I recently lost my representation. My agent left the agency, and then the next agent left as well, and I got a Dear John letter when someone wanted to produce a play for middle school students.
It was a blow. To live in Austin and pursue a career that is usually reserved for New York-based playwrights is hard, and I relied on this connection to the larger theatrical landscape. Despite the high profile development opps, Small Steps is still searching for a home, and losing Bret Adams felt like a step back, an orphaning of this work.
This also forced me to reevaluate my priorities.
It’s undeniable that my work for teen and young adult actors has the potential to impact theatre. Young people making theatre grow up and become theatre professionals – or audience members – and shouldn’t we be making work with them in hopes they’ll embrace theatre-that-isn’t-Disney? There are fewer playwrights experimenting with form, content, and collaborative models making work for teens. Most of the theatre in America is performed by high school students or community theatres, and yet they are not included in the larger discussion about the need for new approaches, new stories, and new voices. I want to bring about this conversation.
Instead of running around looking for representation immediately, I’m going to be focusing on putting my work for teens out into the world – and on advocating for new work and new approaches to creating for teens and young adults.
I will still write plays for mature audiences. I will still look for homes for this work. I will still develop these wherever they’ll have me. These plays are where I take personal risks and expose parts of myself that I do not share with young people. Because I have to generate my drafts of my work for teens so quickly, I often rely on pulling from my bag of playwright tricks; I fill this bag with my work for adults. The experiments I made with point of view and time in Brothers, Sisters, Santos and with the polyvocal Chorus in The Briars wound up in the plays for teens. And if my argument is that we need to make the kinds of aesthetic leaps and experiments in theatre for teens as those we see in theatre for adults, then I need to be a part of the world that’s taking those risks.
And besides, I believe in my work for mature audiences. I want to see a full production of She Gets Naked in the End or Small Steps or Brothers, Sisters, Santos because I wrote the plays I want to see onstage. I don’t want to have to hide or bury my work with provocative titles.
But I will be saying again and again to whomever will listen that theatre for teens should be art. To those who make theatre with young people, I offer a challenge – make new work, make work that uses new techniques, make it interesting, MAKE IT GENDER INCLUSIVE, make it vibrant, and for f*’s sake, stop doing Disney. To those who dismiss work for teenagers, and I know there are a lot of people who do, I say, come see my plays. Compare Icarus or And Then, She Picks Up the Sword to anything making the rounds in an NNPN Rolling World Premier.
I do worry that I’ll be pigeonholed as the “Playwright for Teens.” A few weeks ago, I chatted with Nan Barnett of NNPN and the New Play Exchange, and we didn’t discuss the possible homes for Small Steps – we talked about how NPX intersected with high school producers, and I realized that there is a real potential that people will decide what I am and what I do without seeing the whole picture.
And yes, I know that I worry about the pigeonhole because of how little regard people have for work for teens, and I know that a part of me fears losing the social currency that translates into production. And that’s gross and kinda sad.
I also want to avoid the idea that my work can only be done in theatres with young people. This does not appeal to me. While there is something awesome and specific about what happens when you create for young people, I don’t want to be locked in to only seeing my work performed by young people. Nameless in the Desert or The Untitled Pirate Play are great for teens, but I’d love to see a fabulous adult crew with awesome clowns tackle the shows too. Mary Zimmerman and Sarah Ruhl’s plays are performed by high schools and adult theatres alike.
But it’s worth the risk. Theatre for teens and young adults can be amazing.
(EDIT: And you can read the plays that best fit teens here.)
So I will leave with this: this is an alien’s poem. It’s meaning will be lost to the audience unless the actor can deliver it exquisitely, but I wrote it to echo my favorite Mary Oliver poem, and if you can figure out the poem it references, you understand why I’m posting it here.
Ooo dono hafa beegoo
Ooo dono hafa walon orneez
boro hunda migo toro desa reepten
yoomono hafalee da ofta dimal offa bodsta
ova vata ova
elma vita esspa, illa Ooomaina
enable zeda wolo spinna forfa
oooheva ooo ara,
No matter how lonely
sofa wolo offa toyo mindivation
in the family of things