How to Stay a New York Playwright
By Barbara Hammond
Learn how to cut your own hair. Adjust
to Duane reading glasses when you really require a prescription.
Take on boarders (don't call them roommates after thirty-five)
to pay your rent. Find a way to earn your living in a way that
is dignified, fulfilling and completely flexible to the demands
of your writing (warning: bartending has a shelf life that diminishes
with fertility). Give yourself one more year before you go to
Los Angeles. Again.
Enjoy your friends and their children and
establish bonds that you won't have yourself. When you are with
them, think of nothing else.
I was introduced to Athol Fugard at The
Long Wharf's production of his Have You See Us? and when
told I was a playwright, he looked me in the eye and said, "You
know, don't you, that you have to be prepared to give it your
Yes, I know. Yes, I have.
Brush and floss as you're not going to
see a dentist except in emergencies. Suck it up and get health
insurance but don't ever get sick. Get invited to fancy events
where your dinner and drinks cost more than a week's groceries
and say thank you. Ask for help before things get desperate. Find
beauty in every day. Love your freedom. Love your characters.
Dive so deep into that pool that you've forgotten everything in
and around you until you come up for air, or food or company.
Speaking of human company, don't forego
it. There is no reason to write plays unless you develop the part
of you that loves humanity in all its frailty, in all its cruelty,
in all its tenderness.
Write a lot. There are times when life
overtakes, and there is even less time than you thought possible.
When you're tearing your hair out over that, sit down and write
for five minutes. If that's what you are, that's your only man.
Your only cure.
Find a way to go to theatre. Quickly discover
that you can't afford to participate in your own art form, go
to the Performing Arts Library, swipe your card and watch the
plays on film. Meet actors, love actors--but don't fall in love
with an actor.
Know you have made a choice that you can
reverse and do something else. But don't do it. Know writing is
freedom, not chains. Know that it is never, and has never been,
defined by the recognition or success you receive. Art is transcendent.
It flies beyond the scope of who you are, who you've been and
what you will become. It doesn't know from flags and borders,
race or sex, religion or creed. Certainly some of our best-loved
fairy tales and legends were "written" by the illiterate. No one
is excluded from Story and no one is excluded from Play.
Re-claim the open road of an empty page
and a sharp pencil. Know that if you have a dollar you can get
a pencil and a notebook and begin to create. Strive for, but don't
require, a beautiful view, quiet hours, a room of one's own. It
has been done without any of those things in place. Prisons, deserts,
hidden attics. It has been done on the surface of many an imagination.
Get discouraged, disappointed, lonely--but
not so much that part of you can't stay at work, experiencing
that feeling and marking it so fully that when a character of
yours is any of these things that you will be able to write him
faithfully and fully in that state.
Learn that writing a play is not a selfish
activity. It is a contribution. If the human race's professions
were assigned to the parts of the body, playwrights would have
to divide their time amongst heart, brain and loins. Most people
do that at home. We get to do it in our jobs. It IS our job to
explore all of those places.
Do not limit yourself to observing the
world. Look inward and observe yourself. Then take another look
out at the world and see how it has shifted.
Now close your eyes again, envision a stage,
and watch someone walk on from stage left. Get that pencil out
and write down what she says.