To Script or not to Script

Times Square, NYC, sometime around 1989.

With the closing of the theaters due to Covid-19, opportunities for playwrights, and, especially, emerging playwrights have become few and far between. There have been many readings and performances staged for Zoom and other conference platforms, but it will most likely be a very long time before performing venues fully open back up for regular shows. This has already taken a heavy toll on many smaller companies; I know of several that won’t be coming back when restrictions are lifted. When they do reopen, surviving theaters will be depending on the tried and true to recoup losses incurred by the pandemic. So, expect many performances of The Odd Couple and Steel Magnolias.

It’s also forced performers and venues to be very creative in how to reach an audience. The aforementioned conference software has been the main strategy for many, as not just theaters, but indie artists such as singers and comedians have adapted to staging virtual performances. It’s also creating quite a challenge for emerging writers, particularly playwrights.

When the year began, I planned to get better acquainted with venues close to my home in the hope of establishing affiliations with local theaters. I’ve observed that playwrights who have existing relationships with theaters seem to have a better time getting work onstage. The quarantine has put the brakes on that. In the meantime, I’m concentrating on prose, writing stories and returning to work on my novel Worthy, which I shelved in 2016, after serializing an initial rough draft on my blog. I’m also working on a novel related to the “expanded universe” I’ve developed for fictional Atlanta, and revived a project I haven’t worked on since the early 00s.

The situation has caused me to reevaluate how I wish to pursue my writing career. Under optimal circumstances, it’s always an uphill battle for a playwright with no name recognition. The common route one takes is to send out hundreds of submissions each year to play writing contests sponsored by local theaters, which means that for most competitions, thousands of playwrights are submitting for only a handful of mostly script readings. In some instances, a submission can lead to a performance, but many competitions have very specific requirements and many offer little or no compensation other than a performance. Recently, there’s been a trend of making competitions local or regional, further limiting opportunities for playwrights who live outside the designated area.

In 2017, The Essential Theatre in Atlanta awarded my play Another Mother their play writing award and produced the play in their festival that summer. In addition to having my work featured in a festival I hold in very high esteem, I had the added thrill of having my play premiere in my home neighborhood of West End in the building that once housed the Uncle Remus Branch of the Atlanta Public Library, where I learned to read as a child. Another Mother was the follow up to Rebecca, Too, a play I began in 2010. Around 2014, I shelved Rebecca and concentrated on Mother. I had a First Light reading of it at Working Title Playwrights in February of 2016, and afterward, extensively revised it and submitted it to Essential. The resulting play was well-received by most who saw it, with the exception of the AJC critic, who wasn’t happy with his seating arrangement and compared my developing work unfavorably to a polished play by an established playwright which was also in the festival. Still, the AJC critic unwittingly provided me with important feedback, and for that, I thank him.

So, taking into account the character development that began with Rebecca, I worked with many of the main characters of Mother from roughly 2011 through 2016. The actual development of the play began in 2014, and I workshopped scenes from it at Working Title throughout 2014 and 2015, culminating in the First Light reading in early 2016. In February 2017, prior to the Essential announcement that the play was their selection for that year, I had a reading of it at The Process Theatre in their Play Day Read-a-Thon. That’s approximately two and a half years of development using characters I’d already been living with for an additional four or five years. This is an accelerated development for a play, which often takes many years and lots of readings before being considered for the stage. The play developed further during the rehearsal process and seeing it performed helped me to see areas for further improvement afterward. It has, so far, not been produced or published by anyone else.

By contrast, in early 2017, I posted a story to my blog entitled “Mockingbird”, which was a short piece loosely based on the myth of Echo and Narcissus. I had been working on turning Rebecca, Too into a novel, hoping to publish it prior to the Essential Theatre Festival, but I wasn’t happy with the draft I created, and instead decided to develop a collection of stories, using some from a previous volume I published. I revised three stories from my book, Freedom and Consequence, and set about writing two long pieces which would bookend the volume, expanding “Mockingbird” and creating “Phoenix”, culled from background material I formulated on a walk at Stone Mountain one morning, which featured a character introduced in “Mockingbird”. I added a revised story that I had posted to my blog, and developed two other character sketches from my blog into fully realized stories. In July, I published Fables of the New South, the bulk of which I wrote in about two months.

Fables wasn’t perfect, and I made a major revision to it before the year was out and an even more major revision when I released it as a hardcover in 2018, but compared to the process I’ve gone through with Mother, it was lightning fast. Being an indie author with my own publishing company, I can often get material before the public quickly — sometimes before it’s entirely ready for prime time. This has many advantages and disadvantages and harkens back to the early days of the printing press, particularly in the US, when anyone with access to one had the eyes and ears of the public.

I compare it to being on the Internet in the 90s, when I would type something and hit send, sometimes without proofreading beforehand. I eventually got into the habit of typing material in a text file then copying and pasting it when I was ready to publish. I’ve been fortunate, recently, to find someone to edit my manuscripts who doesn’t pull any punches and can look at the writing from a different gender and generational perspective, which helps me see biases of which I’m not always aware.

So, for the foreseeable future, I’ll be concentrating more on prose and less on plays. I still intend to convert my words into as many different formats as I can, but, given the interactive nature of theater, it’s easier to concentrate on developing stories and releasing them directly to the public than trying to develop them for the stage.

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