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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 whole life."

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.


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