By Bridget Kelso, member of the 2009 Emerging Writers Group
Ahh... the life of a playwright. It goes a little something like this:
You spend months writing cover letters, personal statements, revising resumes and filling out applications for grants, and admittance into festivals. “Please sir, may I be in your new play festival? Please may I be considered for a fellowship? Commission? Please like my play and pay me for it.” Months later, the envelopes arrive. They are thin and light. You say to yourself, “Maybe they just want to congratulate me first. Yeah, that’s it! More details, in a bigger, thicker envelope will follow.” But no, it’s the standard form: “Thanks but no thanks. Beat it kid, you stink.” It’s confusing, because your play is AMAZING. Everyone in your playwrights group said it was AMAZING. Everyone tells you all the time that you’re REALLY talented. And your play is AMAZING. How could anyone not like it? Because it really is an AMAZING play.
As the letters and emails pile up (what should you do with them by the way? Should you keep them in a “You rejected me and I’ll never forgive you and you’ll regret it when I win the Pulitzer and a Tony and one day I’ll take a meeting with you and I’ll bring your rejection letter with me and throw it in your face, so I need to keep it” file? Or should you throw them away because they may be attracting toxic energy and vibes?), you start to get angry, because these jokers have rejected an AMAZING play!!! Who do they think they are? The fuckin’ nerve. It’s ridiculous. The whole system is rigged. It’s “who you know.” You don’t fit into their mold. They’re intimidated by your subject matter. You are TOO MUCH for them, and they are afraid of your AWESOMENESS. It’s sexism/racism/hater-ation!!! They should be begging you for your play. As you ceremoniously burn the rejection letters (it just feels right), you realize that you never liked that company anyway. Their last season sucked. They never do anything innovative or revolutionary. Why did you even apply there? You HATE them. They suck. And your play is AMAZING, so it’s their loss.
Okay. You hate them. But it’s been over a year, and no one on the entire face of God’s luscious green earth is even remotely interested in your play. Maybe, just maybe... your play isn’t amazing after all. Is there something you can do about it? Maybe you don’t need 14 characters in your play. Maybe the actors can double up. What if you rewrote one of the characters as a white male? What if you wrote a comedy for several white men? What about a romantic comedy with 3 white characters, and one “ethnic” character? That’s always hot. After all, people ask artists to make adjustments all the time. That’s how commissions work – it’s all about COLLABORATION. You’re willing to make some changes. But wait a minute. No one ever said to Mozart, “Could you write that in E flat instead of D?” Did anyone ever say to Picasso, “Hey Picasso, that’s a great picture, but could you change all the blue to red, and add some yellow in there too?” HELL NO. Are you a man or a mouse? You’re an ARTIST and you’ll do it your way (cue the Sinatra song).
More time passes, and you reluctantly admit that you are not the next August Wilson. Your play might have been alright, but it’s old news now. You find yourself talking about your last accomplishment, and realize it was years ago. You are washed up before you even start. Why even try anymore? A newer, younger, prettier crop of playwrights is on the scene now. They are about to “blow up.” And thank you, Facebook, for broadcasting on a daily basis how successful everyone else is. Each and every playwright that you know personally, or have ever heard of, is having a reading, going into casting, having a world premiere. There are invitations to everything, everyday. You used to click “maybe” but now you don’t even reply. You drop off the radar. People you haven’t seen in a while bump into you on the street and ask if you’re “still” writing. And that is just as it should be, because you have no talent. And your play is not amazing. If it was, it would have been produced by now, and you would have paid the cable bill with all the royalties rolling in. You suck. You might as well start asking people if “they want fries with that?” Oh God. Your life is a debilitating morass of inertia and heartbreak wrapped in thunderclouds and disappointment. Oh, the humanity.
You lay awake at night, wondering why you just can’t get a break. Just one break. And while you’re formulating your prayer or a new game plan, something clicks. A new idea. All of a sudden, you have the last two scenes for a new play. You can’t write it down fast enough. And so maybe that’s the secret. You take all the stuff that looks like rejection, and you turn it inside out. Spin it around, and see that none of this is about you. You take all of your feelings – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and you use them. They become a poem, a melody. All the self-flagellation that you’ve mastered... you put it into the script. You add it into the dialogue. A character gets fleshed out, a problem gets fixed. You look around and there is your son, your brother, your friend. You laugh at something funny someone says. A new day dawns and you breathe, and press on. You realize that no one can put two words together like you can. And the only thing that matters is how it feels when those words fly across the screen, and become flesh.
Bridget Kelso is an Adjunct Lecturer at the City College of New York and a teaching artist for Judith Sloan’s EarSay Project at the International High School in Queens, which helps Immigrant Youth by transforming trauma into art. She is “still” working on a solo performance piece entitled SLIDE SHOW: THE EVOLUTION OF RADICAL FEMINIST THEOLOGY.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.