The first Reality Check Issue of The Dramatist (March/April 2016) includes Gary Garrison’s roundtable with playwriting students asking questions as they are about to face life after a BA or MFA program. In August 2018, we reunited Gary with five of the original seven panelists to check in and see what questions they have at this stage of their careers.
Gary Garrison: The last time that we spoke to each other was two and a half years ago—about that, right?
In the two and a half years since we last spoke, beyond the world that we’re living in right now, which we’ll get to in just a moment, has there been any kind of seismic shift for you? Either in your writing or in your personal life or in your career has anything happened of note, and how has that affected your life as a writer?
Charles Gershman: In those two years, I went to grad school—the two-year MFA program in dramatic writing at New York University—and it really challenged me. It was such a seismic shift. I think everything I was trying to do, I let go of. Now I have a whole new set of ambitions. I experiment a lot more with form. I think I’m more attuned to the current theatrical landscape and what people are doing. I’m also writing screenplays in addition to plays. I wasn’t doing that before.
Shamar White: Yeah, a lot has changed for me since those two years. I feel like everything is a life change. After graduating from NYU, I moved to Los Angeles, struggled trying to find work, then eight months later I got hired to write for a TV show on network television, and then I found myself in a relationship, so. [Laughter]
Gary Garrison: You hit the jackpot! What the heck? So, don’t brush past that—what television show are you writing for?
Shamar White: I was writing for a TV showed called Valor on the CW network. It was a military drama, about the first female pilot in a special operations unit in the Army.
Gary Garrison: That’s particularly interesting to note because you were in the military yourself.
Shamar White: Yes. My personal experience in the military was a factor but also having graduated from the Dramatic Writing Program at NYU gave my showrunner and creator Kyle Jarrow, confidence that I could write, so he asked for a sample. I sent my original pilot I had been working on since grad school and they loved it! Unfortunately, Valor didn’t get picked up for a second season, but it was an amazing experience. I got my own episode. I got into the WGA West. That show changed everything for me.
Kyle Smith: I finished grad school a year ago. I feel like that’s a pretty big shift. I also recently read an article which said to shoot for 100 rejections in a year, and since then, I started making that a goal for this year, I’ve been finding that I’ve been getting a lot more positive feedback for things than I had in previous years. So far, I’ve gotten 77 rejections this year. Which is exciting for me. [Laughter]
I’ve also gotten 25, Semi-finals through official selections to various things across all three platforms: screenwriting, playwriting, and television writing.
I guess the next big seismic change that’s happening for me is, I applied to teach at a community college and they hired me as an English teacher. So, I’m teaching two classes in the fall, which has been something that has been a long-held goal of mine since I was, I think, five years old. Well, when I was five I wanted to be a P.E. teacher, but it evolved into an English professor/playwriting professor, and it feels good to be moving in that direction now.
Victoria Z. Daly: One of the biggest changes for me since then is that I also graduated with my MFA. It’s interesting to hear what Charlie had to say about what that did for him, because, in some respects, what it did for me was the opposite. Meaning I felt that NYU confirmed what I feel I’m good at, what I feel my voice is, and also what I don’t necessarily want to do. So, in some ways, it consolidated, it helped me prune some things.
I’m also working for the Dramatists Guild Institute as a script consultant in their Plays in Progress program. It’s a fantastic job for me, because (a) I love working with writers; and (b) I can do it from anywhere. I get to work with members of the Dramatists Guild from all over the country and even overseas. Not only do I feel like I’m making a difference to people, but also every time I work on somebody else’s play, I think it helps me with my own writing.
Garrett Kim: I was still in college the last time we spoke. Now I’ve graduated college, and moved to [working] full-time at the 52nd Street Project, where I have been for three and a half years now.
I think the biggest shift for me is I went through a dark time after graduating [wondering] what do I do? Where am I supposed to be? Now that I’ve been out of school for two years, I’ve felt myself settle into who I am as a writer, as a person, and feeling a lot more grounded than I think I was feeling the last time we spoke. That’s the biggest thing for me.
Gary Garrison: I have to say, going back to Kyle, who said he’s gotten 77 rejections this year—77 rejections sounds about par for the course—and 25 positive things that have happened to your writing across three mediums. As I listened to all of you, what’s so interesting to me is that each of you spoke in a very positive light about what was going on for you. And I don’t note that lightly. Because I could be looking at one of you and you could be saying, “You know, it fuckin’ sucks, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I’m a mess.” Look, two years in this life is not that long.
