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WGAE at Washington rally

WGAE at Washington rally 10-2-10

One year ago this Saturday, in the early morning hours of October 2, 2010, I stumbled out of my apartment in Washington Heights and caught the A train downtown. I was headed to Canal Street, where a contingent of intrepid, sleep-deprived WGAE members and staff was gathering at 5:45 a.m. to board buses bound for Washington, D.C. Our destination: a large, labor-sponsored rally, which was meant to be the answer to Glenn Beck’s kooky Restoring Honor Tea Party event that had been held on the Mall in late August.

Huddled together on the darkened sidewalk along 6th Avenue just north of Canal, we had no idea our rally would have its thunder stolen by a different progressive gathering, the one that Jon Stewart had announced for October 31st, which he dubbed the Rally to Restore Sanity. So many rallies, so little time. And ours, alas, just didn’t have a catchy name (One Nation Working Together – sorry but that definitely needs a rewrite).

The 5½ hour bus ride to Washington D.C. was not especially memorable. I tried to catch up on my sleep, then introduced myself to some fellow scribes. WGAE staff did an excellent job of organizing: attendance was taken, sandwiches and beverages were handed out and the Guild’s red t-shirts were distributed.

The bus dropped us off in the parking lot of RFK Stadium, where we joined tens of thousands of other union members from around the country. It was a stirring tableau…until practical matters intervened and we were forced to wait for an hour in the mother of all lines to catch the Metro to the Mall. Kudos to Guild staff for providing us all with subway passes and keeping our contingent herded together.

When we reached the Mall, we trekked to a spot along the Reflecting Pool, about a quarter mile from the speakers’ podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It had turned into a beautiful autumn day and from that picturesque location we raptly listened to a succession of gifted, inspiring, progressive speakers deliver uniformly brilliant, impassioned oratory that would have given Martin Luther King a run for his money.

If only.

The speeches I heard that October afternoon were not especially memorable. Unfortunately, President Obama didn’t make an appearance. A year later, I can’t recall a single speaker or what they talked about. The same was true the day after the rally!

After two and half hours of hanging out on the Mall, our WGAE staff minders informed us that it was time to head back to the buses for the ride home. The seven hour bus ride back to Manhattan was not especially memorable. My recollection is that we returned to our gathering spot in Lower Manhattan at about 10:30 p.m.

Superficially recalling that day a year later, I remember spending twelve and a half hours on buses and three hours on subways in order to sit on the Mall for a couple of hours listening to a succession of mediocre speakers at a now-forgotten rally that barely registered in the media. Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington it wasn’t.

I probably sound like a grumpy curmudgeon and perhaps I am. But, honestly, I had a wonderful and memorable experience that day. It was truly exciting to trek down to the nation’s capital with union brothers and sisters and make our political views known. I relished the deviation from my normal routine and the fun and adventure that this journey provided.

And two of the seeming drawbacks of the day – the long hours spent on buses and the inferior quality of the speeches – turned out to have unexpected benefits.

The bus rides provided ample opportunity to spend quality time with fellow writers. Long conversations flowed. Old friendships were renewed. New ones were forged.

And the mediocre speeches allowed me to wander away from our gathering spot to take in the sights and sounds of the rally and photograph some of the unique and unforgettable characters who were drawn to it.

Like the guy dressed as the Grim Reaper who carried a huge, hand-lettered poster that read, “Death thanks the GOP for its stance on healthcare reform. You guys sure make my job easy.” And the elegant, gray-haired, octogenarian woman who held above her head a placard bearing the words, “Feed the Poor. Eat the Rich.” And the bearded, middle-aged man whose sign proudly proclaimed “Amnesiacs Vote Republican.” These signs weren’t written under a WGAE contract, but good writing is still good writing!

In retrospect, I am especially delighted that the Guild took it upon itself to organize this field trip, providing the buses and the meals and even the Metro cards. It seemed to signal a new, more activist bent to our union and I really welcome that.

I hope there is another, similar field trip in the Guild’s future. This curmudgeon would be more than happy to rise again at 4:30 a.m. to be part of it.

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.

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.

Why I March on Labor Day

I march on Labor Day because workers are under assault in our country. Corporations have been using their increasing power to try to bust unions and deprive workers of their basic rights to a living wage and health care benefits. Similarly, numerous state governments have recently cast their unionized workers as the scapegoats for their budget problems and have outrageously attempted to curtail collective bargaining rights. We need to speak out and fight back against these assaults.

I march on Labor Day because the gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically in the past few decades. We have witnessed wage stagnation for the working and middle classes while CEO salaries have reached astronomical, obscene levels. We are still the wealthiest nation on the planet and there is absolutely no reason why the share of the pie that goes to workers should be diminished. We need to make our outrage known.

I march on Labor Day because I know from past experience that it’s great fun. It’s joyful and empowering to take to the streets with fellow writers and union members and exercise our rights to free speech and assembly. These rights are only valuable when they are actually used – if we neglect to exercise them, we risk losing them. When we march, we become part of a noble tradition of expressing ourselves with our feet and our lungs that ties us historically to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa and the leaders of this year’s Arab Spring. How cool is that?

Finally, I march on Labor Day because I spend too much time in my writing cave, parked at the keyboard, staring at the computer screen. My skin is too pale, my muscles risk atrophy. I need the sun and the exercise.

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Saturday, Sept 10th
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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.