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Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Dealing With Rejection

I just counted up the number of rejections I received last week, by email and snail mail, and the total was eight. This was higher than normal, so it was definitely a banner week for my work to be passed on!

All of these rejections were for stage plays, both full-length and one-act, that I had submitted to a variety of theater companies and playwriting competitions across the country. This got me thinking about how my attitude towards, and response to, rejection has changed in the 25-plus years that I’ve been writing.

When I first started, fresh out of USC Film School, each rejection I received was extremely painful, like a dagger aimed straight at my heart. I was exclusively writing screenplays then, and every time one of my scripts was turned down by a studio or production company, it affected me profoundly. My typical response would be a deep melancholy that would last for several days. The rejection and the disappointment that accompanied it seemed to seep deeply into the marrow of my soul.

In retrospect, a lot of this had to do with the fact that I was just starting out in my writing career and every script seemed precious. And it wasn’t just the script that was being rejected, it was me. Each rejection made me question whether I was really a writer or just another wannabe, a poseur.

In response to this crippling melancholia, I eventually evolved a different strategy for dealing with rejection – anger and dismissal. I built up a wall around my self-esteem by angrily dismissing whoever had rejected my script as an idiot or moron who was clueless about good writing. William Goldman’s famous dictum from ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, “Nobody knows anything,” became my mantra. In hindsight, I don’t think it was much of an improvement to be walking around angry and bitter for a few days, as opposed to sad and depressed.

Fortunately, as the years passed and I continued to write, each piece became a little less precious, each rejection less a personal affront. I began to inure to rejection and to see it as an inevitable part of a writer’s life. Writing stage plays really helped to bring this into focus because they are more of a renewable resource. Unlike a screenplay, a play is not limited to a single production.

All eight of the rejections I received last week were for plays that had previously been selected for production or for staged readings elsewhere. In other words, they had been winners of other competitions. One short play, ANYTHING ELSE?, had been one of six plays selected for production from 650 submissions in the 2010 Festival of One-Act Plays at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, New York. I hadn’t change a word of the play, yet it was turned down without comment last week by two other festivals. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious – it’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. Every reader brings a different taste to the task of script evaluation. This particular lesson was brought home to me in dramatic fashion last year after I submitted another short play, a dark comedy entitled THE SURPRISE PARTY, to the Dubuque Fine Arts Players (DFAP) in Iowa for consideration in their National Playwriting Contest.

The play was not selected, but as part of the process the DFAP sent me the actual critique sheets of the two readers who evaluated my work. (These sheets are akin to the coverage that screenplays receive). Each reader evaluated my play on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best) in 10 different categories, so the maximum possible score was 100.

The first reader gave my play a perfectly respectable overall tally of 70. But the second scored it with an execrable total of 12.5! That’s right – a total score of 12.5 out of 100, or an average of 1.25 out of 10 in each category. Reader Number 2 (I will refrain from calling him or her an idiot or a moron) obviously hated the play. Perhaps dark comedy doesn’t play as well in some quarters of Dubuque, Iowa as it does in New York City – THE SURPRISE PARTY was later selected from several hundred submissions and produced at the 2010 International Cringefest here in Manhattan. How to account for this? It’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. (This is my new mantra.)

I would be lying if I said that rejection had no effect on me these days. There is still genuine disappointment associated with it, but that seems normal to me. And it is usually brief, a matter of minutes rather than days. It is no longer crippling; it’s just a part of the process.

The gifted playwright and screenwriter John Guare gave this clearheaded assessment in a November 14, 2010 article in The New York Times:

“What a long career does give you, during the long nights of thinking and rewriting, is a healthy perspective: As writers, we’re always starting all over again,” Mr. Guare said. “That’s what I tell younger playwrights, that you have to learn how to live with despair, resentment, rejection and failure. Because if you can’t, you need to find another line of work.”

Sobering words, indeed, but somehow strangely inspiring. I have them framed above my writing desk.

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Jeff Stolzer is a screenwriter, playwright and former question writer for Regis Philbin on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE. He is a proud member of the Writers Guild since 1991.

How a Nice Playwright Like Me Starting Plotting Murder

I am often asked to speak to early career playwrights who, this day and age, accept as fact that they will have to write for TV or film in order to make a living. It’s not even sad but definitely true.

