I’m supposed to be writing a piece about what it’s like to be a Canadian playwright.
With a hit Canadian play.
Who has never been produced professionally in Canada.
I wrote a whole clever letter to “Canadian Theatre,” personified as someone I lust after who’s eluded me. Someone who occasionally flirts with me through small sums of grant money, invites me to festivals, takes me out for the odd four-hour workshop date, and yet is never ready to get serious. Who once whispered sweet nothings in my ear, like “you have so much potential…” but now ghosts me. Whose attention I’ve vied for by having international affairs: in Chicago, Los Angeles, Alaska, and even a Paris fling.
And yet still… my dance card of P.A.C.T. theatre productions remains empty.
Canadian Theatre, when did we lose the spark? What did I do wrong?
And, while I will usually stretch any joke or metaphor further than three marathons, this particular one feels entitled and short-sighted. Never being produced in Canada, despite being produced in other places, is a stupidly lucky problem to have.
Yet, what feels like a total lack of interest in my work here… hurts.
But I know it’s not personal; that working in the arts, you simply cannot take things personally.
It’s basically the only rule.
I’m starting to take it personally.
That’s the problem. Because no one in this industry owes me anything.
No one in this industry owes me anything.
No one asked me to be a playwright: it was a decision I made from a place of privilege as a white cis woman. There are other voices who have been silenced, who have to fight much harder, who both deserve and need to be heard more. There’s no question there.
It is also immensely challenging and mostly impossible to be a playwright in Canada.
This struggle is shared too widely for it to be just about me. But once I sent an email to a stranger in HOLLYWOOD that resulted in a production. Whereas here, the community in which I’ve fostered relationships, supported and learned from others’ work, and made indie work, I can’t get anywhere near that.
Everyone says that if you go and work outside of Canada, people will want you here when you get back.
I’ve left and come back more than five times.
So, it’s hard not to wonder… am I that bad in person?
(If this is the case, and this IS personal, please just tell me what I’m doing wrong. I am apt at taking notes on my scripts and open to taking them on my existence as well.)
And there it is: me taking professional rejection as an indication of my own personal shortcomings, when really, the lack of opportunity is reflective of a lack of resources. If Canadian Theatre were to say, “it’s not you, it’s me,” it would be true. But has that line ever actually made anyone feel better?
Either way, your heart gets cracked.
If Canadian Theatre were to say, “it’s not you, it’s me,” it would be true. But has that line ever actually made anyone feel better?
Obviously, I should just toughen up and stop having so many feelings in relation to my work. But, to shut out the personal affects the work. Bringing honesty and emotion into my writing is what gives it resonance. Putting art into the world is a vulnerable act for anyone: it is directly from the self. So, to me, in this industry, the personal and the professional seem inextricably intertwined.
(This works both ways: my Los Angeles production also wasn’t a reflection of me as a person — it was the right play, right time, right people– both fortunate and rare.)
The arts are not a meritocracy. They’re subjective and, no matter what, require a lot of work. Rejection is a part of being a playwright. There are many challenges to being produced in Canada that are the effects of long-standing systematic problems. Researching and attempting to address the depth of these feels more like a multi-year thesis than an Artist Perspective essay.
Rationally, I know that it is so hard to get a response to an email, invitation, or script submission because artistic directors are often overworked and underpaid, as are literary managers (when a theatre can afford one), along with everyone else there. What artistic directors accomplish with what they have is an amazing feat. Canadian theatres are built from toothpicks, yet we need them to house communities. Theatres struggle so hard to just survive that, especially after the last eighteen months, it feels unfair to ask anything of them at all.
You can’t expect to be fed from an empty Tupperware.
You can’t expect something out of nothing.
Being a playwright has taught me to expect nothing at all.
I’ve turned to smarter people to confirm this is the “right” approach. Harold Pinter once said: “Give everything. Expect nothing. Move on.” I find this idea potentially empowering, though basically impossible. And Pinter was produced a lot. It’s easier to just “expect nothing” when you’ve won a Nobel Prize.
