On of the most difficult things for me as a writer is talking about my work in a clear and professional way. For whatever reason, when someone asks me to tell them about my work, I choke. I can mumble a few words out about “character driven” or “mixing comedy and drama” but ultimately, that doesn’t mean much. It’s generic. Catch phrases.
The reality is though: writers need to be able to talk about their work. Not just at a cocktail party, but for applications, submissions, all sorts of things. Simply put, we need to get over whatever it is that makes it feel weird to talk about our work. Jenny Connell is a fellow Long Horn (that’s UT at Austin) who I met up with in New York City. She’s great. And she struggles with talking about her work, just like me. So, I made her write a blog about it.
Talking About Your Work
A few weeks ago, Larry asked me to write a guest entry on his blog, and I was thrilled. An invitation to be part of playwriting conversations! How cool! Without even getting out of my pajamas! (See: Mac’s post on lazy ambition).
Then Larry floated the topic he had in mind:
“I would love to hear about your experience as a playwright in New York–you know, with the lovely term “early career” playwright that sometimes gets tossed around, or… something that has been on my mind, how do you talk about your work with people?”
And I basically avoided him for two weeks.
Oh, God, that QUESTION! “Tell Us About Your Work” – along with its corollary “So, What Kind Of Plays Do You Write” – are those questions not the bane of playwrights everywhere?
The instinct, of course, is to say “well, why don’t you just read the fucking play?” …but that, of course, wouldn’t be very nice, nor would it be using very inventive language – curse words being the sign of an impoverished vocabulary, or so I tell my students.
So. Let’s look at BOTH those questions for a minute, where they’re asked, what each means, and then consider appropriate responses (and let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that fleeing isn’t an option).
First, “What Kind of Plays Do You Write.” This is a question you’re most likely to encounter in an informal setting, from the well-meaning “friend of the arts.” Picture your brother’s work friend, your dentist, that friendly aunt in the Festive Holiday Sweater. Chances are, you’ve got a plate of mixed fruit and cheese cubes in hand. Chances are, the person asking has a casual interest in theater, but wouldn’t know Ameriville from BOBRAUSCHENBERGAMERICA. Chances are, what the person really wants to know is some combination of “would I like your plays” or “do you write comedy or drama” or “could you please move out of the way? You’re blocking the bar.” In any case, the situation calls for a smile, a two-to-ten word response along the lines of “dramas, mostly” or “political plays with a lot of movement” or “nothing I can tell my grandmother about…” or “oops, sorry, am I in the way?” At that point, it’s perfectly appropriate to pop a cheese cube into your mouth, smile, and listen to your interlocutor wax rhapsodic about a few of his or her favorite theater experiences. No need to continue into a full-fledged discussion of Performance in America unless it turns out your Friendly Aunt bookmarks HowlRound – in fact, it’s better not to. You know when there’s a vegan at Thanksgiving Dinner and all they want to talk about is “Food Inc” and their favorite lentil loaf recipes? In this scenario, you’re the vegan. Your best bet is to offer a forkful of your lentil loaf and turn the conversation back to something neutral, like gun control.
You’ll notice I’m 500 words into this post, and still haven’t answered Larry’s question of what to say when asked to Talk About My Work. Yeah. I noticed too.
So. You know how in that last scenario we were eating cheese and talking to friendly people in festive sweaters? When you’re asked to Talk About Your Work, chances are you’re sitting in front of your computer, un-showered, facing a blank word document and a fellowship deadline. Maybe you’re a fancy opening party (someone else’s), talking to an agent (someone else’s). Again, there are cheese cubes. Picture: a sea of theater-types, swathed in enough black to make The Seagull’s Masha weep for joy. Picture clip boards. Picture the stacks and stacks and STACKS of ten-page samples, 100-word bios, and OTHER artists’ statements that preceded yours and will follow it. Hell, picture a firing squad. Because those are all the things you’re picturing when you’re sitting at the computer (whether or not they bear relationship to reality). Now, speak articulately and convincingly about your fledgling play, and the two workshop productions you’ve had, and your Big Dreams to Change American Theater, and the revolutionary site-specific piece
about love and memory and this one thing that’s really been bugging you lately and how much your Friendly Aunt likes that one thing you wrote two years ago. I dare you.
That’s kinda what I envisioned when Larry asked “How Do You Talk About Your Work?”
But that’s not useful.
What IS useful?
First, to remember that the theater types are theater types because they, like you, love theater. They are, in part, asking the same question as your Friendly Aunt: “Will I like your work?” And the answer to that question is ALWAYS “maybe, maybe not – but please don’t worry about that.”
But the Theater Types are ALSO inviting you to engage in a more far-reaching conversation, one that BEGINS with “who are you as an artist? What are you working TOWARD? What do you want your work to do in the world?”
And yes, those are difficult questions, ones that don’t have safe or quick or easy answers (and – AHEM – take a hell of a lot more than a page to answer with any real depth – I’m lookin’ at you, PlayPenn/O’Neill/insert name of development organization here). But they’re questions that are absolutely worth your time and energy. In fact, they’re questions whose answers can serve as a life boat to you in those moments when you feel most at sea.
So. In order to answer Larry’s question, I spent about two weeks figuring out how I talk about my work. I went through a series of steps, asked myself a series of questions that helped lead me up to the Big Question. It got a little (okay, a lot) existential, so I’ll cut right to the questions:
- If I could make any kinds of plays for any kinds of audience, what plays/audiences would I choose and why?
- What do I think theater should be? And where would I want to sit within that world?
- What big questions do I have that I try to answer with my work?
- What do I fundamentally believe theater should be like (at least, the theater in which I want to participate, the theater to which I want to contribute?)
- How do my ideals measure against the work I do? Where am I meeting my ideals, and where do I fall short?
You might not get a one-page artist’s statement out of this, but you probably will get something like a mission statement, something you can use as a cornerstone both in writing those fellowship applications and in thinking about where you want your work to go next. And ultimately, that will serve you at least as well as a mission statement – we all need to articulate, once in a while, where we see our “north star.”
Jenny Connell is a performer and playwright from Maine. Her plays include The Dragon Play, The Psyche Project, and The Scientific Method; her short film Fatakra with writer-director Soham Mehta won a 2011 Student Academy Award and has screened in over 50 festivals worldwide. She’s currently working on a site-specific, (very) staged reading ofThe Colony, a displaced fable about memory, language, history, honeybees, and the end of the world. You can find her excellent blog here: www.playwrightsnotebook.