Jessica Hecht and Sandra Oh in "Stop Kiss" at The Public Theater Credit: Photo © Michal Daniel, 1999

The year that my play Stop Kiss premiered at The Public Theater, extending three times, making it the longest-running straight play produced at the theater since A Chorus Line – I made less money than I do in one month as a writer/producer for series television. And when the play finally closed –my income stream ended. I had been working as a freelance copywriter prior to the play’s opening. The day the reviews for Stop Kiss came out, prompting my phone to clatter off the hook with friends telling me “You’re the toast of the town!” (not to date myself but my phone looked like this), I was hurriedly writing the last of the Star Trek trivia questions that were due for the SyFy Channel website – a job that I had fallen behind on during rehearsals. Wanting to take advantage of the steam misting off of Stop Kiss’ successful run, I went to L.A. for a week and packed in as many meet and greets with studio and network execs as I could. These kinds of meetings can feel pointless at the time, the writer’s equivalent of kissing hands and shaking babies, but you never know what they will eventually lead to. For me, it was an offer to work on the recently picked-up series “The West Wing”. My husband and I sublet our one-bedroom East Village walk-up and rented a small house in West Hollywood so I could see what it was like to be part of a writing staff. It was, shall we say, a unique experience, not only for me as a neophyte TV writer but for the more seasoned writers on staff, many of whom were playwrights too.

At the end of “The West Wing”’s first season, I decided to return to the East Village. To best convey my rationale, I offer this analogy from real life – that year in L.A. my husband and I attempted to get pregnant, but to no avail. The minute we returned to New York City, our first son was conceived. For the first two years of my son’s life, we continued to live in that one-bedroom walk-up while I wrote two pilots for CBS and adapted Stop Kiss into a screenplay.

One day, when I was on the 1 train headed for the theater, I ran into Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Sideman. Warren was a friend of Eric Bogosian, who was married to Jo Bonney, the director of Stop Kiss. We’d met at a dinner party. Warren told me that he had taken his first series TV job, and was writing for the latest “Law & Order” spinoff, “Criminal Intent” and that they might be hiring a new writer. Maybe I’d be interested? I said “Sure,” thinking that a cop show was about as far out of my range of abilities as platform diving. But a couple weeks later, I got a call from Warren that he’d given Stop Kiss to showrunner Rene Balcer to read, and that Rene wanted to meet me. My agent sent me a stack of scripts to read. I read a dozen of them within a couple days.

There was something powerfully addictive about these stories, as viewers of CI and all the shows in the L&O franchise well know. But even more than the mothership and SVU, I found that the CI scripts stayed so far ahead of you, misdirecting you with such sharpness and outrunning you with such agility, that I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Suspense was not my strong suit and I wondered how I could ever write for this show. But my meeting with Rene went well and weeks later I was offered the job. I was going to be able to live in the city of my choice while working on a broadcast network TV series with a foreseeable future. I would later realize I had no idea how good I had it.
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Diana SonDiana Son is the author of the plays Stop Kiss, Satellites, BOY, R.A.W. (‘Cause I’m a Woman) and others. She has also been a writer/producer for TV series including “Blue Bloods,” “Southland,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “The West Wing” in addition to writing pilots and the occasional feature film. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3 sons.

One, Two, Three – Jump!

I was terrified when Elana Levin contacted me to write four blogs for the WGAE website. I’m used to scribbling words for a group of characters played by actors so talented they made every word so much better than it looked on paper. It was great hiding behind them, but I don’t have them to protect me anymore, so I said yes.

I am not a risk taker by nature. I don’t drive anymore, I’m not athletic, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Swimming in creeks or rivers where fish (or even minnows) might be lurking scares me. We rented a house upstate for years. When we walked home from our neighbor’s house after dark I was sure the bats fluttering above were waiting to swoop down and nest in my hair. My husband had his hands full helping me co-exist with nature. I’m from two edgy and wonderful cities, Detroit and New York and I am very comfortable in both places. But nature…yikes! I’ve made some progress, thanks to my husband Tony.

Being uncomfortable is good, sometimes. My high school drama director cast me as science prodigy Tillie in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” – dyed my hair mousy brown, wore polyester and baggy knee sox as I cradled my dead rabbit at the end of the play. My mom’s best friend didn’t recognize me. Great moment for the girl usually cast as the ingénue. My college boyfriend Michael was determined that I get my license. He taught me to drive. Yes, I did drive for awhile. Grace Bavaro sent me from the restaurant to the TV studio. My friend Nancy Williams Watt generously encouraged me to add my voice to the voices of the Guiding Light characters. Super bosses Paul Rauch and Ellen Wheeler would often call me in on Friday and tell me I’d be doing a very different job at Guiding Light on Monday. I always lamented the fact that I never had time to “train” for any of these jobs. My husband watched me freak out and then witnessed my wonder when I realized how great it is to learn something new. Not that I mastered every job, but it’s so exciting to go into a dark, scary place, turn on the light and see that it’s not so scary after all.

