Thursday, May 8, 2014

Session 3: 5/6/14

The third session—our first week a new location, Le Pain Quotidien in Chelsea—went well. Four playwrights attended, two of whom have recently made the transition from performing to playwriting. Two heard about this from Kanjy, one from the NYCPlaywrights blog, and one attended last week. Three of the writers had general questions about honing or finding homes for their scripts; the fourth was interested in longer-term collaboration with a dramaturg on two writing projects, so we talked about how that might proceed.

Dating analogies came up a few times. In regard to applying to residencies: personalizing your message for the company to which you’re writing, as opposed to using a standard pickup line, not only strengthens your application, but forces you to see if there is actually anything about this company that attracts you. And if not, then why apply? In regards to “getting in with” a company, because it feels like the right thing to do, and shaping your work to what feels “marketable”: when has it ever been a good idea to be in a relationship simply because you don’t want to be single, or to change yourself to be what you *think* others want? (If you’re curious about the concept of professional courtship—which I can’t take credit for—it comes up frequently in marketing and fundraising circles, and is translatable in many ways to any relationship-building process; examples here and here.)

I was happy to have a return visitor—a playwright who last week talked about some challenges with a script he was writing, and this week brought in an application he was assembling for a writers’ group. When he asked about bringing in a script to be critiqued during the office hours (despite acknowledging that he’d read my statements on this blog and the Facebook page that I wouldn’t want to give a rushed critique, nor think that any writer should accept one) I felt it necessary to add that part of what I’m hoping to do with this project is reinforce that dramaturgy—and, by extension, those that practice it—have value.  While I am genuinely pleased that this project has been of use to him, this question did unlock my inner Lorax. My response was only partially to his question, and also the result of several weeks of thinking about this project, and several years of freelancing and witnessing/hearing about the situations of other freelancers. It felt worth stating in the moment, and so I wanted to repeat it here. (I wasn’t so long-winded about it in person.)

Sharing resources and support are a large part of this; if in twenty minutes, I can provide useful information, advice, or encouragement to somebody, that feels to me like a worthwhile exchange.

But if the benefit of one or two of those interactions feels valuable enough that you want more—and, specifically, someone to take a close look at something you’ve created, and respond to it—I think it’s to all parties' benefit to acknowledge that that has worth. I—like all of us—take on projects for free or for little pay, when I believe that I can provide value to my collaborators, and will receive value through my involvement. Starting this open office hours project (which I’ve been committed to making a break-even, no-cost, no-earnings experiment: I’m volunteering my time, and aiming to not spend money on this) was a way to express that I believe what I do has value, in the same way that accepting payment for other of my gigs does.

I don’t only want to work with people who can “afford it”, but I do hope to work with people who respect my and their own value. It falls within our means to offer each other for services we value, if not money, then: a meal, bartered services, recommendations, loyalty. If somebody’s expertise does not seem worth any of that, then why request it?

When we're working for free--or, perhaps more significantly, feel that our value is not being recognized--it becomes harder to pay for the services we need or desire, and easier to expect not to have to pay (because if people get our work for free, why can't we get theirs?).

And while nobody could say it is easy for artists to receive acknowledgement of their value, it is not outside our control to maintain awareness of this value, and to model the behavior we want to see. To weigh the benefit of each opportunity or offer, to ask for what we need, to be more selective in where we focus our resources, and to offer to our collaborators the sorts of acknowledgement we are seeking for ourselves. The one consistent banner I've been waving at these open office hours is on the behalf of artists having more control than they realize of steering their ships. Finding the people who recognize your value, and forgetting about the rest, would do quite a lot to upend the so-called "gatekeeper" system. I think we are so accustomed to being underpaid that it's become easy to forget that we play a role in shaping our transactions: in both the way we are compensated, and how we compensate or acknowledge the value of others.

I would love for this topic--of the value of our work--to come up in the office hours, because I rarely talk about it outside of a small circle of close friends. And while this isn’t dramaturgy-specific—it’s relevant across disciplines—such a large part of dramaturgy is advocacy, assessment, exploration, and support, and so many of the dramaturgs I know passionately take on their roles not just in regards to scripts or projects, but with their artistic collaborators holistically, and in a broader way throughout the field.

Okay. The Lorax is going back into his stump. We’ll be at Le Pain Quotidien again next week.

Best wishes,


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