What about the rest of us?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I am really asking for advice.
How many minutes do I need to meditate for? I’m open to elixirs, vows of silence, screaming into the abyss, emotional support pets under 30 pounds — whatever it takes.
Because, at this point, taking things personally has gone far beyond hurt feelings.
Taking things personally has gone far beyond hurt feelings.
Quietly and without conscious awareness, I’ve normalized and internalized professional practices: that I should be infinitely forgiving out of desperation, and take any tiny offering with massive gratitude. That I should never expect to be enough of a priority to garner a response from anyone. The truth that no work I do makes me objectively deserving of anything in the arts has transformed into a belief that I am not deserving of anything in general. I have put more of myself towards theatre and writing than anything else, so how can I not absorb these things?
I can’t be the only one.
Is it possible to make art that is personal and not take the “business” part of it personally?
To avoid tying your own value to the value assigned and derived from your work?
I realise questions aren’t as helpful as answers.
My answer to myself is a low growl of, “try harder,” but I’m getting tired of housing a monster inside me.
And I always write from a question.
In a play, characters can explore different answers. It can end with them being wrong, or in a question itself. That can be powerful (John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT has no answers and one Pullitzer). In my play, WITH LOVE AND A MAJOR ORGAN, the question is: What do I do with my heart? It’s not actually all that different from what I’m asking here.
There is an obvious solution — I could do something else. Writing could be a hobby.
But, for me, the amount of work it takes to try and do this is too big to fit into a box labeled “hobbies.” And the loss of the possibility of working in theatre here, and anywhere that will have me, hurts too much to consider.
I’ve normalized and internalized professional practices: that I should be infinitely forgiving out of desperation, and take any tiny offering with massive gratitude.
It’s just like Jennifer Grey says to Patrick Swayze in DIRTY DANCING:
“I’m scared of walking out of this room/theatre and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you.”
The reason I can’t move on, despite all I can’t control and how much it can hurt, is that there is another side and it is just as powerful.
When anyone decides to produce a play I wrote, it feels like the most generous and inconceivable act: like actual magic. Actors inhabit my script, designers build it, producers, stage managers, crew, and a director all put their brains and hearts into making and then sharing something that began on a page in my notebook. I’ve seen my work resonate with strangers and that has made me feel like a human, like I can contribute something unique and of value. And perhaps because the work of playwriting does feel so personal to me, the connections it heeds are profound. I’ve formed relationships with directors, actors, and artists as a result of the honesty and openness this kind of work demands from everyone.This has happened naturally, through the act of making art. I’ve continued working with many of the people who have produced my work in different places.
This is the great beauty of this “problem”: when work is personal it is meaningful.
And there is no rational reason to be a playwright, so it has to have meaning.
So, like Shanley, I’ll end on a question, though hopefully a slightly less disturbing one.
WITH LOVE AND A MAJOR ORGAN (the audio play) is available to stream at the Toronto Fringe’s Primetime Festival through Sunday, November 28th. Starring Michela Cannon, Kaleb Alexander, Jennifer Villaverde, and Fiona Reid, this marks the first time this hit play has been performed in full in Canada. For tickets, click here.
So true. I’m sure many of us will add our own “me too” and nod in sad agreement and wish we knew how to solve this situation.
Of COURSE you are not the only one. Your words resonate fully and with truth. My common-law partner, a freelance writer, is working on her first novel, both of us knowing that no matter how good it is (and it is good) the odds it will be published—or even seen by anyone—are next to none. The advice, “Write for yourself” is largely unhelpful—kind of like the related dictum “Love yourself” which comes without instructions.
As an old actor I’m sure you and I could compare our relative career rejections like the scars scene in “Jaws.” (We are not the only ones!) I recently wrote letters of gratitude to directors and producers who actually cast me MORE THAN ONCE, because after staying at home for nearly two years it really feels like I will never act professionally again. (The interest in my work was dwindling even without a pandemic to blame it on.) And why do I continue to write songs and sketches when they have no appreciable audience? (Again, we are not the only ones.)
