Applause Theatre & Cinema Books has recently published How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career, edited by Lawrence Harbison. The book features many interviews with successful playwrights, all conducted by Harbison.
Check out the Foreword of this new Applause book, written by Theresa Rebeck!
How do playwrights get their start? Where does the idea of being a playwright even come from, and then how does one start?
Once someone starts writing, how does that person figure out how to get a raw new play from a complete nobody to a place where someone produces it? And then what happens? And then what?
In a series of interviews that are chock full of the kind of information that other playwrights want to hear, Larry Harbison poses these questions to some of America’s finest contemporary playwrights. In conversations that range from a discussion of what kind of temp work you were doing when you started out as a playwright to how you got your first agent, and from who gave you a hand up to the thrill or heartbreak of that first production, Harbison focuses on the mysterious moment when a playwright steps out of that chrysalis and starts to emerge.
The designation emerging playwright is so commonplace that no one is quite sure what it means. Intuitively, one might think it means a playwright who nobody’s ever heard of. Or, a playwright whose plays are pretty good, but who has never had a production.
Or, a playwright who’s had a couple of productions in smaller venues but is hoping to get into a bigger house. Or, a playwright who has had a couple of productions but has made no money at all at it and still harbors the fantasy that someday someone might actually pay him or her to do this.
Or, a playwright who is teaching playwriting at a university but struggles to get his or her own work into production.
Recently, I was told that emerging playwright doesn’t mean any of that. Apparently, some people think an emerging playwright is actually a playwright who has already emerged enough to get the attention of people who might agree that this emerged playwright could use some help emerging further. Which means, I guess, that we need another word for what happens before that. Aspiring? Depressed? Hopeful? Wannabe?
People seem very concerned about these designations. Right now, the ones in vogue are emerging playwright, midcareer playwright, and master playwright. Although I have a friend who had a couple of strong pops straight out of graduate school, and since then, not much. She calls herself a “submerged playwright.” Frankly she’s not the only one who worries about submerging; anything past “emerging” and before “master” is a little worrisome. Will you make it through “mid career” or will you fall away into teaching or raising children or (oh no!) television?
That is not our concern today. Today we are looking at the moment when some of our most compelling playwrights emerged. Their stories are simply told, with appropriate attention to detail, which Harbison nurses out of them with a shrewd eye. They are in fact the stories that every young playwright wants to know. How does that moment happen?
It’s hard to emerge. As I read these interviews, they reminded me of a little bird, pecking like hell to get out of its egg and get on with things. We are right to be obsessed with the question of emergence. I’m also struck by the way the word “emergence” glides so effortlessly into the word “emergency.” There is no question that climbing out of that shell is essential to life; you will suffocate in there if you don’t make it out.
But there are ways to get out of that shell. Harbison and his pantheon of playwrights have information about that.
September 20, 2014