Have you ever heard, or said: "If you can imagine yourself happy doing anything besides [acting, writing plays, directing] go do it" or "Write plays only if they must be plays. If you can write it as a movie, don't write it as a play." The sentiment is less meant to instruct than warn: theatre is a hard life, with few rewards. New and aspiring artists are told to look into their hearts, and find absolute certainty that they are dedicated to the stage. They're often told things like this in college. Or even earlier.
I never gave this meme much thought. It seemed, especially when I first heard it, as good advice.
Lately, I'm not so sure. What cachet is there in dissuading the amateur from becoming an auteur?
My father, who recently retired from being active Episcopal clergy after 40 years of service, once told me of a similar purity test. He noted that around the late 70s and early 80s, young men who wanted to go to seminary were turned away. It was thought that, in your twenties or younger, that you simply didn't know enough to commit yourself to a life as a Priest. "Go away," they were told. "Live a bit more, and when you're ready, come back." This was meant to be progressive, careful and wise. Young people are creatures of whim and impulse. They really should know what they're getting into.
The problem became apparent recently with that line of thinking. First of all, many who were sent away didn't come back. They simply left the Priesthood, having had their interest discouraged. Second of all, you wound up with a narrower number of new Priests, many of them starting their careers at 45 or 50. This meant you have first year clergy who were nearing the age of retirement.
Now, it's not a perfect analogy, but I think the issue is clear: to scare off those who aren't sufficiently dedicated is self-defeating. Would it be a tragedy if more people fell into playwriting as a hobby and wound up making a life of it? Or found themselves good at it because they enjoyed it? Or if the unsure writer, who dipped his or her toes in the water of an Off-Off Broadway play, wound up making good friends, writing more plays, and happily and unpretentiously becoming a playwright for reasons that had nothing to do with his or her initial dedication to the cause?
To be fair, I'm sure some of this meme is driven by a desire to see good work. There are quite a few playwrights, young and old, who seem to have trouble distinguishing the dramatic from the theatrical. By telling those people who would rather write television to just go do it, perhaps we hope to be spared the hardship of sitting through lousy plays. But what if, instead, we said "If you're writing a TV script, how do you think you can turn it into a play?"
What if we encouraged as many people as possible to embrace what's fun and intangible about the stage, as opposed to warning the young people who aren't sufficiently "dedicated" to stay away? I think we'd find ourselves pleasantly surprised by an influx of new energy in what can be an insular community.
- Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.