The creation of art is fulfilling and wretched all at once. The sharing of that art with an audience offers one’s heart glorious flight, but also tends to be followed by something akin (I dare to suppose) to postpartum depression. But like falling in love and risking the agony of heartbreak, or like getting up every morning alive with aches both physical and psychological, maybe it’s better than the alternative. I wish I had a more satisfying answer than Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” for both (all) of us. Even after a 40-year career, I don’t. Onward.
Thank you for this. Hugely pertinent. I think we need to challenge the idea, which we have all been trained to adopt as an unquestionable principle, that as creative artists, it is not only foolish, but actually morally wrong, to ever expect anything from anyone (ie, from each other,) no matter what we’ve ever contributed. “You’re only as good as your last gig!” We say to each other, as though that’s a healthy head-space. Do great painters said that to themselves as they stretch their next blank canvas? “I’m only as good as my very last painting, better get grinding!” How does that align with the other cliché of our practice, “You need to give yourself permission to fail”? Somehow we’re supposed to invest our true selves in the work yet never take anything personally. Should we really be viewing the inequities (and the iniquities) of the profession as our own personal hang-up to deal with? Sure in a cosmic sense, ‘no one asked for your art.’ But is our collective response to the stark facts of inequitable access in our sector really to download it onto the individual to process? Are we really all cool with a working environment where no one has any right to anything ever? We tell ourselves, and each other, that sure, the sector is so precarious it’s almost impossible to survive, but it’s our fault if we can’t handle it. The price for our work is so low it’s unliveable over the long term, but no one asked us to be artists, so we have no right to complain. Feel disposable? Want a better deal? Think of all the others lined up behind you who didn’t even get a shot. If a business demanded that of its workers, it would be accused of predatory labour practices. Flip that script and it starts to look like maybe we’ve internalized the very worst vicissitudes of gig-based capitalism. We’ve made ourselves willing handmaids (gender sic.) of a culture that devalues the labour of creatives while running on the engine of their infinite entertainment products. I really think we need to ask ourselves, as a sector, in our training spaces, and as a community, why individual artists, the least powerful in the system, have ended up bearing almost all the risk in terms of up-front investment (training), lifetime earnings, exposure to economic shifts, and just, sheer costs in every sense, including psychic. Whom is this benefiting? Certainly no one in the biz. One step, I believe, is to really question some of these internalized beliefs. Why we pass them along to each other. This is not the humility of the artist. This is something else.
A large reason why it is untenable to be a playwright in Canada is that Canadian theatres are continually trying to borrow the clout of Broadway and West End hits. I don’t ever need to see another incredibly culturally specific British or American play done by a Canadian company ever again in my life. Let us call on theatres to produce Canadian as we return from this Covid break and to stop fundraising from our tax dollars and our donor angels here, only to spend so much of that money on royalties that no Canadian writer sees. Or else don’t be surprised when writers here go to other mediums and we cease to have any meaningful Canadian theatre culture that isn’t just imitation of other cities.
Dear Julia. I loved your article. I would love to talk to you sometime and exchange ‘war stories’.
A friend once said to me (she was talking about trying to make it as a Canadian actor, but I’ve always applied it to trying to be a Canadian playwright), “Sometimes you have to acknowledge the door you’re knocking on is never going to open. And it’s not enough to try and go through the window. Sometimes you have to turn away and build your own house.” Which has been super satisfying, but also exhausting, and at the back of my mind I’ve never lost the thought – why didn’t that door open for me? It took years to overcome the feeling of failure associated with not being accepted as a “traditional” Canadian playwright. But I didn’t fail. I just didn’t take the path. Also at the back of my mind I know that if I had tried harder, or longer, or kept knocking on that door that would not open I would not have been a happy writer. I didn’t fit. I would have had to change my writing to do so.