June 2008 - August 2008: Issue 27

Perspectives: Writing for Performance

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A Conversation About Playwriting with Mike Ervin and Paul Kahn

Editor's note: Recently I had a wide-ranging discussion with Mike Ervin, prolific writer, activist and wit, about being a playwright with a disability. Here is an edited transcript.

What we write about

Kahn:
One of the most annoying questions playwrights get is, "What are your plays about?" If you had to answer that, if your life depended on it, what would you say?
Ervin:
I guess I'd have to say they're about people with disabilities who are somehow being defined in a way that they don't want to be defined, who are somehow being forced into a box that doesn't fit and are trying to punch their way out of it.
Kahn:
So, your take on disability focuses on the need to define ourselves.
Ervin:
Yes, I approach it in a way that is not specific in terms of here are the disabled folks and here are the problems that they have, but hopefully in a way that resonates beyond the choir, because it's a human struggle that really everybody goes through . You can fill in the blank: I'm stuck in this box, because I'm an accountant or whatever and I'm trying to punch my way out.
Kahn:
Somebody I know said, "Being disabled is being human, only more so."
Ervin:
That's a good way to put it. That's why it scares people.
Kahn:
The difference in how I write about disability is that I focus on the way that people are separated: people with disabilities manifest isolation and alienation to a greater degree. Also, we often manifest the way that people physically change and lose ground.
Ervin:
And even when others supposedly elevate us to the hero box, that phenomenon is going to have large elements of alienation. In the long run, though, I like to think that what I write is hopeful, because my characters are fighting and not accepting being boxed in. If they were accepting it, there wouldn't be much of a story. I think my plays make people feel good about possibilities.
Kahn:
Yes, there are people with disabilities who are fighting and are really admirable. We have some heroes to write about. That's exciting.

What attracts us to playwriting

Ervin:
I like dialogue. I'm more comfortable writing dialogue than writing exposition or anything like that. And I've come to appreciate how much the contributions of others to a play enriches it. Say the setting is a living room: I can write about the people in this living room, who they are and what they're doing, and the set designer will create a living room. I don't have to say all the specifics and bring out stuff that I probably would not ever think of. The play is better because of the people involved in it.
Kahn:
I like the collaborative aspects of playwriting, too. It's really exciting and interesting when you see other people taking what you've done and adding their own creativity to it. Good actors, a good director make the work more than what you could do.
Ervin:
I'm often not as involved as I'd like to be; I like to know what's going on and who I'm working with.
Kahn:
When I first started out writing plays I had a major clash with a director who pretty much shut me out of the process. That's an exception.
Ervin:
I've only had business problems with people. I've never had artistic problems.
Kahn:
One thing I like about playwriting is that you use a limited means--what people say and what people do. I find that that's very helpful to me, because I don't do as well if I have too many options. I also think that there's something that comes from my background as a visual artist: writing for the stage you're making pictures, you want things to look a certain way.

How we promote our plays

Ervin:
I look for opportunities when I can. I've been lucky because other folks with disabilities find my work and take the effort to make sure it comes alive. That's happened to me three times, and I'm very grateful. It's very flattering that people will not only find the work but go through what it takes to track me down and contact me and turn my script into a production. But I need to be more aggressive. I should try to get grants and fellowships.
Kahn:
You're lucky that people have sought you out. I find that it takes a completely different kind of energy to put your work out in the world than to create it. It's hard to maintain a balance. I go through periods of being more industrious about promoting than at other times. I tend to use pretty much mainstream ways of doing it: I'm on different listserves that provide information about submission opportunities.
Ervin:
Most of what I've done has been in the mainstream. But there are also disability theaters that can be inviting.
Kahn:
The disability arts festival in Philadelphia was great, but I think it's also really important to get out there in the mainstream, following in the wheel ruts of folks like John Belluso.
Ervin:
The whole point of writing is communication, and you want to communicate to as many people as you possibly can. And there's more money in the mainstream, too. I think, if mainstream theaters accept what you or I do, then they're taking a positive step in a direction they haven't gone before.
Kahn:
Do you think that mainstream theaters are more accepting now of work with disability content?
Ervin:
I think there's more interest, more understanding, more curiosity, more appreciation. I think they're slowing waking up. I went to the Kennedy Center [LEAD] conference a couple of years ago, and it was quite encouraging. I started my access project [with Victory Gardens Theatre] in 1992, and in 1993 we went to a conference in New York for recipients of these audience development funds. And we were the only ones that had even thought about disability. Everybody else was outreaching to Latino Lesbians, things like that.
Kahn:
(laughter) Pretty narrow.
Ervin:
There's been quite a wide swing since then. But the numbers compared to the whole theatre community are still quite tiny.
Kahn:
I wrote a ten-minute play a while ago that centers on a character with a disability. And it's probably the one that's been done most often, which says to me that it's a more acceptable topic. But then I also have some misgivings about it, because it happens to be a pessimistic play about assisted suicide. So, I wonder what image of disability I'm putting out there. I guess there's room for depressing stuff.
Ervin:
(laughter) Sure. Why not? It's all part of the deal.

