Oh, one can make a buck or two writing plays, and there’s a refreshing point in one’s career where the contracts rise to the four- or five-digit level. And, if you write a hot play that does well at the Humana Festival and becomes a favorite among the regional theatres and you get a write-up in American Theatre magazine and make a dozen other perfect bank shots…you could see a pretty good year or two. Until the next flavor comes along. Winning a Pulitzer helps. Maybe.
But even the folks ostensibly making it usually have to supplant their incomes, often through teaching or, lately, writing for television…which is one reason why the writing quality for non-broadcast programs has increased so…well, dramatically.
What do you have left if you take money out of the picture? Control. And love.
Control because, unlike film or television, where you’re pretty much writing for hire, a playwright can say no. No to a wrongheaded rewrite. No to changing a line because it might conceivably upset the second cousin of someone who knows a backer. No because an actor can’t wrap their head around the words (even though they can play the rest of the part well). Never underestimate the peace of mind that comes from carrying the trump card (though it also means you have to accept the consequences). That is, until real money gets involved. Then you may have a contract, but you’re still playing three-dimensional chess.
Honestly? It always feels better to say yes: someone’s helping make your play better and handing you a gift. And you get to walk away with it, red-handed.
Which leads, oddly enough, to love. Even though you need a team to make theatre—a directors to realize your words and actors to voice them, along with a host of designers and other wizards, theatre presents a remarkably direct connection between the writer and the audience. One would think books create the strongest bonds, given the immediacy between words and thought, but books lack the feedback loop theatre provides.
See, it’s one thing for a reader to talk with you or correspond with you after the artistic transaction has occurred (i.e., they’ve read your stuff), and it’s another to hear an audience laugh, react, or, if you’ve done your job well, applaud. Your art has to happen in real time. When it works, you get this incredible rush. There’s some kind of direct line between an audience reaction and one’s euphoria receptors. (I can only imagine what it’s like for a rock musician to hit a chord and feel the air move through those speakers and the audience flow.) It’s also a serious bummer when you throw it out there and get nothing. (Which is why stand-up comedians are incredibly courageous. And maybe a little crazy.)
That’s your drama: whether or not the play will live or die, right in front of you, with everybody watching. The real kick arises from the tension, from that sense that you’re doing something genuinely dangerous, which might forever change you, for good or ill. The play might win itself a gold star in the memory achieves, or you might bury it at the bottom of the box. (A pointless gesture: the real embarrassments stick with you as much as the triumphs.)
And, once in awhile, the connection transcends getting a laugh or a gasp. Something really mysterious happens. It’s almost like the bit in a movie where the director uses slow motion to convey intensity or rapidly occurring action. The air drains from the room. There’s a kind of silence, despite the words—your words—being spoken and put in motion. You know and your cast and crew knows and your audience knows that you’re all in the zone: you’re experiencing something special, that will never, ever happen again the same way. Something akin to satori. Something…profound.
Those don’t come around all that often, but, when they do…. Man. That gets addictive. Any playwright who tells you they don’t feel a little buzzed witnessing that transaction is either being slightly less than honest (with you or with themselves) or has been doing it for so long, in so many places, that they’ve built up a certain tolerance. It happens.
Make no mistake, we’re talking dopamine, serotonin, and all those other juicy brain chemicals that make or break your day. Maybe the equation should be: control, love, and addiction. You need just one more good show. One more. Then you can call it. Say you’ve done it. Just that one special gig that’ll really fly high and wild and fully realize all of your….
Congratulations. You’re a theatre junkie.