“I’m still hopeful. I still believe.”
That’s Candrice Jones, whose play Flex was set to premiere at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s storied Humana Festival on March 20, 2020. Her first major professional production in one of the season’s most visible new play festivals was canceled just days before it began. Like Flex, many of this season’s shows find themselves in limbo, suspended as they await the day we can safely gather in theaters again.
Remember 2019? Last year’s Season In Review issue of The Dramatist celebrated a breathtaking array of world premieres from around the country. It was a salute to both the dramatists and the institutions that supported them. When viewed through the distorted lens of 2020, that may seem like a halcyon dream, a golden age that will be impossible to replicate in our new, socially-distanced society. Here at the Dramatists Guild, we have the benefit of a century of advocacy, and from our perspective this era offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for writers to lead our industry out of chaos and into a bright new future.
But first, the present. As Todd London commiserated in an April broadcast of The Dramatist LIVE, we are learning to balance “the ‘is,’ the ‘was,’ and the ‘will be.’” We begin with a salute to the myriad world premieres that took place in the months leading up to the March shutdown. This season was so rich, awards programs had no shortage of candidates to choose from when selecting their winners. We are here to witness and applaud the brave new work that graced stages around the country this year.
We are also celebrating the shows whose premieres were suspended by a global pandemic that has left no corner of our culture untouched. A world premiere is the culmination of years of effort, and its cancelation is a gut punch to the writer. We honor that effort, which doesn’t simply evaporate when a show is postponed.
What does it take to bring a show to the stage? By the time a premiere makes it onto a theatre’s calendar, the writer has already spent years shepherding the work through the development process. When Michael R. Jackson’s brilliant A Strange Loop won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a long line of collaborators stretching back a decade came out to join the praise (and share the credit). At any point, dozens of shows are circling the production runway, awaiting a sign—the actor, investor, or building the producers need becomes available, the last bit of underlying rights have been cleared, a new lyricist has cracked the code on the show’s opening number—before the entire massive venture can finally move forward. Professional writers are accustomed to the capriciousness of their trade, which is why most are working on multiple projects at once. Dramatists never know which show will suddenly gain momentum, and they try to balance their calendars to account for the variables.
Which is why, I think, we have not seen dramatists respond to our industry’s disruption with panic. Writers were saddened when performing arts spaces shut down, but people accustomed to toiling for years without remuneration are perhaps better prepared to weather global shocks. Instead of fear, or alongside the fear, there has been an explosion of creativity, both collective and individual. The outpouring of artists lending their talents to help those in need has been a bright spot, not just for our industry but for people at home, in isolation. Writers saw that they didn’t need a building to connect with their community, and their audiences are expanding exponentially as a result. Every day brings new work, old work, new versions of old work, all in iterations we can’t have imagined mere months ago.
In an era of astronomical unemployment, Guild members are working. Your engines are running. Many of you are writing, alone at a desk, perhaps with renewed purpose but in an accustomed pose. You’ve got this. As dramatists, you have never been employees. Your work was never stable, regular, reliable. You understand what it’s like to feel abandoned by institutions that purport to serve you. You have spent your careers sending countless applications into the void, hoping for a miracle. For possibly the first time, the rest of the world knows what it’s like to be a writer.
This cultural disruption brings exciting opportunities for writers, from first draft readings on Zoom, to online gala fundraisers, to streaming full productions for at-home ticket buyers. But there are perils, too. For the first time in a generation, our industry is undergoing a tectonic shift. The standards Guild members have fought for and maintained are now under pressure again. Safety concerns will prevent a return to full houses, and producers are already introducing requests for new concessions. Streaming agreements are being negotiated on the fly. If you’re not a member of the Guild, the “herd immunity” we’ve established won’t protect you now.
So, to the future! If you are a member, get ready to benefit from the years of research our Business Affairs staff has put into streaming practices. We’ll help you understand your new contract in the context of the industry’s shifting standards. We’ll help protect your intellectual property from ill-informed (if well-intentioned) collaborators. Together, we will shape equitable agreements that will benefit future writers. With our fellow unions and guilds, we will explore the worlds of audio drama, podcasts, streaming and teleconferencing. We may not be able to meet in a building, but theatre has never been more abundant and accessible.
Like Candrice Jones, we are hopeful. Hopeful that we can begin to correct some of the imbalances in our industry. Hopeful that a more diverse, equitable and inclusive theatre awaits. Hopeful that some of the gatekeeping practices that prevent work from reaching audiences will be dismantled. Hopeful that when we all meet again, in person, we will have much to celebrate.
Till then, let’s take a moment to relish this season’s accomplishments. Frankly, I don’t know how these shows happened without online fundraisers, Zoom conferences, and streaming. It all seems a little old-fashioned, doesn’t it?