So, I’m really happy to hear that things feel good for you. I’m not saying it’s all rosy and that everything’s perfect, but I’m really happy to hear that all of you have certainly made a positive step forward. And 77 rejections is seismic and 25 positive things is too! Shamar, a television show? That’s amazing!
Shamar White: There was definitely some struggle, though.
Gary Garrison: I’d be worried for all of you if you hadn’t struggled, right?
Shamar White: And after the season ends, you still don’t know what’s next. You’re never quite comfortable.
Gary Garrison: I don’t think you ever will be, to be really frank. There are very few people I know who’ve got the easy ride on the bus.
Shamar White: [Laughter] Right.
Gary Garrison: The last time we all spoke was shortly after the election. And you know, we’ve had two years of a pretty changed world. So, I’m curious—have you felt that in your lives and, as importantly, this kind of new world we’re living in, has it found its way into your writing?
Charles Gershman: No. It’s funny, the play that I was working on at the time of the election was all about refugees coming to the US. And, since then, I’ve stopped writing about very current political things. I think it’s a conscious effort to remove myself. I’ve also spent the last two summers working in the UK, and it’s given me a healthy distance, and I feel removed from American politics—and they really are just American politics, it’s not the world.
Being in grad school was also a weird kind of shelter, and there was a lot of pain inflicted, but it was by people around me, including my mentors. And so, I was much more concerned with their criticism. I mean, obviously, I’m terrified about the state of the world, but I almost felt like I was being whipped daily in a way that didn’t allow me to be completely perspicacious. I was sort of in my own little environment for a while, and it was like a mix of shelter and also growth and being shaken up.
Shamar White: For me, I feel like it’s taken me about two years to process what’s been happening in this country. I’m just now able to incorporate this President, #metoo—anything that’s happening now into my work. reflecting and going back to some of my older scripts and putting a lot of today’s issues into my character’s lives and seeing how they react as well. And still, everyday there’s more stuff to process.
Victoria Z. Daly: Yeah, I’m with Shamar. There are some plays I’m still going back to. I have one I wrote in grad school that’s now getting produced because some of the elements in it that [seemed too dark] before and didn’t attract much attention, now are [Laughter] because the times have caught up with them, oddly enough.
I have one longer play I’ve gone back to where—like Shamar said—I’m realizing that the political situation is starting to wind its way in, but I’m not quite sure where it’s going yet.
Kyle Smith: Gary, I’m sure you remember from class that I eat and breathe politics. That hasn’t changed. I’ve written a play directly about the Trump administration. I’ve written a screenplay likening the current political climate to that of the Civil War. I have written plays about the #metoo movement, about what happened for women seeking abortions before Roe v. Wade. I feel like it’s in my blood and it’s hard for me to get it separated from what I’m writing.
Even the plays which aren’t overtly political, I try to sneak something political in. And—yeah, I feel like I’d probably be writing various political things regardless of who is President, but I feel like the urgency to say things and get people to start thinking in a new way about what’s happening has really influenced my writing as of the last two years.
Garrett Kim: Yeah, Kyle, I agree with your feeling the political climate is creating a sense of urgency. I feel like it took me a little bit of time. My friend and I were [recently] talking. Like, we went through a really hard time after the election and it’s definitely kicked up a sense of urgency for me. I don’t even know if I could write something that’s not political at this moment, especially because I work with a lot of first-generation students from families who are immigrants. Most are working class families, and almost all of them are people of color. I can’t really ignore it when that’s who I’m interacting with on a daily basis.
What’s been really great and also kicked up this since of urgency in me are teenagers being politically active in a way that I definitely was not as a teenager. One of my teens was like, “I’m calling my senator about this, this, and this, because I don’t work for them, they work for me.” When you have the future of America saying stuff like that, I can’t just sit back. I also have to do everything I can to speak to where we are in the world right now.
Charles Gershman: I just want to say, I’m still really angry and I’m trying to refuse to let that man affect my art. I’m feeling protective, and yet perhaps we also have a duty to use our platforms as playwrights to effect change for the better, but it’s a weird conflict.
Gary Garrison: I want to point out that the era of Trump is not the only thing that’s gone on in the last couple years. I mean, Trump’s circus certainly sits on top of us. But there’s also been the #metoo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the March for Our Lives movement. There’s so much going on. And I commend you, Charlie, because I don’t want him in my art, either. And yet, there’s so much going on that, has nothing to do with him but is in the environment most likely because of him.
