire, the gas was building up until it “popped”.

That’s what happens when you have no voice. The gas just builds and builds and builds until it explodes.

I don’t have an answer, I wish I did. I pray I had an answer. I wish I could definitively say that if there was greater emphasis on arts in school, in painting, drama, writing, dance, etc, that the voiceless would find their voice. I think it helps. I know it has helped me, but that seems like such a simplistic answer in the face of such racial turmoil.  So maybe we need a little more arts education.

I want to say that if we just talked better, opened up communication and learned from one another these things wouldn’t happen. And that would help, I’m sure of it. I know my personal views on certain issues (not related to race) changed when I met people that believed different than I did. So maybe we need a little more communication.

I don’t know the politics of race that well, but I’m a student of history. I just finished a couple of plays that, at least to me, resonate, in these troubled times. One is about a young girl who moves to Lawrence, KS with her family at the dawn of the Civil War and why they moved there (to stop the tide of slavery). The other is about the most unlikely Civil Rights advocate you can imagine, a “bad guy” professional wrestler named Roscoe “Sputnik” Monroe, who was responsible for the intergration of Memphis, TN in the 50s. Sputnik Monroe’s story particularly struck me. Here was the most unlikely of heroes, an ordinary guy, who saw and injustice and fought for it. He was arrested six times, he was threatened and he threatened to give up his livelihood if there wasn’t intergration and it worked. I dont’ know if this is the full answer, but we could use a few more Sputniks, good men who aren’t afraid use their voice to speak for those that can’t.

You may feel you have no mouth and you must scream, but I assure you, you do, just try.

#Ferguson