In this series of illuminating interviews we’re hearing 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.
We’re grateful to have Donna Hoke share her insights on the roles played by education, location, and goal setting (among other things) in a rewarding playwriting career.
Margaret O’DOnnell (MOD): Have you always seen yourself as a writer? Why did you start writing plays? Was it after years of doing other kinds of writing?
Donna Hoke (DH): I have. I wrote stories when I was a kid, and though I got derailed getting a BS in Speech Pathology/Audiology, I went back immediately and got a BA in English with a concentration in journalism. I took a lot of creative writing classes for that degree, but never felt as good as other people, and hated the questions, comments, and assumptions from family, so I made a career in magazines and never looked back.
Short version of how I found playwriting: living in New Jersey, my husband had started acting, so I was going to some community theater, and was intrigued. Then we divorced and I moved with my kids to Buffalo, where a few years later I got a subscription to Road Less Traveled Productions (I thought it would be a good thing to do with dates) that used to have a mission of doing world premieres by Western New York playwrights--like literally that was their whole season of four plays. They had a workshop that supplied the plays and, after seeing a few, I thought, "I think I can write a play as good as that and it would be fun to have a play produced."
I toyed with the idea before I actually wrote the first one. I know this because my now-husband was the last person I took to that theater subscription in 2007, and we went to a New Year's Eve party that year and I met Rajiv Joseph (his brother and my husband play in the Buffalo Philharmonic together) and when I asked what he did, he said he was a playwright, and I was fascinated. He hadn't exploded yet, but soon after, I started writing that first play and that's when the dam just BROKE. I got into the workshop, and the second year, Road Less Traveled--which by now was only doing maybe one world premiere by a WNY playwright per season--produced my third full-length play, THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR (which just entered its fifth year running in rep in Romania).
MOD: You’ve earned many productions and awards in the ten years since you began writing plays. How did you learn? What served you best?
DH: I started going to a ton of theater. I went to so much that I got asked to be on the awards committee in Buffalo and between Buffalo, New York, and the Shaw Festival, I see more than 100 shows a year. That's my education. I read contemporary plays and see them in New York, and have a good handle on new work. I never took a single theater class, but I've seen, for example, five Arthur Miller shows staged, some more than once, and that's how I learn about the canon. I've read a lot of how-to books. I joined the Dramatists Guild immediately. I joined Official Playwrights of Facebook. But mostly, I just wrote--a lot. Since I wrote that first play in 2008, I have 19 full-length plays and three dozen short plays. What kept me going was ten-minute plays. After that first production, I did a litmus test where I got out the Dramatists Guild Resource Book and sent THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR to as many places as I could find that were appropriate; over time, that was about 300. And ZIP. And then I was driving home from New Jersey and heard a Springsteen song that prompted an idea for a ten-minute play, so I wrote it. And then I spent a year writing ten minute plays that I started sending out. I got my first acceptance in August 2011, and they just kept coming. I had no idea then how hard it was to get a full-length play produced, but the success I had with the ten-minute plays--from theaters outside Buffalo, theaters where nobody knew me--was so validating and motivating because I knew I must be doing something right. I still advise all new playwrights to start with tens; because everything moves so much more quickly with them, you'll know soon enough if you're doing it right.
MOD: Starting over again, would you do things differently? Your best advice about what not to do?
DH: Start sooner! I so envy playwrights my age who started when most scripts were still snail mailed because I know I would have had the stamina to do those weekly trips to the post office and I think it was a lot easier to get your script read in those days. Barring that, I don't know what I could or would have done differently that was in my power. I was a single parent with four kids under age 11. I couldn't move to New York, I couldn't go back to school. But I did what I could to immerse myself 100%: writing, reading, attending shows, starting a blog (which in the early days was just my playwriting news; the advocacy came as I learned). I asked advice from everyone. When I could, I started going to conferences. I walked the walk and, over time, it started to pay off. I had my first full-length production outside of Buffalo in 2014--four years after the first and six years after I'd written my first play. You have to be in this for the long haul and if there's anything I see among other new playwrights--those who haven't found the calling as early as college--is they write one play and stop when it doesn't get produced. Their dream is that elusive production, not being a playwright, and while that might be enough to get you started, it's not enough to keep you going.
MOD: Are there any circumstances when you’d recommend a MFA in playwriting to an emerging/beginning playwright?
DH: An older one? It all depends on why you want to do it. I have a similar conversation with people about whether or not it would be helpful for me to move to New York and the answer comes back about the same: I'm not sure there's anything that move would accomplish for me, at my age, and with the level of recognition I have. Everybody knows I live in Buffalo, they know I jump on a plane at the drop of a hat. What would it accomplish? I kind of feel the same about the MFA in that I don't feel like it would necessarily boost my career, but if I had the money, it would be another way to continue to learn and work with new people. Some people also need the discipline of a program to keep writing and learning. Or maybe their work isn't getting chosen as often as they'd like and they want to dig deeper into craft. It's a personal decision, and the only caveat I would say to anyone considering one is don't expect it to be a magic bullet. Nothing really is.
MOD: What are your goals now for your writing and for productions?
DH: I still aim to write two full-length scripts a year, and this year, I'd like one of them to be a TV movie screenplay, which means I'll actually be writing two and half scripts because I have one that I didn't finished last year because I traveled so much and I'm still trying to find time to write the final three scenes of! I just wrote a sitcom pilot, which was something new, and I really enjoyed doing it; I'd love to write for television--that's actually a dream I had years ago when I worked for Soap Opera Digest--but I feel the only way to get there is to have success with playwriting first, so it's a long shot. You actually remind me that I haven't even written out my 2019 goals yet! I need to do that! But, when I do, they won't be production goals because those are out of my control; they're writing and marketing goals. (Here's an older blog post about how I set goals.) Setting goals you can't control--aka dreams--will only frustrate you, but in setting the achievable ones, those dreams often follow. I just took a look at that linked post from 2014, and I have since achieved every one of those career achievement goals I had listed then. One achievable goal I have for the next two years is to be able to give up one of my survival jobs to give myself more time to write.
MOD: What themes draw you?
DH: I traffic a lot in sex and gender politics and expectation, rooting for the underdogs, but also just some compelling stories. My plays really run the gamut, from a Christmas comedy about out addiction to social media to a nine-person historic play about a 1955 gay bar in New York City to sex worker caught between her sugar daddy and her boyfriend (that's my 2016 Kilroys List play). If I had to choose one thing that cuts across most of them is that they sit unapologetically on the blurry line between what is allegedly right and what is allegedly wrong. I am fascinated by the gap between those seeming or recognized absolutes and that's where a lot of my plays find their homes.
MOD: In addition to writing many full-length and short plays and seeing them produced widely, you are a regular blogger on playwriting, a moderator of Official Playwrights of Facebook, a frequent speaker on playwriting, a play submissions guru, a Dramatist Guild regional rep, and more. Do these activities feed your playwriting? Or take away from it? And where and when do you fit in writing?
DH: I'm actually on Dramatists Guild Council lol. I wouldn't say those things feed my writing, but they feed my sense of community and belonging as a playwright. If I didn't do those things, if I didn't give back, it would always be about me, me, me and my next production--I see that much too often and I don't want to be like that. One of the best parts of being a playwright is the people and experiences and those are always happening even when a production isn't; you have to embrace them and realize that those experiences, more than any production or career achievement, are the real purpose and joy in all this. Sure, it takes time from my writing, but the trade-off is so worth it.
Feel like giving back? Consider volunteering with the Seattle Playwrights Salon. Details here.