September 5, 2015

A Labor Day Celebration of Playwrights

It’s been a glorious summer. The weather, for the most part, has lingered in a sweet spot where it’s warm enough to sit outside late into the night (in my case, on my terrace) and yet not so sticky hot that you don’t want to. The pace of new show openings slowed down as it always does for the summer months but I still got to see, savor and sound off on some unseasonably good productions (Gloria, Guards at the Taj, Informed Consent, King Liz, Significant Other and, of course, the deliriously-received Broadway transfer of Hamilton).

But, like all good things, the summer is about to end. Monday is Labor Day, which means that cooler weather is approaching, the city’s pace is picking up and the fall season about to begin. The holiday is also the time when I take a break from my regular posts for what’s become an annual salute to some of the people who work hard to make the theater that folks like you and me love. This year I’m tipping my hat to playwrights.

Over the past few weeks I’ve come across a few reminders of how, as Christian Borle reminds us in Something Rotten!, very hard it can be to be a bard—or even just to be a working playwright (click here to hear him say it)

The first reminder was “How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career,” a recent book by Lawrence Harbison, who spent 30 years acquiring new titles for the play publisher Samuel French.

The book (which you can find by clicking here) is a series of Q&A interviews Harbison did with 30 of the most significant playwrights currently working in the theater, including David Auburn, Gina Gionfriddo, Kirsten Greenidge, Rajiv Joseph, Neil LaBute and Anna Ziegler, whose latest work A Delicate Ship is now running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

They all talk honestly about the challenges of getting a play produced, getting stars to perform in their work, getting reviews when they were first starting out and whether it’s important to get to Broadway. They also discuss the very important role that regional theaters play in supporting their talent.

That latter point is a reminder for New York provincials like me that there is a vital theatrical life outside this city and that most playwrights earn their living when those theaters do their shows and so here’s a cheer to the artistic directors and literary managers at those places too. 

Meanwhile, the most recent episode of Ken Davenport's "The Producer's Perspective" podcast features an interview with Ralph Sevush, the co-executive director of the Dramatists Guild of America, which advocates for playwrights and their interests. He talks frankly about recent changes that have made it more difficult for writers to control their work and to make a decent living from it. You can hear what he has to say by clicking here.

The focus is more on the creative end of the business with “Playing on Air,” a terrific new podcast in which the performance of a short 15-20 minute play is followed by an interview with the playwright. That by itself would be a treat but it’s the folks participating in this project that make it such a treasure. For the playwrights include such major names as Christopher Durang, David Lindsay-Abaire and Lynn Nottage. And the actors are marquee names like Bobby Cannavale, Jessica Hecht and Audra McDonald.

Claudia Catania, who has worked as the associate publisher of Applause Theatre & Cinema Books and executive producer of The New Group, is the informed interviewer and the series, which began in 2012, now has 45 shows and counting. I just discovered them and, luckily, I did it in the summer because I stopped doing practically everything else to listen to one episode after another. You can listen in a more rational way by clicking here.

By contrast, I’ve been a longtime reader of Adam Szymkowicz’s blog “I Interview Playwrights” but I continue to find it fascinating too. As of Sept. 1, he’s interviewed 784 writers, ranging from those whose works are produced primarily at regional theaters around the country to Broadway vets like his most recent subject Ken Ludwig, who wrote Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo as well as the book of Crazy for You.

A playwright himself, Szymkowicz asks his subjects the same six questions: what are you working on now? tell me a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person, if you could change one thing about theater, what would it be? who are or were your theatrical heroes? what kind of theater excites you? and what advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

Some of the responses are predictable but others offer great insight into what it takes to have a writing life in the theater today. You can find the latest interviews here and an index of the first 700 here

What comes through in all of these books, podcasts and interviews is the playwrights' love for what they do. I’m grateful to that passion. As anyone who knows anything about the theater will tell you, it all begins on the page and so I hope you will join me in thanking and celebrating those men and women who first create the magic.   

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