General 10-9-2006

Letters from a Writer: Marry Money vs. The Scenic Route

Jean Sramek wonders why one would grow up to be a playwright.

JEan Sramek

My friend Mark teaches Intro to Theatre Arts at the local university. One of the requirements of the course is to attend current theatre events, both on campus and off. A long-term goal is to instill an appreciation of theatre in the students, some of whom have arts backgrounds but most of whom do not. Mark brings in local artists as guest speakers whenever possible. The logic here is to engage students with real, live Creative Artists, most of whom have real, live theatre projects going on which they describe to students, who will subsequently want to be in the audience for these projects; also, Moliere and Shakespeare no longer accept speaking engagements.

Mark asked me to speak to his class about writing plays, my experience as a playwright, and about “Out of the Hat,” an upcoming Duluth event in which I will write short plays for a live audience. [insert link to June 2006 column here]. I was flattered (A playwright? Where? Who? Me?), and I’m always game for self-promotion.

As it turns out, I got more than I gave. For one thing, I’m a mediocre guest speaker; although I’m funny and animated and not afraid of speaking in public, I am an introvert who is quickly exhausted by social interaction, so I’m also given to tangents, thinking out loud and other flibbertigibbet behavior while speaking. For another, I learned why the word “playwright” is spelled that way, which I had honestly never questioned, which I guess puts me in the same study group as Realtors who pronounce their own profession “real-uh-ter.” (“Playwright” means play builder, like shipwright or wheelwright; now you can pretend you knew what it meant when someone asks you).

For yet another, the whole thing made me think about The True Meaning of Creative Artistry. When Mark invited me, he threw out a sample question that people being introduced to theatre arts might grab onto: why would a person write plays instead of screenplays, and why live theatre instead of the movies or TV?

Why indeed. I took the fame-and-fortune temperature of this class by asking them which screenwriters or playwrights they’d heard of: John Patrick Shanley? Charlie Kaufman? Beth Henley? Blank stares. I said “August Wilson” and a few hands went up. This was encouraging, but then I learned that Mark had discussed August Wilson with the class only one week previous. As humorist Dave Barry claims, you can ask 100 Americans to name three Supreme Court justices and they will not be able to do it; but ask those same 100 Americans to sing the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and 97 of those Americans will respond Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed. And those Intro to Theatre students would, of course, have shot their hands into the air had I asked, “Who here is familiar with the work of George Lucas, Julia Roberts, or Adam Sandler?”

Being a playwright is the scenic route to fame. If you write a novel, cut a record, or make a film, you can sell those products on your website or at Barnes & Noble. After all your hard work, you can share your product with an audience. With a play, after all your hard work, your audience goes home and you strike the set. If you write a play, either someone is in the audience or they aren’t. If they aren’t, it’s lost forever, and your answer to You’re a writer, eh—so what do you write? will be hemming and hawing until you explain that it’s plays, you know, theatre, and someone performed one just last month, and you will tell them the title and they will say Oh I guess I never heard of that and do you have a video tape of it and you will say not really and they will insist and then you will either yawn very loudly and say Oh Christ would you look at the time or This beer seems to be empty and I simply must obtain another and that will be that and you will go home to peruse the community college catalog for careers such as dental hygienist and help desk analyst.

To make films, I hear you need to marry money, get venture capitalists, and other horrible things that involve driving on the freeway. On the other hand, if you want to be in theatre, you can. Yes, you can. They’re waiting for you to show up and audition, especially if you are an adult male and they are doing a musical. It costs money to stage a quality show, but unless you do something wacky—like write in a part for a 25-piece orchestra, fly in a set of costumes from Venice, or pay your cast and crew what they are worth—putting something on the stage can be a much more economical thing to do than putting something on the screen.

So, yeah. Why write plays instead of being famous on DVD? Because the DVD is going to be the same every single time. You can ooze cathartic tears while watching it, and no one will know. But even if a play is done the same way 30 times in a row—300 times, 3,000 times—each performance will be unique because your audience will always be different, and you have let them in on a secret which is only true while it is being told. I suppose, however, that the same could be said of having your teeth cleaned, or the special feeling you get while on hold with the IT department, so I’m not throwing away the community college catalog just yet.