Open Letter to MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Suzan-Lori Parks

© 2018 Suzan-Lori Parks

© 2018 Suzan-Lori Parks

Suzan-Lori Parks, thank you! You took a room of 30-plus playwrights at a free playwriting class at Seattle Town Hall on September 7th, and spoke directly and with great encouragement (and yes, love) to each one of us new, unsure, unproduced, and doubting as we may be. It was something in the way you walked in, smiling and unpretentious, and sat down at a folding table among us. You told us that every week you invite anyone and everyone to join you in a public space in New York to write together with a timer, and that’s what we’d be doing now.  With you, we opened our notebooks and laptops and started in. Something in us melted and opened. There was no judgment or shoulds here. There would be no reading back what we’d written. Just the camaraderie of writing together, twenty minutes a a clip. When you told us that having a timer was a major boost to your own writing, we breathed relief. When even a certified genius can use the help of a timer to keep her writing, it’s a prop we can be proud to use.

Bless you for the way you opened up the conversation with us after we wrote. “We won’t be talking about my writing now,” you said. “There’s time for that later today. Let’s talk about you. What questions or comments do you have about your own writing?” At every question, every comment, you responded with the clear understanding that comes from deep listening. You heard behind the words to the real issues we raised.

Some of what I learned from you that day was the words you used, and some was the way you said it. You received our questions, it seemed to me as gifts, in sacred trust. I felt that you truly saw each one of us. 

Here’s some of what I learned:

  • Use a timer! Set it for 20 or 30 minutes, and write without stopping. It’s only 20 or 30 minutes! You can do it.

  • Trust yourself. If you think something of yours is good, but no one else does, go with your gut. You may be ahead of your time.

  • Give yourself rewards for doing necessary things you don’t like, such as getting your work out the door.You deserve it!

The twenty minutes of writing, and then another twenty, that I did in your class that day got me jump-started on a rewrite I’d been stuck on for weeks. Your encouragement let down whatever barriers I’d erected, and I went home and got the rewrite done! And I like it! And now, I set a timer every time I write. And every time, I think with gratitude, and yes, affection, of you. 

May we all – playwrights everywhere – encourage and support one another as you’ve shown us how to do.

With the warmest gratitude,

Margaret O’Donnell
Co-Founder of Seattle Playwrights Salon

Named among Time magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next Wave,” Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the most acclaimed playwrights in American drama today. She is the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, is a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, and in 2015 was awarded the prestigious Gish Prize for Excellence in the Arts. Other grants and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts and New York Foundation for the Arts. She is also a recipient of a Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, a CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation Grant. She is an alum of New Dramatists and of Mount Holyoke College.

Parks’ project 365 Days/365 Plays (where she wrote a play a day for an entire year) was produced in over 700 theaters worldwide, creating one of the largest grassroots collaborations in theater history. Her other plays include: Topdog/Underdog (2002 Pulitzer Prize winner); The Book of Grace; Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical; In the Blood (2000 Pulitzer Prize finalist); Venus (1996 OBIE Award); The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World;  Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990 OBIE Award, Best New American Play) ; The America Play and Fucking A.  Her adaptation of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Her newest plays, Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)—set during the Civil War—was awarded the Horton Foote Prize, the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama as well as being a 2015 Pulitzer Prize Finalist.

Self-Production, Expenses Covered: Interview with Playwright Lori Marra

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Lori Marra produces at least one of her plays every year in upstate New York, covers her expenses while paying herself, actors and directors, and holds down a day job as a senior lecturer in communications at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is playwright-in-residence at MuCCC Theatre in Rochester, and her plays are produced (by others) throughout the US. To find out how she does it, the Salon’s founder, Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Lori.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): How many plays have you self-produced, and since when? Why did you first start self-production?

Lori Marra (LM): I've self-produced five full-lengths and four play readings. I started self-production because as a playwright, I really wanted to see my work, not just hear it in readings. It's tough for small theatres to take the risk of producing new works. So, they don't do it often and usually only through festivals or competitions. I didn't want to wait for all of that, so I took the plunge.

MOD: Did you learn the skills on-the-job, or have a mentor, or both?

LM: On the job. I never thought my undergraduate degree in business management would help me so much in theatre! Also, I own a Limited Liability Company for rental properties. And I spent 15 of my 30 years of my corporate life managing some pretty big departments and budgets (up to about $800,000). From my business degree, I learned how to really put together a product. I knew how to budget, how to determine break even on money, how to market, sell, finance, all of it. From my LLC, I learned about how to build and maintain something and turn it into something profitable. All of this helped me, but I still had learned a tremendous amount about producing theatre.

MOD: What do you need to self-produce? Skills, connections, passion?

