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What I "need" right now as an artist

Equity in the Arts
Four people sitting in a row of chairs in front of a red curtain. An audience member can be seen in the foreground watching them speak.
From left to right: Andrea Hiebler, Francisco Mendoza, Caroline V. McGraw, and Eric John Meyer speak at The Lark's Playwrights' Week 2017, Meet the Writers Panel.

“In these difficult times” has gone from sensitive to boilerplate to cliché to meme in the span of a few weeks — it might just become the pussyfoot expression of 2020. It’s like when people say “gone” to mean “dead” or “terminated” to mean “fired.” Now we’re saying “difficult times” to mean “sickness, death, unemployment, depression, anger, sadness, governmental incompetence.” “Difficult Times” is the “You-Know-Who” to Corona’s Voldemort.

The reason we pussyfoot, of course, is that we feel like if we say the thing, it’ll hurt us, or the people we’re saying it to. Not naming it means it remains hidden, but the fact that both us and the person listening understand what we’re talking about signifies that it’s not hidden at all, because we don’t even have to name it in order to bring it up. Not naming it just makes it worse because, as Dumbledore would point out whenever he could be bothered to come down from his office and lecture Harry in whatever hospital he ended up due to the headmaster’s hands-off approach, it gives it power. It makes the bad thing ten times worse because we’re afraid to even say its name.

So while I’m not advocating that people start sending emails with “In these times of global suffering” (I can see how that would be a bummer if all you’re trying to say is that your birthday will be happening over Zoom now), I would like to argue for us to be more transparent around what it means, which in the world of theater relates to the question of what “artists need.” You’ll see it a lot in the emails that institutions are sending around or in interviews and features with artistic and executive directors. It’s become a catch-all term, as in “in these difficult times, we’ve decided to focus on what artists need,” which actually means: “right now we’ve decided to focus on figuring out what the f*ck is our role in a world where people gathering looks like it’s not happening any time soon, might not happen at all, might be the final blow that finally kills our industry, and if it doesn’t, it still might make a hole big enough in our budget that our company has to shut down anyway, and we have to think about our staff, and about our contractors, and about the people who have already given us money and maybe want it back because we’re not putting anything up — but we’re using artists in our messaging so we can raise money because the truth is just too much of a downer.” I’m not saying that theaters (or the industry at large) are not thinking about artists at all — I know a few companies that definitely made it a priority to compensate the teams of the shows that got canceled, or institutions that are handing out relief grants with little questions asked — but come on. If the question of what artists need was a priority for anyone at any point, theater would be a viable, sustainable career choice.

Which, because I didn’t come here to work in theater but rather TV, I didn’t know was NOT the case, until I fell in love with the medium and its demands for physical presence that presented such great challenges as a writer. So, wee babe that I was, I went to the theater head of my MFA program and asked him if there was a career in it. “No. Can’t make a living out of it, not really. Unless you’re on Broadway. And even then, only through the run of the show.” WHAT? Then why is that even an option to begin with? It was correctly pointed out to me that if I wanted to be a TV writer, starting out in theater was not the worst idea, and that practical way of looking at it allowed me to stay. So I usually correct people when they call me a playwright and point out I am a writer who writes for theater, among other things. Because I’m not about to devote my life to an industry that won’t allow me to have a life. So I think it’s fair to say that thinking about “what artists need” hasn’t been a priority for a while now. If someone is profiting from theater (and someone might because a recent study revealed Off and Off-Off-Broadway, the mostly non-commercial theaters, generated “$584 million in direct annual economic output, and estimates $1.3 billion in ‘direct, indirect and induced benefits’”), it’s certainly not the artists.

But I’m a realist and tend to work with what is and not with what should be, so I’ve happily collaborated with quite a few companies in the few years I’ve been here. And while they haven’t paid me a living wage exactly, they have paid me something (I draw the line at unpaid work), and they’ve given me time, space, and resources to work on my scripts and invariably make them better. So when institutions like those ask me “what I need” in “these difficult times,” I’m choosing to give a practical, actionable answer that was always there, but that right now feels more pressing: stop being so afraid of me.