Shamar White: Yes.
Gary Garrison: Here’s my next question to you: Now that you’ve been out of school for a little bit of time, what’s the single piece of advice that you would give yourself? Victoria?
Victoria Z. Daly: It’s the same advice I would give myself whether I was in grad school or not, which is just to be kinder to myself. In grad school, I think I was beating myself up a lot. I tend to think my writing’s not good enough, and I’ve just gotta keep making it better. I’m way, way more stern with myself than I am with other people. If I were telling the writers I work with, or anybody else, the kind of things that I tell myself, I would never wanna work with me again. [Laughter]
So, I have to keep reminding myself to be as kind to myself as I am to the people I work with.
Kyle Smith: I think the thing I’ve learned this year that I wish I had known all throughout grad school is to just keep on putting work out there and keep on making myself known as a voice. During grad school, I feel like I allowed myself to have this two-year period of downtime in which I wasn’t submitting anything. After I got out of grad school, there were about four or five months in which I was just focused on trying to find a job that would work for me and, as a result, I didn’t dedicate myself to the writing and keep on putting myself out there.
I really wish that, while I was in grad school, I didn’t take it as a little vacation from submitting. I wish I had spent time sending my plays out, getting my work read, getting more feedback, and fine-tuning stuff. If I had known that, I think I would—I think I would be in a good place. I feel like I’m already in a good place, but I feel like that would’ve been something that I would’ve appreciated as now Kyle if past Kyle had done that.
Shamar White: I would say, save more money. [Laughter] That’s always gonna be something I gotta remind myself. Also, try not to worry about fitting into this perfect little box. Because of my Army experience, I thought I had to only write about being in the Army, but there are other things I love to write about. It’s freeing to write other stuff.
Gary Garrison: You bet. So, by “box,” you mean the box of the military, then?
Shamar White: Yes. I think the television world started to get confusing, you know, “Are you a comedy writer? Are you a dramatic writer?” I didn’t know what I was. I was just a writer. [Laughter]
People will try to put you into a box, especially when you’re starting out. They need something to latch onto and you’re just so hungry you need it too. But I would just tell myself – it’s okay to step out of that box and write whatever inspires you.
Garrett Kim: I would tell myself that it’s a marathon. You have to be patient and persistent. I’m seeing people who aren’t that much older than I am, just now start to find their first tastes of success. I know how hard they work and how much they’ve dedicated to this [career]. And, like, just know that steps forward or steps in the right direction might not look like what you thought they did.
Now, I’m realizing if someone sends a personalized rejection, that’s a lot better than the year before when they just said, “Thank you for submitting.” It’s a marathon. That’s what I would tell myself.
Charles Gershman: I would say stop being scared, take the chances, don’t censor yourself, don’t be afraid of being judged. It’s better to take a chance than to hold back.
Gary Garrison: I have mentored all of you in one form or another, so now that you’ve been out for two years, do you have any questions you want to ask? Anything you need help with?
Victoria Z. Daly: This is something I know we’ve talked about a little bit in the past. Working on a play that has old bones, how do you keep it fresh? Keep the passion and the questions in it?
Gary Garrison: Old bones means it’s an old draft of a play you’re picking up and working on now?
Victoria Z. Daly: The one I’m thinking about I’ve worked on, on and off, for a few years. As you were saying, political situations change, your own life situation changes, and I definitely want to finish it. But I'm sometimes questioning how to continue to feel committed to it and excited about it.
Gary Garrison: It goes back to discovering or rediscovering why you wrote the play in the first place, making sure that you reconnect to that impulse and that passion.
You have to really get square with why you started writing the piece. And if you can’t square with it, for whatever reason—and that does happen—I think you have to put it to the side, to be really frank with you.
It’s hard if you’re not passionately connected to why you’re writing what you’re writing; that’s an uphill battle in the best circumstance, let alone something that has been around your neck for two years.
Shamar White: So, I always struggle with my endings in playwriting. I feel like out of all the genres, playwriting is always my go-to when I just have a thought or a feeling that I want to explore. But then, at the end, I don’t know what I’m doing. It explodes. [Laughter] Not in a good way. I don’t know how to wrap things up when I feel like I’m still in my head, just writing dialogue. I’m wondering what your approach is for getting to that ending.