LM: Oh yes! Business skills, connections, and passion. Throw in a lot of hard work and a little luck, and you've got it. The key to any successful business endeavor is to surround yourself with people who don't have the skills that you do. For instance, I needed a great stage manager but didn't know anyone. So, I asked a 25-year seasoned project manager from a major utility company to give it a try. She loves theatre and she was fantastic. She's now one of the most sought-after stage managers in our community theatre! Being a landlord also helped. I was right in there building the set. I love to swing a hammer and build/fix stuff. For one production we had a pretty complex set, and I worked with some engineering friends to figure out how to build it. What I would say is, don't think you have to BE a business or a construction expert or a marketing pro to run a produced a good show. You do have to look at it as a business though. Money and time need to flow in and out. Basically, these are the skills you need or you need on your team:

-Budgeting
-Stage Managing
-Marketing
-Social Media
-Stage and set building and design

MOD: Has lack of funds been a barrier to what you want to do?

LM: Always. I put up the up front money, then I keep a detailed spreadsheet of ALL expenses. I figure out how much money I need to break even (the point at which you have enough money to cover all of your expenses). Once I know my break even, I think about how many tickets I need to sell to get to that. Ticket sales are NEVER enough to cover all the expenses, so then I know I have to figure out other forms of income. I sell concessions and do a really high quality program in which I sell ads. I also network and find at least one major sponsor willing to fund some of it.

MOD: What are your production steps?

LM: Here’s a quick rundown:

A. Find a venue and secure it with a down payment.
B. Get a Director who you love and can work with.
C. Ensure the show is well cast and read for rehearsals (get rehearsal space)
D. Form a team of marketing, production, sets, PR, and concessions, then meet. Get everyone on the same page. Get your team cohesive.
E. Be a leader; help and enable everyone on your team.
F. Start to develop a budget.
G. Develop a detailed work schedule for the show including set building, marketing, advertising, etc. Remember to include build, strike, tech. rehearsal, and dress rehearsal.
H. Meet on a regular basis with everyone and help by doing as much work as you can. Go over the schedule. Don't overwhelm people with it, but let people know where they need to be and when to make the project a success. I usually do my own social media work. I also develop the program and get ads for it. And I get the sponsors. Yes, I also help build the sets.
I. Keep in close touch with the Director and Stage Manager. They are key and whatever they need, I help them get. Or, sometimes I have to pull them in if their budget needs are too much.
J. Work closely with your venue to figure out how the ticket sales will go.
K. As the time gets closer, get the program done. This takes more time if you sold ads.
L. Have more meetings as the date gets close to keep everyone on the same page.
M. Get ready for opening night!
N. Cast party!!!!!

MOD: How much money do you need for a production? How much comes from the box office?

LM: I usually need between $3000-$5000 to put up a good quality show. That includes funds to pay everyone including the stage manager and tech. people a modest honorarium of between $50-$300. Let me give you some specific figures for a big show I did (11 actors, director, stage manager, lighting designer, set help, costumes.) I paid actors $200 each, director and me $300, support staff between $50-100. I paid 21 people total. Our total budget was $4300. This included sets, props, costumes, food & drink for concessions, marketing, facility fees, paying people, and even a deaf interpreter for one performance. Total ticket sales were $3200 for four performances. So, I needed $1100 from other sources. I sold ads in the programs and got two major sponsor to cover those costs. We were fortunate; our social media got us a lot of buzz and our ticket sales were high. We were sold out for most performances.

MOD: Are others producing your work as well? Was self-production a stepping-stone?

LM: I was lucky. My very first play won a competition in Spokane and they did the full production. Then I won a competition at Geneva in my hometown of Rochester, NY. That was a reading but a very robust one. But as we all know, full productions can be hard to land. As time went on, I wasn't getting productions, but I wanted to see my work. So I decided to self-produce. It was more a reverse for me--not a stepping stone, rather, a way for me to keep seeing my work. I've done self-production over the last eight years, and now I'm ready to start sending my work out again.

MOD: What do you love most about self-production?

LM: I really love working with all the different people. When someone else produces for me, I really don't get to know everyone involved on the show. I've always enjoyed just letting go and seeing what someone else does with my work. Yet, when you bring together a team to develop your work, it's fun, scary, exciting, and rewarding. I also loved the feeling of accomplishment. When we opened the first show I produced, people started streaming in and we had a sell out. I was shocked and so proud and happy for the whole ensemble. Yes, it was hard work, but what a feeling of seeing your work and seeing the love of so many people to bring it together with you. I will continue to produce my own work. It keeps me connected to the energy of everyone involved.

A Short History of The Palace Theatre & Art Bar

Seattle Playwrights Salon volunteer Autumn Hjort sat down with Sylvia O’Stayformore, one of the proprietors of The Palace Theatre & Art Bar, to talk about Seattle’s historic Georgetown neighborhood, The Palace, and our thriving Seattle arts community.

When Margaret O’Donnell and Kate Danley founded the Seattle Playwrights Salon in 2016, they were fortunate to garner the support of the creative folks from The Conservatory, a lovely blend of coffee house and artists’ hub that existed in the building prior to The Palace. Since then, the Salon has enjoyed hosting monthly play readings in this unique and intimate space, and we have witnessed the transition from The Conservatory to the Palace Theatre & Art Bar, as the owners find a way to support the broadening artistic community in Georgetown and harken back to Georgetown’s early twentieth-century roots.

The Palace is part of the Fred Marino Building, which first opened its doors in 1903. The space that we know as our favorite local art and theatre bar was originally a hardware store, and the next-door neighbors operated the inaugural Palace Hotel and Bar. The hotel, which existed on the second floor of the building, offered approximately 40 basic rooms and catered to laborers in the area. But, everything changed for the residents in Georgetown during the Prohibition Era.

The community, which relied heavily on the Rainier Brewing Company for the majority its jobs, was decimated, and the Palace Hotel became a flop house out of necessity. I think it’s safe to say that the Georgetown neighborhood went through a bit of a rough patch in the decades following prohibition times. The space currently occupied by The Palace was used for everything from a brass works to a Hells Angels clubhouse, a brothel, and a wrestling venue.

In 1996, Virginia native John Bennett began revitalizing Georgetown and purchased the Fred Marino Building as part of this project. With revitalization came an increased awareness about the importance of community and the artistic endeavors of a refreshingly diverse Georgetown. We want to support and encourage artists to express themselves, and we want to give patrons space to enjoy and experience new art. To that end, we are lucky to have the Georgetown Art Attack, which happens on the second Saturday of every month. During Art Attack, guests can view the original Palace hotel rooms that are now being used as gallery spaces.

Sylvia O’Stayformore and her business partners, Carlos Paradinha Jr. and Maria Paradinha, are passionate about keeping art alive in Georgetown; they schedule a tantalizing array of programs at The Palace Theatre & Art Bar, from the monthly Seattle Playwrights Salon readings, to the Bacon Strip drag queen show, Sunday Tea Dances, and the Hilltop Jazz Project. I’m looking forward to stopping by The Palace for Larry Knapp’s piano sing along night and the Rise and Dine Drag Puppet and Waffles on a Stick Brunch.

The next time you visit The Palace to immerse yourself in plays, puppets, or drag queens, stop a minute, look around, and see if you can picture the space in 1903. And don’t forget to say hello to Frederick, the resident ghost. He is good-natured and harmless but does like to fiddle with the electricity now and then.

Rewrite:  My Way

I’ve often longed to be like one of those great 19th century novelists who wrote steadily, no matter where or when, and published unaltered the first words they inked on the page. Dickens, Eliot, Trollope – those imaginative English storytellers of the Victorian age – never seemed to run out of plot or characters, and wrote absorbingly, constantly, fluidly of the human condition. Dozens and dozens of novels.  If they’d turned their hands to plays, they probably would have poured out similar gold-standard works. 

But I’m not like them. Not even remotely. And neither are most of us. At least, not that playwrights boast of.  Admitting to easy-peasy may not be in fashion, but expounding on how vital rewriting is to the process definitely is. I did a search of playwrights’ advice on rewriting and found reams of testaments to rewriting, and rewriting again. You can too – just search for “playwrights rewrite.”

I’m not going to write more advice – me, a new playwright? The nerve! – but rather describe what helps tip me into the rewrite and what keeps me going. And if you send us what works for you, we’ll collect  and publish them, too.

I’ve written, and rewritten five evening-length plays in the last five years;  I self-produced two of them. I work a day job full-time, so I write around the margins of my paying work, and guard my writing time fiercely. I, for reasons incomprehensible to playwrights who find it easy, despise the submission process, and avoid it. If I submitted more, I might get some of my plays produced by others. Or not. I figure it’s easier and more rewarding to self-produce than submit. That’s how much I loathe submissions. The pain of production – there is so much that is tedious about it – is preferable to the submission process.

All that relates to rewriting like this:  even though I’m not yet submitting my work, I rewrite and rewrite FOR MYSELF. After I have at least what I consider half or so of a first draft, I submit it to my playwright group – there are four of us – and get their feedback. We meet once a month to provide feedback on each others’ work, one playwright per month. Then I rewrite the first half. I put together a closed reading with good actors, and invite other playwrights to comment, on this first half. I need this first reading to know where the play is going next, and what I want to change and re-direct. I write a complete draft after this first closed reading, and submit it again to my writing group. After they comment, I re-write a second complete draft, and present a staged reading, inviting the public to comment;  I have the best actors and directors I can find for this open staged reading. And then of course, re-write! Then I can start submitting and/or plan for a self-production.

A playwright friend tells me re-writing, for him, destroys his original creative impulse. I don’t see it like that, for myself. I think of my first drafts as a mostly unformed ball of clay that I’m sculpting into a living, breathing, ever more true distillation to that initial impulse. 

Highly-Regarded Playwright and Instructor Andrea Stolowitz to Teach in Seattle

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The Salon and Cornish College of the Arts are bringing international playwright and professor Andrea Stolowitz to Seattle November 8-10 for a weekend playwriting masterclass. The Salon’s Director for Education Programs, Margaret O’Donnell interviewed Andrea to learn what drives her writing and teaching.

Read more about Andrea and the masterclass here. And if you’re interested in participating, be sure to register early—class size is limited to eight students!

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD):  Why do you write? What themes/ideas draw you?

Andrea Stolowitz (AS): I write in order to tease apart the complexities of human relationships, political situations, history, love, death and other conundrums. I write about topics that I myself have not yet solved. Writing is a way for me to work on real-life problems by setting characters and situations in motion.

MOD:  What have you learned/observed/delighted in/mourned over in teaching playwriting?

AS: I love to help students experience free writing. I feel free writing is to playwrights as improv is to actors. I mourn the act of “over thinking” and cerebral writing and try to banish that from generative work. I myself love outlines and structure and find that to be easy, but getting into the unconscious realm of writing takes a leap of faith and many strict techniques. I would like to banish the concept of perfection from the writing process.

MOD: What do you see as the value of an MFA in playwriting that can’t often be found in another way? 

AS: Essentially I see an MFA as a way of finding life-long collaborators and to be able to work with colleagues who are available to you at all hours. An MFA grants you freedom from day jobs that otherwise interfere with the 24-7 creative process. An MFA is a terrific educational opportunity if well-chosen in terms of program and what it offers the student and what the student wants to learn. I loved my MFA at UCSD and received a wonderful three year training program mostly for free. Low-Residency MFA programs are a flexible alternative that fit with many life/work situations. For them, the value of the MFA is the training you receive.

MOD: Your best advice to new playwrights?

AS: Keep finding ways to learn about the craft. Be open and adventurous and seek out mentors! 

MOD: How do you balance teaching/writing/productions/promoting your work? Is it a struggle or a good balance?

AS: It is a struggle. I have always centered my entire life around creative work and then everything trickles down from there. I teach playwriting because I love to engage with students about the craft of writing AND because it is a time flexible job which allows me to pursue professional opportunities as they come up. But in general, finding a way to generate work, promote work, earn a living, care for my family, and have a life/work balance is a daily struggle.

MOD: You live part of the time in Berlin. Why did you make that choice, and what influence have you seen on your work?

AS: I find living in another country gives you much insight into your own country. I relish the break from all things American. These days I am in Berlin less and less as I live in Portland and find much career work in New York. This all leaves less time for Berlin though I do go back there for several weeks each year and was just featured in the German Magazine Theatre Heute. 

MOD: Why do you teach?

AS: I love exploring the art form with students and questioning how and why theatricality functions. I enjoy inspiring others in their creative pursuits. I have been blessed with great mentors and strive to be one myself.

MOD: What can be taught?  What can’t?

AS: That’s an interesting question. Structure can be taught. Generative techniques can be taught. What works and doesn’t in theatre can be explored. Writing is a lonely and singular pursuit that each writer conquers individually. Mentors and teachers can bring you only so far. As José Rivera once said, mentors and teachers are the “gas” that can make the car drive, but the individual, they are the car. “Gas” doesn’t know how to drive…The artists is the owner and operator of their car and they can take the “gas" and explore the open road.

MOD: What theatre work have you seen in the last year that you’ve loved?

AS: I loved “The Ferryman” on Broadway because of its expansive storytelling. Last year in Berlin I saw a terrific production of Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons”. It was sparse and beautiful and full of aching and longing. 

MOD: What are you working on now? What are you planning for the next few years?

AS: I am working on a new commissioned play for Artists’ Repertory Theatre in Portland called “Recent Unsettling Events”. I am working on the libretto of an opera about the mothers of kidnapped journalists. I am working on a devised theater piece with Hand2Mouth Theatre which takes its inspiration from Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”. And as always I am letting new inspiration arrive!