An Open Letter to the Young Artists of Words Players

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(For those wondering what I’m talking about here, there’s been a brouhaha about this audition call that went out. It hit the blogosphere, and culminated in a strongly-worded letter from President of the Dramatists Guild Doug Wright. Daved Driscoll, author of the audition call in question, has responded to it at this link. I would strongly advise reading all of them.)

Hey there! My name’s phillip low. I’ve been a professional playwright for over a decade, and was a member of the Dramatists’ Guild for some years. (I still value the organization; I allowed my membership to lapse because I’ve been focusing on local directing and production, and haven’t been been aggressively shopping my scripts out for a while. I do plan on rejoining soon.)

I also worked with Daved Driscoll for many years: he was my employer at the Rochester Civic Theatre, where I taught classes and directed a youth troupe. I recall many long conversations about art and community in his office: while we certainly had our creative differences, I held his ability to build a youth community in high regard, and still do.

See, I grew up in Rochester, and remember vividly what an intensely frustrating community it was to be a developing creative in. While I get that it’s a growing and changing place, my visits back home have reinforced for me that it’s still not an easy place to be young and creatively inclined. I view the work that Daved (and people like him) are doing there to be hugely important, laudable, and desperately in need of our defense and support.

The point that I’m making here is that I think that I’m someone uniquely positioned to have an informed view on a painful and confusing situation.

I’m also writing this because it strikes me that a lot of people are expressing concern about you, and what you’re thinking, and how you’re responding, but nobody seems to be addressing, like, you. In fact, to my embarrassment, many of my colleagues are adopting language that seems specifically devised to exclude you from the conversation. And I think that’s kind of messed up.

First of all, I definitely don’t love the viciousness of the language that a handful of my colleagues are using (and continue to use). They’re escalating the argument in a way that I think is really unhelpful to both sides. But, if you wanted to learn just how shrill the dialogue in show business can get, I guess that’s the lesson to come out of this.

I do want to try to address, and explain, where I think that some of that anger is coming from. As playwrights, we are constantly – constantly – exploited. We are hypersensitive to the issue. Our work is regularly stolen without our knowledge. I have seen, on more than one occasion, the words in my scripts shifted around to adopt the exact opposite meaning of my explicit intent, to endorse ideas or positions that I view as immoral. That’s an attack on our livelihoods, and, not to put too fine a point on it, an attack on our souls. I don’t use that term lightly: one of my scripts typically takes about eight years from conception to curtain.

I appreciate the thin resources that directors struggle with. I 100% guarantee that I have sunk more time, energy, and money into one of my scripts than any other human being. I have thought deeply about every word choice: that is the expertise that my work is valued for. There is a real and widespread contempt for playwrights and their work.

My perception of what has happened here is that you guys have – bizarrely, in my view – become the lightning rod for a lot of justified, but misplaced, hurt and anger.

I certainly wouldn’t endorse Words Players producing a work without the playwright’s permission, or changing the work without the playwright’s knowledge. Neither of these instances are the case, however – while I found the language of Daved’s initial call to be unnecessarily (and I believe unintentionally) provocative, he’s never been anything but transparent. I also know him to be one of the very few people I’ve met in show business who I would unhesitatingly call a man of integrity. I’m satisfied by his explanation of events that spiraled out of his control.

While I admire the Dramatists’ Bill of Rights, I also consider it entirely reasonable to have a different standard for a struggling youth workshop than for a professional company. Many of my colleagues disagree with this sentiment. I suspect that some of them will be quite angry with me for that disagreement. The point that I want to express to you is that that disagreement exists, and – I can’t emphasize this point enough – as long as everyone involved has informed consent about the nature of the production, I think that that disagreement is healthy.

My invitation to the young directors involved in this project would be – even knowing how brief and chaotic your rehearsal period is – to communicate with your playwrights as much as possible. Ask them questions about why they chose what they did. Explain your production challenges, and ask their advice. If part of what you’re learning here is how to direct new scripts, part of that is learning how to communicate with their writers.

It can be frustrating. Sometimes we’ll say “no.” That’s our right, and we’re at risk, too. (And, I mean, check first. Some writers want nothing to do with a production, and that’s also our right.) But we don’t have to be a stumbling block: I promise you that we have a lot to contribute to what you’re doing.

Melodrama, as a genre, is a lot of fun. It’s exciting to have good guys and bad guys, cheering and booing. Drama’s more complex than that, though. And often less satisfying. Watching this conversation unfold has been dismaying and depressing, because I don’t see any villains in it – not the struggling youth theatre that’s trying to survive, and not the struggling playwrights terrified of being exploited. I see paranoia and anger and miscommunication. Unfortunately, learning how to navigate that is all a big part of show business, too.

You’re lucky to have what you have in Rochester. Don’t take it for granted. I’m sure a lot of you are frustrated with playwrights right now, as well – but at its best, we’re supposed to be partners, not enemies. The work of directing is important, challenging, and extraordinary, whatever age you are when you start. I hope we can use this conversation to find our way towards friendship and mutual respect.

In any case – break legs.

– phillip andrew bennett low

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4 Responses to “An Open Letter to the Young Artists of Words Players”

  1. Jill Pearson Says:

    Thank you for your voice of benevolent reason, wise counsel, and informed judgment. I hope your words help diffuse this situation, though I won’t hold my breath. I have never experienced such a quick rise of antipathy and group bullying to an underserving man and organization as this. Some have offered polite, helpful advice, but most have been rude and vindictive. Frankly, after this experience, I’m relieved my 17 year-old son is not choosing to pursue “show biz,” despite how excellent his experience has been at Words Players. –Jill Pearson, a grateful parent

  2. dragynally Says:

    I said it on Facebook and I’ll say it again here. Thank you for being the level headed perspective on all of this. I’m so sad to see how this has become a no win battle. I hope people realize that this is a teaching moment and that they move on from being cruel.

  3. All Artists Matter | The Man In The Yellow Hat Lives Here Says:

    […] some, with an eye toward leniency, have defended the actions of the “Words” Players Theatre, […]

  4. 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival Summary | Womb with a View Says:

    […] An Open Letter to the Young Artists of Words Players (not strictly Fringe-related, but published at the same time) […]


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