Gary Garrison: I don’t know that I have an approach, but I’ll give you two pieces of advice, Shamar. I was talking about this the other day at the Guild’s National Conference—when there is something in our art that evidences itself, like the inability to end something, the inability to begin something—sometimes people struggle to get things started, some struggle to end things, others get lost in the middle. What I said was, and what I maintain is that this could be true in your life as well. If you have trouble ending your play, you probably have trouble ending something else, somewhere else.
Shamar White: Mm-hmm.
Gary Garrison: So, I just give you that to think about because it’s not necessarily particular to your art.
But let me just give you something practical, so that you can think this through. Going back, in some part, to what Vicki was talking about—find out why you’re writing this play. Why am I writing this play? What is the question that I’m trying to answer for myself in this play? When that question is answered, in the course of the story, the play’s over, right?
Shamar White: [Laughter] Yes. Yeah.
Gary Garrison: Right, so if the dramatic question of the play is, “Will he fall in love?” and at the end of the play—you know, at page 88 or 89, he fell in love, play’s over.
Shamar White: Got it. Yeah.
Gary Garrison: Or shortly thereafter.
Shamar White: Yeah.
Gary Garrison: And, look, that was really simplifying that problem. I understand it’s not always that simple, but in some regards, it is.
In fact, at the very beginning of the play, he or she or they want something and will either get it or not, at the end of the play. When he or she or they have gotten it, the story’s over.
Shamar White: Right. Sometimes simplifying things helps. [Laughter]
Kyle Smith: Is there a point in your career when you no longer feel hungry? I mean, I feel like I’m staying hungry, and I feel like it’s a good thing to be staying hungry, but is there is a point in your career when you have the productions, you have the success that you are no longer hungry for that next thing?
Gary Garrison: You know, if I were Doug Wright—if I were only Doug Wright—
Kyle Smith: [Laughter]
Gary Garrison: - but even if I were Doug Wright, I’m almost positive the answer would be no. You’re always hungry. Doug’s had a huge career, and I’m sure there’s still a hunger to tell the stories he wants to tell because he hasn’t told them all to an audience that appreciates or will enjoy being challenged to hear his stories. And that can be on Broadway, off-Broadway, or a storefront in Chicago.
As for me, personally, Kyle, the hunger never goes away. You may say to yourself at some point, “I don’t need to write another ten-minute play. I’ve written 200.” So, I’m not going to really pursue that. Or, “You know what? I do really well in ten-minute plays. That’s what I’m about. I’m going to pursue that. I’m not going to really pursue that full-length play.”
But the larger question actually goes back to why you’re a writer in the first place. You believe you have something to say, and you believe that there’s an audience or a group of people to hear it that will appreciate it. That’s what has to square you away, get you centered. I don’t think that ever escapes us. I hope it doesn’t.
Kyle Smith: I feel the hunger constantly, and there are some days when—I mean, most days I love it, but there are some days where I’m a little bit frustrated because I have a story to tell and I’m having difficulty balancing that story, that hunger, with the rest of my life.
Garrett Kim: Mine is a little bit general. When you’re having one of those days that’s just like, “I am in a dark place right now, I’m not feeling positive.” What do you do to get yourself out of that head space?
Gary Garrison: That’s a great question. More people have that problem than will admit to it. Particularly in this day and age, where it’s really easy to get dark very quickly, you know, in a moment’s notice. That’s true for me so, I turn the television off. Where I’m sitting right now, looking at you, I can look over here to my left and see my television up on the wall with CNN scrolling, and I can look up there and go, “Fuck!” Do you know what I mean? [Laughter]
Garrett Kim: Yes.
Gary Garrison: And my mind’s shattered for the day. So, I’ve learned to turn that shit off. I don’t want this to sound Pollyanna-ish, in any way. But you have to find those two or three things—or one thing—that really brings you great joy and that has nothing to do with your career or your writing.
For me, it’s my dog, gardening, cooking. So, when I’m in that dark place, I need to go to the bright place, and the bright place, for me, is to put my hands in the dirt. There’s something productive happening when I do that. There’s something enriching and nurturing. Maybe it’s just a friend to go hang out with, to sit and talk about this shit, you know? There’s this thing that we do, which is—and this is not my idea, this is actually Julia Cameron’s idea from The Artist’s Way. She talks about that we have this well of inspiration that we pull from when we create. We’re constantly pulling from the well, and we have to spend more time replenishing it than pulling from it so that you have an over surplus. So, one of the things I would tell you to do is to fill the well. Maybe that’s listening to classical music or baking a cherry pie or taking a dog for a walk or going for a swim in the Hudson, or—I don’t know, whatever it is.