How we deal with rejection

Kahn:
It seems like rejection is inevitably part of what you sign up for when you're any kind of artist. Have you had much experience with that?
Ervin:
I've had reviews that have been extreme in both directions, everything from "This is the worst thing I've ever seen in my life," to "Wow! This is just brilliant!" It's all part of the game.
Kahn:
I always feel that the way to think about it when you have something rejected is that it's just one person's or one committee's opinion. I've also had the really strange experience with the same piece where somebody loves it, and somebody else doesn't think it's anything at all.
Ervin:
It's staggering the amount of plays that theaters receive every year. It's a miracle if anybody can read them all. I wouldn't want mine to be the first or second one a reviewer reads, because it's going to be hard to remember. You're usually stuck with an intern, and there's a big triage there. If you get past the intern, you might go to the literary manager and through all the channels. When you get a rejection letter, you might not have gotten past the summer intern.
Kahn:
I've done some play reading for theaters, and it's a hard thing to do. You want to be fair, but when you're reading a lot of scripts you start to get annoyed by little things.
Ervin:
It's better to spend time where you fit and not a lot of time where you don't fit. Theaters have certain missions, and there are all kinds of reasons why you're rejected. That's not to say that a bad review or rejection doesn't hurt. They always do. Everybody wants to be loved.
Kahn:
Yes, and I think that the desire to communicate is even stronger when you feel like you're more of an outsider in society.

How we learned our craft

Ervin:
I learned playwriting pretty much by the seat of my pants.
Kahn:
Me too!
Ervin:
I really didn't pay much attention to theatre, and I didn't go to many plays until 1990 when we produced The Plucky and Spunky Show with Susan Nussbaum. She asked me to do it. I thought it would be fun. It was like writing a sketch. It got picked up, and I thought, "Wow! This is really exciting!" It's a roller coaster, and there's never a dull moment. Then I just spent as much time in theaters as I could, finding out what works and what doesn't and what the rules are and what rules I feel I can break, and those I feel I can and should honor. And the process continues.
Kahn:
I sort of drifted into it, too, and I don't even remember when I started. I never went to school for it, but I've had some really good individual teachers -- playwrights who were doing private teaching. And that's probably where I learned the most -- one on one.
Ervin:
The writing workshop that we do at the theater is really important, and I've been part of it for 12 years. Professional playwrights who have been heavily produced are involved. It's been a free education for me.
Kahn:
It helps to be involved in groups like that. There are quite a few around here that I've sometimes gone to. I always think that should push myself to go more.
Ervin:
Not all of them are the right fit.
Kahn:
To tell you the truth, I'm too damn selfish. I don't want to spend the time on other people's work.
Ervin:
(laughter) Yes, I know.
Kahn:
I learn a lot from actors and directors. They'll really pin you down. An actor wants to know, "Why am I saying this?" That really makes you think.
Ervin:
They will find things that you never would have found on your own.
Kahn:
You're name is on it, so it looks like you're the smart one. But it's everybody's work together.
Ervin:
With The History of Bowling there was a spot in my second production that got the biggest laugh of the whole thing, and it wasn't even in the script. The guy who played the coach was very good and very funny. He said, "How about if I dress up like a cheerleader and come out and deliver my lines and then go back?" And so, he did, and it was so much better that way.
Kahn:
It's really wild how many changes people can make and at the same time honor what you've done. In the same play I was talking about, I had written a character as a guy. A director who was doing it said, "How about if it's a woman instead?" So, I said, "Maybe. Let's see what it looks like." It was completely fine. I even liked the play better that way.
Ervin:
Everyone involved in a production wants to look good. They don't like going onstage and looking silly.
Kahn:
Everybody's pulling together. It's nice to be in that environment.
Ervin:
Oh yes. I think I would have a hard time living in a city where I couldn't be part of a process like that.
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An Agent's Perspective

Morgan Jenness was the agent for the late John Belluso. She was kind enough to share with Opening Stages her perspectives on the playwright/agent relationship, on the nature of theatre and on her role in nurturing John's career.

According to Jenness, the primary role of agents is to get their clients the best deals they possibly can and position them in the field where they are going to be able to make money. Different agents work with different kinds of writers. Jenness works primarily with playwrights. Some of her clients have now moved into film and television, but generally she doesn't deal with screenwriters or TV writers. Nor does she deal with writers whose primary interest is in publishing. Other people at her agency handle that world.

Jenness' devotion to theatre comes from its capacity to deeply affect people. She believes this is because in theatre there are live people in front of you. She describes it as having a "town meeting or church aspect" of people congregating in a room. That immediacy creates a dynamic that can't be duplicated by film, video or electronic media. The physical tangibility of it is different.

Jenness is also attracted to the capacity of theatre to deal with ideas more profoundly. Like any agent she is concerned with having her clients make a living, but she also has a broader vision of theatre as an intellectual forum, not just entertainment. She thinks about what we see on stage and what that tells us about ourselves. She describes herself as a "dramaturg for the American theatre at-large," trying to expand its focus and shape the dialogue with the audience.

In response to the key question of when a playwright should start thinking about getting an agent, Jenness says that generally an agent will be interested when the writer has a project that the agent feels he or she can sell. Salability can come from the subject of the work being timely, or because the voice of the writer is especially interesting and compelling. An agent typically thinks about whether in the current landscape of the theatre a work will have wide appeal and fit in easily. Some agents, therefore, look for work that is very safe and recognizable. And sometimes agents are attracted to a writer who is young and fresh. If you're in your 20s, she says, "You have a little window of time" to make a splash.

But Jenness says that, in contrast, she tends to look for different qualities. She seeks to cultivate more diverse voices in the theatre and a wider range of subject matter, even though that's not as immediately lucrative.

An important thing for writers to know is how to get the attention of an agent. One way that really works well, Jenness says, is having a recommendation. Another writer of a certain caliber, a director, an actor, or a literary manager touting a play adds interest to it. "I get work all the time from directors who have a potential slot at a theater and are recommending a play," she says. "That ups the chances of it being done. And then, once there's a motor under something, agents start to get interested."

Jenness points out that there are hundreds of new writers graduating from writing programs every year. And theaters across the country are doing less and less new work and taking fewer chances. So, in this highly competitive environment it is very important for writers to understand their own strengths -- what makes them different and special. And they have an advantage if they understand the market and have some sense of where they fit in. "I'm always impressed when someone has done their homework," she says. "I'm a matchmaker – a yenta. For someone to have no clue about which projects they want to write about if they were given a commission, that's always not good."

In regard to what writers should look for in choosing an agent, Jenness says it depends on what the writer wants. Do they want someone who can give writing advice? Do they want an aggressive dealmaker? Do they want someone who's going to break them into film or television? Do they want someone who's going to be a friend or a therapist? The writer has to decide which of those things is more important.

About herself, Jenness cautions that, "If someone says I want to write for a TV series and my goal is to have a Lexus and a house in the country, I would say I'm not the person for you. The ideal person for me is someone who wants to expand the national dialogue and open up the parameters of who the theater is talking to and what the theater is talking about and have something happen to the audience on a deeper level."

Agents usually work for agencies and are on salary. In bigger agencies with multi-million dollar movie deals they'll also get bonuses. The relationship between a writer and the agency representing him or her is formalized in a contract. The agency typically collects 10% of whatever the writer earns. A lot of agencies will not retain writers, if they don't bring in a certain amount of income.

Jenness first met John Belluso when he was part of the Young Blood group of writers and was doing a reading at Ensemble Studio Theater. She was attracted to his work, because he created believable characters but his writing had a poetic quality that she compares to Tennessee Williams. She was also intrigued by his subject matter of disability, which she didn't see addressed very much in the theatre. "I was really interested in finding someone who could deal with the issues but who was also a really good writer," she remembers. In addition, she felt that he shared her broad vision of what theatre could be.

Jenness was very instrumental in helping Belluso advance his career. She gave him writing advice and introduced him to as many theaters and directors as she could. "His death was a real loss to the theatre," she reflects. "John was just starting to really make a very widespread impact." She also remembers that Belluso was concerned, not just with getting his plays produced, but with opening the door to other writers with disabilities. "He would love to know that he did."

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