When I was in my formative college years, Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for Wit. There were a lot of unusual things about this. One, she wasn’t a professional playwright. She was a schoolteacher who went back to teaching school after winning the award. I remember watching a television interview with her where she said she had one story to tell, she told it, and then she wanted to do something else. Wow.
What was most striking and unusual to me was how long it took her to get the play produced. Wikipedia doesn’t back me up on this, but I remember her saying that the play was ten years in development. Just think about that: Ten years from conception to production. How could that possibly happen?
Another tidbit: I recently learned that one of my friends from graduate school, Lloyd Suh, who just happens to be a terrific playwright, had a show called A Great Wall Story open at The Denver Center for The Performing Arts. The play is a taut comedy about a trio of reporters who invent a newspaper story in 1896, which eventually leads to the actual Boxer Rebellion. It’s a great, funny show and I’m glad it’s getting a production. Thing is, I remember seeing the first scene of this play when we were in grad school together in 2001. Eleven years for it to make it to the stage.
And, of course, my own experience. I had the joy and relief to finally see my play, White Buffalo, appear on the stage of The Purple Rose Theatre Company this month. I began writing that play in the summer of 2002 – again, a ten year saga.
I’m just glad my references to eBay still held up after ten years. An entire passage glorifying *NSYNC had to go, though. (Just kidding!)
A lot of artists have stories like this. How their masterwork sat and was ignored and rejected for years and years and then, finally, impossibly, broke through. It's almost a cliché at this point, that in order for something to be awesome, it has to be rejected countless times. Even Herman Melville’s Moby Dick sold less than 3,000 copies during his lifetime. (Probably because people thought it was terrible and no one was forcing them to read it.)
It doesn’t always work that way. On occasion you write something and it immediately becomes a smash hit and then stays that way forever. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is a good example: within a year of its publication it was anthologized and soon it was required reading for every child, and has stayed on the list ever since. Or suppose you write a fanfiction S&M story based on Twilight and change the main characters' names in order to avoid being sued.
But usually, getting something done is a long, laborious, nearly impossible struggle. There are so many obstacles to getting a major theater to do a production of your play it’s staggering. You have to fight for it, again and again and again. You have to convince people up and down the chain of command – if anyone says no, it’s over. My play went to an intern first, who read it, and passed it on to the literary manager, who passed it on to the artistic director’s wife, who passed it on the artistic director himself. After the artistic director liked it, he had to send it on the Executive Director. And then we did readings for the public to make sure they liked it. And on and on and on… And mind you, this was after the play had been read and rejected by countless other theaters all over the country. For years. (And when I say “theaters” I mean interns or literary managers or artistic director’s husbands, or artistic directors, because they all have the power to quash your show.)
And after all that, after ten years of working on the play, after convincing everyone in the theater to love the play too, after getting the actors and designers together, and rehearsing the play for weeks, and then finally, finally putting in front of an audience, a single bad review can destroy it all.
Is it any wonder so many playwrights became alcoholics?
My point, though, is that it is possible after years of struggle to succeed at this.
One last story to illustrate this point: When I was a teenager, my friend drove a pretty crappy Volkswagon Scirocco. When you’re a teenage male, you have a tendency to try to race any other car that comes close to you – it’s not like we were drag racers – I’m talking about simply starting at a red light and gunning the engine to see who could go the fastest. Now, the Scirocco was never the quickest car out of the gate, but my friend had a philosophy: It’s not who starts the fastest, it’s who’s willing to go the farthest. He’d always be behind, but he never gave up, and when the other car hit 70 or 80 and decided that it was logical to slow down so as not be pulled over or destroy their vehicle, my friend would keep going.
And that’s how you win. You keep going farther than the other guy.
And hope there aren’t any cops watching.
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