Did I just say swim in the Hudson?
Victoria Z. Daly: Yes! [Laughter]
Charles Gershman: You can do it. I wouldn’t judge you. [Laughter]
Gary Garrison: Jesus, you’d have to get power-washed after that.
Garrett Kim: Yeah, like, disinfected.
Victoria Z. Daly: And then go straight to the hospital! [Laughter]
Charles Gershman: This was true before grad school for me, and definitely during grad school, but the issue of being around other playwrights who have good things happening to them at different times. And so, I guess the question is like, do you have any advice for dealing with the competitive nature of being a dramatic writer?
Charles Gershman: And how to be good to those relationships?
Gary Garrison: What has worked for me, and I’m not saying this would necessarily work for you, but here goes. You need to readjust the measuring stick of what is success to you, often. Not once a year, not once every six months—once a month. So that you can say, “At the end of this month, this is what I want to do that is a mark of my personal success.” It’s the thing you can control, and nobody else.
You have to say, “At the end of this month, I want to finish the draft of X, I want to begin the draft of Y, I want to talk to that director whose work I saw at EST and take them out to lunch and have a conversation and at the end of that, if I do those three things, I’ve been really successful.”
Then if you keep extending that measuring stick, month to month, six months to a year, then when something really, really good happens to a friend of yours, you will not feel like a phony or a fake or a slacker or any number of things that we feel if you were doing your work.
It’s when we don’t do the work and when we don’t redefine that measuring stick of what success is to us in small, bite-sized measurements that it easily becomes, “Oh, you know what? Nothing is happening in my life.”
Charles Gershman: Yeah. You’re so wise.
Shamar White: Wow, that is good advice.
Gary Garrison: So, Charlie, I’ll just tell you that, your feelings are so honest and real. But I guarantee that somebody’s looking at your career right now, saying they wish he had yours. And that’s humbling. Because we don’t believe it’s true. It’s true. Garrett, somebody wants to work where you’re working, I guarantee.
Garrett Kim: Yes.
Gary Garrison: Victoria, not everybody works at The Dramatists Guild Institute.
Victoria Z. Daly: Right.
Gary Garrison: Kyle, 25? I wish I had that. Shamar—come on!
Shamar White: [Laughter]
Gary Garrison: A television show?! That’s so great. I’m glad you had the experience.
Shamar White: Right, right. To your point Charles, there are a bunch of us from NYU who graduated together and moved to LA. We all have completely different things going on. Some have broken into the industry, some are still trying to break in, but we support each other no matter what. Our competiveness drives us but having a writer’s group together takes the edge off and we can just focus on our writing and how to help each other get better.
Gary Garrison: Right. Yeah. Okay, you guys. We are out of time. Thank you so much. I miss seeing all of you!
VICTORIA Z. DALY’s plays have been developed/presented at the Actors Studio, Last Frontier, ATHE, 1:One (Dubai,) Edinburgh Festival, and elsewhere. Faculty Member, Dramatists Guild Institute. Founder/Director, NYC’s 9th Floor writers/actors collaborative. MFA, NYU/Tisch; A.B./M.B.A., Harvard; Certificat d’Etudes, L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq. www.victoriazdaly.com
CHARLES GERSHMAN’s play Free & Proud just premiered in the UK, where it previewed to sold-out houses at Theatre503, had an acclaimed run in the Edinburgh Fringe, and was published by Oberon Books. He is a 2018 graduate of NYU’s MFA program in dramatic writing.
GARRETT DAVID KIM is a playwright based in New York City. His plays include Kim’s Fine Food (Finalist, 2017 Blue Ink Playwriting Award), No Man’s Land, and several short plays written for The 52nd Street Project, where he works as their Program Director. www.garrettdkim.com.
KYLE SMITH’s plays include Whiteout and The Part of Me, among many others. He was recently a finalist for the Princess Grace Award, The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Residency, and a semifinalist for Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries. His play Don will be published in the 2018 Act One: One Act Anthology. MFA: NYU. www.kyleanthonysmith.com
SHAMAR S. WHITE is a produced playwright and television writer. She most recently was staffed on the CW network’s military drama, Valor. Shamar is an Army Combat Veteran who earned her MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts.