The Playwrights’ Booklist

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Do you remember your favorite English teacher enthusiastically introducing the play-within-a-play concept? Maybe this was in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare was the master of the play-within-a-play: Think about the eerie performance of The Murder of Gonzago, in Hamlet, or the wild adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each time Shakespeare artfully placed a play within his stories, he mirrored elements of the main story, sometimes adding comic relief or foreshadowing in the process.

Now, 450 years later, let’s look at the play-within-a-play idea in a new light. Below is a booklist curated especially for today’s playwrights and theater lovers. In the pages of these books, you will meet characters who are playwrights or actors and encounter stories that revolve around theaters. The books in this list represent a wonderful jumble of genres in hopes that you will reach outside your comfort zone when selecting your next book.

Be sure to report back. Let us know your favorites from this list, and post other ideas as well.

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen. Humble and intelligent Fanny Price grows up with wealthy cousins at Mansfield Park. Except for a friendship with her cousin Edmund, Fanny feels lonely and, at times, like she is the only person in the neighborhood who has retained a jot of common sense.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Beginning with a fatal performance of King Lear, and moving back and forth across time, this novel tells the tale of a troupe of musicians and actors who are struggling to survive in postapocalyptic America.

Just One Day series, Gayle Forman. In this successful Young Adult series, Allyson and Willem meet in England during a Guerrilla Will performance of Twelfth Night. Over the course of a year, Allyson and Willem travel the globe searching for each other and for themselves, aided unknowingly by their mutual connect to the works of Shakespeare.

The Laughing Hangman (from the Nicholas Bracewell series), Edward Marston. Set in Elizabethan London, this witty tale follows Nicholas, who defends a feisty playwright and encounters more than his share of mysterious hangings - all while attempting to woo an old flame.

The Goddess of Buttercups & Daisies, Martin Millar. Ancient Greece is a refreshing and creative backdrop for Millar’s clever and laughable novel about everyday life, politics, the drama of the Greek pantheon, and the Athenian theater scene.

Waiting for 2000, Zack Love. Love’s clever Y2K satire pays homage to Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” Readers can’t help chuckling as they escape into the absurd and excessive world of the uber rich - and the disgruntled duo who didn’t make the cut.

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux. Perhaps you have a fond memory of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in the theater. But, have you ever read the novel? First published as a French serial in 1909, Leroux’s enthralling tale of love, loss, and jealousy is a must read.

Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Young Adult librarians turn to this popular graphic novel when they need a surefire book recommendation. This well-crafted story of middle school theater antics will have you laughing and shaking your head in recognition - and relief that those days are behind you.

Payment in Blood (from the Inspector Lynley series), Elizabeth George. Set in the Scottish Highlands, the second installment of the much-loved Inspector Lynley series focuses on the murder of playwright Joy Sinclair. Readers are simultaneously drawn into the lives of Inspector Lynley and his partner as well as the exploits of a theater company and a colorful cast of characters and murder suspects.

The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide, Jenna Fischer. Dip your toes into the nonfiction pond with this witty how-to guide for aspiring actors. Most folks know Fischer from her role on The Office, but readers will learn about the years of hard work and rejection that came before. Designed to educate and inspire new actors, this book would be interesting for any fan of the arts. And, if you’ve been wanting to try out an audiobook, you’ll enjoy listening to Fischer read her own work.


By Autumn Hjort, Seattle Playwrights Salon’s Literary Manager

Musician With Story To Tell Seeks Playwright

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Storyteller and musician Chris Anderson, a northwest artist who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, reached out to the Salon to help him find a playwright with whom he can join forces to tell his story. We took a few moments this past week to interview Chris and find out more about this unique opportunity.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): Why did you contact the Seattle Playwrights Salon?

Chris Anderson (CA): In 2018 I was awarded a grant from the Artist Trust and one of the perks from the grant was an opportunity to perform my production, 1hr2manup at the Neptune Theater. I had been preparing my show for three months, but was only allowed to actually practice the full production in the venue on the day of the performance. Creating the show was a bit of a struggle because I had so many ideas and concepts, but I wasn’t sure how to tie them all together. After my Neptune experience I walked away relieved it was over, but disappointed that I wasn’t able to use that opportunity to fully showcase my idea, which was under developed. My hopes are to collaborate with an established playwright who will help me streamline my vision.

MOD: Tell us about the kind of artist you are, and the music you make.

CA: Miles Davis said there are two types of music: good and bad. I create good music. I’m not only a music artist, I’m also a music producer, photographer, videographer, spoken word artist, clothing designer, drummer, percussionist, music curator, interior design, visual artist, and art installation designer.

The instrumental music I make comes from a place of both happiness and sadness. I draw from many forms of inspiration and hope to inspire others with my instrumental music. My record artistries come from a place of wanting to bring awareness to my culture—to wake up and take control over our lives to better ourselves for future generations.

MOD: What kinds of stories do you want to tell?

CA: I have a million stories from my life, all personal—some funny, some serious, some inspiring, some life changing, some crazy ridiculous—but all helpful in a way. I like to tell real stories, relatable stories, helpful ,and informative stories. I want people to be able to walk away learning something new from my experiences. I want to tell the kinds of stories that bring people together to shine awareness on cultural differences through a theater setting. Black people have amazing stories living inside of them. I want to be a vessel that pours out our stories to other communities.

MOD: How do you envision a collaboration with a playwright?

CA: I see us talking out my ideas and formulating a production approach based around their experience in theater and my experience on major and minor music stages and venues. I envision us working together to sharpen my vision, presenting it as an extremely heightened experience while keeping it fluid to always represent the journey I am traveling.

MOD: What kind of playwright/collaborator are you seeking?

CA: I’m seeking an experienced playwright that wants to push themselves creatively with me as we grow my idea from a spark to actual production. I have many ideas, but I lack experience in creating the narrative flow that would be appropriate for the stage. I hope the playwright that I partner with is outspoken and provides the guidance needed. I believe at this time in my life it is important to surround myself with people who are experienced in their field of work and will inspire me.

MOD: What are your artistic influences, especially for storytelling with music, or music with storytelling?

CA: I was privileged to work with a playwright, sculptor, curator, urban developer, and recording artist named Theaster Gates twenty years ago in his loft as a performance artist. That time spent with him and his work has inspired me to use all of my mediums to showcase who I am as an artist.

MOD: How should interested playwrights contact you?

CA: I can be contacted through my management company at jisun@globalartistscollective.co and/or merri@globalartistscollective.co

Announcing the Salon's Writing Group

Writing can be a very isolating experience. As fellow playwrights, we often crave community, deadlines, and a safe-yet-inspirational space to share our work. Our inaugural writers' group is geared toward providing writers with those intangibles, as well as offering the opportunity to have industry professionals as guests providing feedback on topics such as the production process, script editing, and working with a creative team.

Here’s the scoop:

A monthly writers group for up to eight playwrights who have demonstrated their commitment to playwriting through classes, development work, and productions. Sessions will consist of timed writes for an hour with short breaks, followed by a 10-minute table reading and feedback session for one playwright per month. The group is meant to provide structure and community to people who are craving to begin, finish or rework their scripts. There is no teacher for this group—writers will either facilitate discussions of their own work or trade off with others in the group. Out of respect for fellow participants, we are asking for a commitment of at least eight sessions per year (no meetings in August or December).

First Meeting*
April 14 from 1:00 PM - 3:00 PM
Uptown Espresso
4301 SW Edmunds St, Seattle, WA 98116

*The day/time and location of subsequent meetings may change based on the feedback from participants

How you can join
Register HERE by April 10. We will send out a roster and any final details to participating playwrights prior to the first meeting. In the event more than eight people register we will use a lottery system to identify participants and create a waitlist for future openings. If you have any questions, please send them to seattleplaywrightssalon@gmail.com.

MFA in Playwriting: Yes? No? Maybe?

Hey older playwright! Yes, you. You who attend Dramatists Guild and other playwriting conferences and meetings in great number, take local and national playwriting classes, and send your work to the Seattle Playwrights Salon in hopes of snagging a development slot. Meaning, older than the average age of college students at graduation (age 24) and graduate students (age 33). As in at least middle age and older. Maybe you, like me, came to playwriting in the middle of our lives, in the midst of or after careers doing something else. Maybe you don’t have a theatre degree in your history.

I’ve heard you talk about the lack of fellowship, residency, and development offers for “late artists” such as ourselves. I’ve commiserated with you about our lack of connections to the theatres, artistic directors, and directors who would love our work, if they only knew about it. I share your envy of those playwrights who form bonds with peer groups and teachers in graduate school that last their entire careers, and for whom, we imagine, closed and locked theatre doors swing open at a touch. Are theatres with good national and regional reputations really only producing new work by “emerging” playwrights in their twenties and thirties? Do we just imagine eye-rolls when we call ourselves “emerging” after forty?

And there’s that whole “improving our craft” thing: a class or two, when and if we can find them; putting together a writers’ group for support; seeing lots of theatre. It’s so scattered! Is getting an MFA in playwriting sometimes the answer? Or part of the answer? It may depend on what we’re seeking. For me, I’m seeking instruction in craft and technique; history and context; connection and bonding; deepening ability to see and hear and tell stories that matter; and practice, practice, practice. Is an MFA in playwriting for me? My MFA won’t change the theatre world, but can it give me what I’m seeking?

In this series of illuminating interviews we’ll hear from Todd Ristau, Program Director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA; Duane Kelly, a Seattle playwright who has self-produced two plays in the last two years, and has a second professional production of one of those plays this year; and Donna Hoke, widely-produced and frequently awarded playwright in Buffalo, NY, on their thoughts on the value of an MFA in playwriting.

MFA in Playwriting: Yes (Part 1 of 3)

In this series of illuminating interviews we’ll hear from Todd Ristau, Program Director of the Playwright’s Lab at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA; Duane Kelly, a Seattle playwright who has self-produced two plays in the last two years, and has a second professional production of one of those plays this year; and Donna Hoke, widely-produced and frequently awarded playwright in Buffalo, NY, on their thoughts on the value of an MFA in playwriting.

First up is our interview with Todd Ristau on the right (and not so right) reasons to pursue an MFA.

Margaret O’Donnell (MOD): What are the most important reasons you know for getting an MFA in playwriting?

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Todd Ristau (TR): The only reason I can think of is that you honestly want to be a better playwright.  I hear a lot of other reasons given by people considering an MFA in playwriting, and I find them very frustrating.  “Because I want to be able to fall back on teaching.”  That’s a terrible reason to get an MFA.  “Because it seems like a degree from the right school is the only way to get past the gatekeepers and get produced!” That’s an even WORSE reason to get an MFA… you’d be much better off spending your money on self-producing.  “So I can have time to devote just to writing.”  Couldn’t you do that without getting a degree?  “To be part of a community of other writers.” Again, you don’t need a degree to do that… but, if you said you wanted to be part of a community of writers who are ALSO concentrating on being better playwrights, then I’d stand up and cheer. 

The amount of time and money you invest in a degree is only worthwhile if you are totally invested in learning how to do what you already love doing even better. Learning through exercises and focused coursework.  Learning through guided readings and exposure to other playwrights. Learning by interacting with established playwrights who are teachers and guest artists. Learning by working in an interdisciplinary way with other playwrights and actors and directors and dramaturgs and designers and technicians and everyone else who represents exactly the kinds of collaborators you might someday work with in the profession. That’s why you need to ask questions about a program’s pedagogy, philosophy, and not about brand affiliation. Before you can get any good out of anything you want, start by being clear about what you want and why you want it. If what you want is validation and a secret handshake to get past mythical gate keepers, don’t get an MFA. Sorry, I have feelings about this. Deep feelings.

MOD: Who seems to benefit most from an MFA program?  How about those who don’t benefit?

TR: There are people who are going to tell you that the people who benefit most are the ones who pocket your tuition. If you really feel that way, don’t get an MFA. See above for why I say that. The playwright who will benefit from an MFA is the one who comes in eager to learn and who is prepared to see their work as a blueprint for further collaboration with other artists and an audience. The ones who don’t benefit are the ones who have come to prove they didn’t need to learn anything but getting a degree is “just part of the game.”  Did I mention I had feelings?

MOD: Why did you decide to get an MFA?  What changed in your life and career because of it?

TR: Honestly, I didn’t have any of the high minded reasons I gave above. But, it was still a reflection of all of that. I was at Iowa as an undergraduate and I lived and breathed theatre. I was mostly acting, but theatre was this vehicle that just opened up my own life to me and helped me engage with other people in truly empathetic ways. And like my life was an improv game, I just kept saying yes to the offers that came to me. I joined Geese Company at 18, which was an improvisational mask work company doing Grotowski based pieces for inmates in prison. I toured with them for a year and performed in 170 prisons. Then I went back to school for a year and was asked to be in a garage band and go live in London for six months and I said yes.  Then I came back to school and my friend asked me to take a playwriting class with him because he was nervous about doing it alone. I wrote a one act for a midterm and another for my final. The teacher asked the head of the department what he should do if someone wrote good plays and the head of the department gave me a production slot to put both up as a night of one acts. It sold out all three nights. As a reward, I got to do a semester of the Playwright’s Workshop while I was an undergrad. I had to write another play. They put that in playwrights festival and everyone loved it, so they let me do another semester in the grad workshop.

I ended up doing five consecutive semesters of playwrights workshop before I finished my undergrad and then they gave me a $3000 scholarship to do my grad work at Iowa. Which I did. It wasn’t really a plan, so much as being open to my bliss or whatever calling me. Now I have devoted my life to helping other people hear and follow that same bliss. I’m constantly learning, advocating for learning and teaching. Exactly the way any playwright should be. I also really, genuinely love the administrative work of running a program, hiring good faculty and guests, and finding eager students. Nothing I am doing now would have been possible without my MFA, but it was never a career path. It was always a way for me to learn how to be more effective at doing the work that I love. 

MOD: If you could design the theatre world in the US from the ground up, God-like, what would it look like?  What part would formal academics play in this ideal world?

TR: I sort of feel like that is exactly what we’re doing at Hollins, so I’m not sure how to answer that question in the abstract. It would be a world where people support each other rather than compete with each other. It would be a world where the education was entirely subsidized so that nobody had to worry about crushing debt being one more thing keeping you from succeeding. It would be a world where success wouldn’t be measured in retweets or bank accounts. It would be a world where playwrights were as eager to go see plays by other people as they are anxious to get you to buy tickets to their own shows. It would be a world where access to training was easy and affordable and classes were taught by working professionals and never by people who resent or tear down their students. I guess it would be this world but where there is justice, generosity, and genuine collaboration. 

MOD: For those who don’t have the money for MFA programs (upwards of $50,000), how do you recommend they approximate the experience?  Is it possible?

TR: That’s a great question, and I don’t have an answer. But, again, Hollins is not designed to be an ivory tower with a moat and a fence of poisoned brambles to keep people who can’t afford to get in on the outside. Maybe you can’t take classes at Hollins because you don’t have an undergrad degree or you can’t afford the tuition, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get something out of connecting with us. We partner with Mill Mountain Theatre so that we can bring lots of our programming to downtown Roanoke, and we offer it free to the public in most cases. In part, because I want our students interacting with the very public they are training to serve! 

Beyond finding a new play development program like Hollins to hang around with, I would recommend you find a theatre that does stuff you like and volunteer to read scripts, to sweep floors, to usher, to do anything you can to just be in and around theatre. Breathe it in and breath it out and you’re going to learn stuff. But again, back to my first point… if you are going there to try and scam them into doing your play, forget it. If you’re not going there to learn more about theatre so you can do it better, all the networking in the world isn’t going to help you. And  GO SEE PLAYS. And pay for the privilege. If you won’t pay to see a play, why do you think anyone will pay to see yours? If you’re not buying tickets, you can’t be that surprised that theatres are closing. But, when you go, make notes in your playbill of the people whose work you admire. Try to get to know that actor or that director or that designer. Give them your honest positive feedback and hope they ask you how you’re connected to the theatre. When you tell them you are a playwright don’t just shove a script in their hand, say “I hope I have a production someday that would merit the talent of a designer like you. You really know how to support the text with your work!” That’s the kind of thing that will get them interested in asking to see YOUR work. That’s how you build a circle of people who you want to work with and hopefully want to work with you. That’s how you get a director to drop your name when an artistic director asks what projects they’d like to work on. Anyway, my advice always seems to boil down to honestly wanting to be better and do your best to not be a jerk.

MOD: OnStage Blog.com lists their top ten playwriting programs 2018-19. All are two- and three-year full-time programs, expensive, and highly selective. For those who can’t go to school again full time, don’t or don’t want to get into a top ten school, and/or don’t have the funds, is attending a less well-known school a good idea?

TR: Please do not pick your MFA based on a top ten list. Ask yourself what is the criteria for how they rank the schools and then compare it to the criteria you have for what a school is offering that will best help you achieve your personal, artistic, and professional goals. Oh, you haven’t made a list of your personal, professional and artistic goals?  Start there. Then ask the schools in your price range how they can help you achieve those goals. Trust me, they will be honest. It won’t do them any good to have you go there, spend all your time complaining to them about how they aren’t as good as the big name schools and then have you going on playwriting forums and telling people that MFAs are a huge waste of time. 

When I’m looking at applications, I give a lot more weight to the letter of intent and the explanation for why someone thinks Hollins is the right choice for them than I do their writing samples. That letter of intent is how I figure out if we are going to be a good fit for each other. If it sounds like you would do better in a different program, I will tell you.  If you don’t think we’re prestigious enough, please tell me! I want our program to be the place you chose to become a better playwright, not the program you settled for. And I tell everyone, theatre is a maddening, thankless, expensive way to go broke. You’re not coming to Hollins to get a job. You’re coming to Hollins to learn how to be the best playwright you can possibly be. That’s where it starts. That’s where it never ends.