Welcome to Part 2 in the current Writers at Work conversation between Sandy Asher and me about being writers. I led off last Tuesday so today it’s my pleasure to bring you Sandy. Drum roll please.
WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 14: What Else is Out There?
Part 2: Sandy
September 16, 2014
“Historians don’t hug.”
That was my husband Harvey’s observation when he joined me for one of my conferences years ago and realized why I couldn’t wait to get to my events while he simply trudged off to his as a professional obligation of his long career as a professor of history.
People who write for young people hug. A lot. We don’t read one another’s work with an eye toward getting published by refuting it. We do respond to one another’s work, usually in small groups – and, okay, sometimes with an editor as mediator – but the goal is never self-serving or competitive. We can’t write one another’s books, poems, or plays, and we’re enthusiastic audiences and readers. So when we get together, we aim at making the dream each of us dreams for each of our own creations come true.
Respecting children and their literature, understanding the challenges and frustrations of our chosen field, working toward the same goals, we get close. Close enough to hug. It’s an excellent perk of the job, don’t you think, David?
That closeness takes on a slightly different importance in playwriting, which is my main “what-else-is-out-there.” I majored in English and only minored in Theater, so I was never fully in the loop. When we moved to Springfield, MO, I worked alone and mailed scripts out, much as I did with stories, articles, and poems. Winning a few playwriting contests helped get those particular plays produced once, but what about other productions in other theaters? There were many long dry spells. It took me years to uncover the big secret: theatrical producers and directors tend not to take chances on new scripts unless they feel a personal connection to the playwright.
Why? Because theater is a community effort. Sure, as book-writers and magazine-writers, we encounter editors and art directors and marketing people. But we rarely get to meet them, and we certainly don’t interact with them on a daily basis. They go about their jobs, sometimes with our approval and often without it. In live theater, the cast and crew are in one another’s lives for hours a day, every day, for weeks, months, even years of rehearsal and performance. The four members of the Children’s Theater of Charlotte’s Tarradiddle Players just spent an entire school year traveling the southeast together in one van, doing 110 performances of my adaptation of “Too Many Frogs” plus other plays for other ages, day in and day out, weekends included. Can you imagine the in-your-face closeness of that? A cast has to be chosen for compatibility, patience, and endurance as well as talent. And often with a new script, the playwright is in the room from auditions through rehearsals through at least the opening performance. Not much will be accomplished if everyone gets on everyone else’s nerves.
It wasn’t until I began participating in theater conferences that I learned how the business really works. And I do mean “participating,” sometimes as a panelist but often less formally. At conferences dedicated to children’s theater, sessions tend to be hands-on. A technique is presented and then everyone stands up and does it, as if they were children in a class or audience. At this summer’s American Alliance for Theater and Education conference in Denver, for instance, I found myself wearing a rooster mask and enthusiastically greeting a series of imaginary mornings. You just never know!
And you never know where such antics will lead. I’ve had more than one director whom I’d never met before come up after a session and tell me, “I like what you had to say in there. I’m interested in working with you.” One such occasion springs immediately to mind because the ramifications went way beyond being commissioned to write one new script. It involved the director of a children’s theater in Salem, OR. Our casual conversation during the break between two sessions led to a plan for working with senior citizens and middle-school students to create an original script about growing up in Oregon. The deal included two trips from Missoui to the Northwest, which just so happened to be where my son was living. Nice perk (and, yes, more hugs). This experience also led to commissions from other companies for other community-based scripts that have taken me to Omaha, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh, and Chicago . . . so far.
Another serendipidous AATE meeting was with the director of a children’s theater in York, PA. “I’ve been watching you,” she said, after inviting me to lunch. “I’d like you to do an adaptation of Little Women for my theater.” Apparently, directors are constantly running auditions, even when no one in the room knows they’re auditioning! This director and I have been friends ever since (hugs!), and working with her in York, PA, meant visiting a mutual friend in neighboring Lancaster, someone we’d both met at conferences (more hugs!). And that led to my moving to Lancaster after Harvey retired – and working on three new plays with these two friends since.
Showing up, as we know, is Step One of success in any field, but more so in theater, I think, than almost anywhere else. Networking at these conferences make a huge difference. Participating in more than one each year means really getting to know both the regulars and the newcomers and getting thoroughly inside the loop. Besides AATE, there’s One Theatre World, New Visions/New Voices, Write Now, and more. Getting involved with local theater groups, onstage or behind the scenes, is another great way to show up, learn, and network.
I’ve long suspected that one could be a hermit living on a mountain top and maintain a book or magazine writing career, as long as there was some way of getting one’s manscripts off the mountain and into the hands of editors. No one would care how long one’s beard had grown or how often one took a bath. Not so in theater, where a certain amount of hugging is practically a requirement. It’s a matter of getting out there to become part of “what else is out there.”
Willingness to don a rooster mask and crow on cue is considered a definite plus.
So, David, what else is out there for you?