Children play with dog

photo by Tony Hurst

And it’s fun to help someone else get over their fear. Our landlady upstate asked us to keep our two big dogs Scout, a curly coated retriever, and Annie, our beautiful German Shepherd, on leash when we walked the road – turns out our two little neighbor girls were terrified of dogs. We kept the dogs in check, but the girl’s curiosity outweighed their fear. They were frequent and welcome visitors. At first they yelled “Put Pointy Ears (Annie) in the house” as they came up the road. But after a short time, they reached out their little hands to pet curly Scout. Finally they got to know old Pointy Ears. Little girls and big dogs became fast friends. Eventually they got a dog of their own!

I know that it’s time to challenge myself. I wish I would have prepared in certain ways – learned to type, kept my license, finished my degree…but then, maybe the ride would’ve been different. More sensible, but less fun… Truthfully there’s very little I would change about my experiences.

I’m grateful to the people who thought outside the box when I couldn’t, who gave me a little push. I’m glad I took a breath and said yes to this writing assignment. I learned that I want to take more chances! Thank you for having me here for the last few weeks. I had a really good time.

New York, Unplugged (Title by Tony Hurst)

Some people know a great deal about many things. I know…one or two. Number one – don’t get so electronically “plugged in” that you forget to look around. I just learned how to text and as of today, own nothing that has “I” in front of it. When I walked into the Guiding Light studio with a Blackberry, one of our production coordinators laughed. With good reason… the Blackberry is in a drawer and I chat on my old flip phone, which my colleague Liz wryly refers to as “retro”. I do appreciate technology. I love e-mailing friends at five am, reading my nieces Facebook postings and even chatting on Twitter. But I’m glad I’m a latecomer to the technology game. Being too plugged in would’ve distracted me from my favorite hobbies – eavesdropping, talking to strangers, perusing restaurant menus and looking into apartment windows. It’s amazing what you can see and hear out there in the world when you’re paying attention. It’s particularly true in NY. So much life spills out onto the sidewalks… where to look first? Some days it’s hard to look. But more often than not I see something, hear something or meet someone who changes my life. Imagine if I’d been texting when I walked by the dog adoption group on First Avenue – I wouldn’t have seen Scout. If my husband Tony had been checking his e-mail in the elevator he wouldn’t have seen me when the door opened – hmm, I’ll have to ask him how he feels about that.

Here’s the second thing I know. Don’t be afraid to venture out on your own. If you can’t go to an event without a date you’ll miss some great events. Me, I’ve always loved going to the theater alone. On a Saturday afternoon in 2001 I bought myself a ticket to see “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine” by Warren Leight. I’d loved “Side Man” and was looking forward to seeing John Spencer on stage. Halfway through Act One, I noticed the man next to me writing in a notebook. During intermission, Nosy Nelly (me) asked about the notebook. Turned out he was a critic who worked for a paper in New Jersey. We chatted about the play and John Spencer. End of show, Phil kindly mentioned that he generally gets two tickets to the plays he reviews and would be happy to take me as his guest if I’d be interested. I gave him my number at the studio and we said our goodbyes. I couldn’t go the first time Phil offered the extra ticket , but I was free the second time he called. My friend Danielle insisted on walking me to the theater. She wanted to make sure she could ID Phil in case I turned up missing the next day. I think they discussed this at my 50th birthday party. Well, one play led to another and another – good, bad, first runs, revivals, Broadway, off B’way and across the Hudson. I don’t get to the theater alone quite as often these days, but I can’t complain. Thanks to Phil I’ve seen so many wonderful plays. “Kimberly Akimbo”, “Curtains”, “God of Carnage” – and of course “Shining City”. We had to walk around the block after that one!

Tonight I’ll rush out of work, grab that M86 bus going west, then take the 8th Ave local to 42nd street. As I reminded my husband this morning, I have theater with Phil. This will be the 73rd show we’ve seen together, thanks to his generosity – and my nosiness. We’re friends. As the years have rolled along, we’ve added Jazz in July, Christmas Morning Coffee. If we never saw another show, we’d still have our traditions. As Phil says, “Good for us… are we lucky, or what?” I know I’m lucky. So…no ear buds just yet. Windows to peer into, people to meet. Try it. Maybe you’ll adopt a wonderful dog, meet your future partner…or just see someone who inspires a character in your next project, or even better becomes a character in the story of your life.

P.S. – the Technology Gods rapped me on the knuckles for this one. My phone and my internet were out for the first part of the day today!