It goes like this: you got to the finalist stage of an opportunity, but won’t receive any feedback on your application because of “the large number of submissions.”* You met with a potential agent because they liked your script, and they end the meeting by asking you to “keep them posted.” You emailed someone at an institution because you think your script is a good fit and they never replied; you emailed mentioning a common acquaintance or a big prize and then they did reply and ask for the script. The same script, the one that was a good fit before and that you made a case for, but that now has value because you’ve eased the person’s fear.

A fear that (I can feel some of you coming up with a lot of justifications for these examples — I got you) makes sense on the surface: there are just too many people wanting to get in and not enough seats at the table. There are too many emails and not enough time to answer them. There are too many plays and not enough readers/money/space. “So I can’t, Francisco, I just CAN’T tell you why we won’t work with you.” But can’t you? Or won’t you? Because there were like 20 finalists. Do the bare minimum and just like paste the reader’s report on your email. Just tell me you won’t produce my play because you like it but the artistic director doesn’t, or the reading felt flat, or the schedule of the actor you like is full. Or tell me you won’t sign me because you’re not sure I have what it takes yet and you don’t see me generating a lot of money for your company at this moment. But you’re afraid to say that. You’re afraid to engage because who’s to say I won’t have a rebuttal or think it’s unfair or hit you up in the future with a different play. You’re afraid things will get messy. As if the very unethical mix of “do it for the love, not the pay” and “it’s a job, be professional” that is working in theater wasn’t the messiest thing ever.

It reminds me of the way people (and I mean me) ghost on dating apps — it’s easier than explaining all the reasons, chief among them that it felt like you needed me and it scared the crap out of me because I’m not even sure I can take care of myself, let alone you. There’s a very close relationship between the dynamics of this business and dating because, as a dear friend of mine said recently: “we (artistic directors, literary managers, agents, and such) are just people.” Which, yes, but also (and I don’t mean to call you out because I love you, friend) no. You are people who also have the power to change the future of my career. And that power scares you so you pretend you don’t have it and hide behind company policy and industry standards and email formality. And I get it, maybe not everyone can handle the direct approach (I’ve certainly been accused of being too direct), but the truth could be essential!

Maybe it’ll offend some. Maybe it’ll get messy. But maybe it’ll really help. Like when an AAD flat out told me which one of my plays had a better chance to get in their program instead of some vague, responsibility-free “follow your heart and send us what you love most.” Or the time a lit manager told me my play was just too violent for their festival, and while I didn’t need to change that because it was true to the story, I did need to submit something less bloody if we were to collaborate. One of the most refreshing interactions I had with an agent was one that read my play and told me the things they liked about it, but also that it didn’t move them emotionally so they didn’t feel like they could represent me. I respected the shit out of that. I can’t imagine it’s easy to say, but it was so honest and so clear. An unanswered email, a vague “there were so many good submissions this year,” a non-committal “we’re not taking any new clients right now” — I can’t do anything with those. This person had the courage to say they just didn’t respond to my writing. They valued my time and respected me enough to be straight with me.

“Now more than ever,” this is what I need as an artist. I’m worried about my career, so of course I’m gonna reach out, especially if you say you’re thinking about my needs. So be honest. Tell me that you’re too busy keeping your company afloat to think about me. Or tell me that you have no idea what you’ll be able to produce right now but it’s certainly not my piece of shit script (you don’t need to say the shit part, just say “not for us” — I’ll understand what you mean without feeling abused). Level with me. Treat me like an adult. It’s better than sending me a questionnaire to gauge what I need and then never reaching out with an actual proposal. Tell me that you can’t help, or tell me that you can but you’re looking for something specific and what I’m doing doesn’t work for you. Tell me that you have no idea what the future holds and you’re scared and you’re afraid of letting me down if you make any promises, that you’re just as worried about your future as I am of mine. That’s okay. You’re just a human? So am I. Look me in the eye and let’s have a conversation.

Otherwise, we’re the same we’ve always been, keeping quiet and not helping each other in the process — but add a pandemic to the mix. We can’t survive it if we don’t work together, and we can’t work together if we’re not honest and won’t name the things we’re afraid of. That’s what I’ve always needed, and “in these difficult times,” it’s what would really help.

*While The Lark itself does not offer feedback on finalist applications, we believe in the need for institutions to acknowledge our power in the field. We are posting this piece with the aspiration of considering the ways greater transparency would be more beneficial to artists, and in the hopes that other institutions may do the same.