Turning Passion, Inspiration and Craft into a Bake Sale – by Amy Tofte

I know the 16th century painter was often forced to paint the commissioned portrait of the client’s wife cradling the baby Jesus and looking far more attractive than she really did. The painter did this so he could go off and actually paint his masterpiece on his own time. We artists will always be struggling to get paid for what we do and HOW we want to do it. I get it.

The Playwright’s Process by Buzz McLaughlin (BackStage Books, 1997) gathers helpful writing gems from a who’s who of American Playwrights…Guare, Albee, Miller, Norman, Wasserstein…and they all make the same, or similar, assertion:

Good plays take time. And some of the greatest plays ever written—masterpieces, you could say—nagged their playwright authors for a good long while before a word was committed to paper.

Tuck this away, I’ll come back to it.

The Clubbed Thumb Theater Company in New York is a fabulous incubator and champion of exciting, challenging and provocative new plays by living American playwrights. I like this company. And if you live in NYC, get your ass to the theater and support them. I like what they’re about and I like how they do it. I have not worked with them professionally, but when I read their website and see their shows…I want what she’s having, you know? I totally drink their development process kool-aid, their off-beat aspirations for content and their emphasis on strong female characters.

Clubbed Thumb offers a significant biennial commission (that’s every other year for us non-math majors) in which playwrights offer up a proposal of the play they INTEND to write based on the year’s theme and general producing parameters of Clubbed Thumb. If selected, the playwright will receive $15,000 to write the actual play. Yes. That’s FIFTEEN THOUSAND…to write a play.

If you are a playwright, chances are you know about or have applied for this commission at some point. (I have.) It’s a fantastic chunk of change to do what you’re good at. It’s not some bullshit $50 stipend for a staged reading that 30 people attend, 20 of whom will tell you how to re-write your play. (Hell, even that sounds amazing to me. It’s money.) But this Clubbed Thumb commission is a sweet, sweet deal for some lucky playwright. (Sorry, the deadline just passed on September 1st. Next time…)

Money for playwrights doing their thing is always good in my book and the existence of this commission opportunity is phenomenal. Do you sense a “but” coming? You sense correct, read on…

Clubbed Thumb’s parameters/theme for the commission this time around used the “Bake Off” technique made popular by playwrights’ champion Paula Vogel, current Head of Playwriting at Yale.

A Bake Off works like this: you get a random (or theme related) list of “ingredients.” These things are usually a laundry list of disparate items chosen with a sense of whimsy/quirkiness to inspire artistry. It can be songs, poems, other plays, icons, political figures, random sounds or images, the latest cat video on YouTube—pretty much anything—go wild…IT’S ART, for chrissake! Then, you (the playwright) study, read, listen…take IN all these ingredients and spend time with them. Ponder them. Think about what they spark inside you creatively as an artist and writer. Contemplate them for any amount of time needed and how ever you choose to ponder them. And THEN, here comes the magic…

You will sit down and write your play in 48 hours, or sometimes 24 hours, or some other tight time-frame. The idea is to generate story quickly now that you’ve meditated and marinated (usually a few days or weeks) on the thematic ideas. You’ve baked the play, now write it. Here’s instruction directly from the Clubbed Thumb website for this year’s commission application:

“Customarily, the bake-off writer can take as long as she wants to contemplate the ingredients, including the source ‘texts’, but when she sets down to write, she does so in 48 hours. You are welcome to take this on, or go about writing however you see fit. Since we ask not for the whole play but for a page-long letter of intent and a 10-page sample, we do not expect that every ingredient will be represented.”

These guidelines came out over the summer. So the Clubbed Thumb Bake Off was, at most, a couple months with the ingredients before the application was due September 1st.

Okay, so even laying it out that simply rattles my blood. And just when I think I’m being melodramatic and unreasonable about all this…I realize, no, this completely annoys me. And here’s why:

Like every other human being without a trust fund, I need money to survive. I wanted this commission because I’m a playwright. I’d love to get money to write a play. Any play. And this is real money. It’s worth the effort to try. So I started working on the commission with the guidelines posted. Below are the ingredients I was instructed to use related to the theme of “The Matriarch”:

Good Person of Szechuan by Bertolt Brecht
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Unforgettable Elephants PBS Nature Series
Whistler’s Mother Season 1 Episode 20 Arrested Development
• a man in uniform
• tobacco
• a song
• a crappy job
• a body part that doesn’t work right
• a home with too many inhabitants
• an epilogue
• price tags
also: Joan Baez’s 1968 recording of “Tears of Rage” and a photo (that they included on the website)

Things started out pretty fun. I like the plays at the top and I’m always looking for an excuse to watch Arrested Development and call it “work.” I was also aware that these ingredients were chosen to honor the women responsible for the commission in the first place: Alice Tang and Margaret Munroe Thrower. These women both passed away this year and the company wanted to pay homage to “The Matriarch” as a salute to them. I totally dig that. I can write a kick-ass matriarch, just you watch. Paula Vogel herself was enlisted to help create the Bake-Off ingredients with Clubbed Thumb and the ladies’ families. It all sounded so well and good and my ideas were humming.

But halfway through the process, something derailed. My brain was filling up with random garbage and sending me into new writing directions, which is usually fine. But I have other plays (some with strong Matriarchs, by the way) that I need to finish. I felt like a monkey cranking a box on a street corner and “conjuring” a play, developing something strong enough that will sustain a full writing process to its completion. It was frustrating to be working so hard on this “thing” when I have other plays that have been with me for so long and I want to finish them. But I feel guilty because this commission could make a big difference for me. It could lead to other opportunities. It could help me get a play fully developed and maybe produced. It would boost my resume and could open new doors. It’s $15,000!!

So I tried to be clever. Can I make these random items fit into something I’m already working on? Maybe I can take pieces from this play and parts from that play…or re-write this other thing? And then I can add the ideas they want me to include by just inserting a new character in uniform and see where that goes… Or change the direction or style of something I’m already engaged in so it might relate to what they’re going for… And then, and then…why the hell am I watching this show on elephants? I stopped.

What did we say to remember? Oh, yes, good plays take TIME. That’s right.

There is a kind of dramatic writing that takes a bunch of generally unrelated ideas and quickly churns and sifts them into a specific dramatic structure full of imagery, poetry and strong, vibrant characters. It’s called TELEVISION WRITING. It is a form of writing that takes great skill. But it is swift and ethereal. Television is a hungry beast. Writer’s rooms crank out plotlines and scripts to feed addicted audiences. They administer a craft with plot and dialogue like no other writers I know. And when TV writing is good, it is often fantastic.

But most TV writers will tell you the rules are very different. They have a show bible, they have parameters and fierce deadlines, they have commercial breaks and branding to consider and a little thing called the FCC and smarty-pants Network Executives who force re-writes. Oh, and that laundry list of ingredients of what the audience is looking for… (You know, those shows that are basically an excuse to rape a new victim every week? Sorry. Rant for a different day.) It’s television writing, my friend.

The specifics might be different but these overnighters, these Bake Offs, these swift and crafty creations for the stage foster an environment closer to television writing than playwriting in their initial form. There’s a reason so many feel like SNL skits and not plays when they first jump out of the gate. You can buy books (Gary Garrison has a great one) and attend seminars on making your 10-minute dialogue with three actors into a play instead of a skit. And guess what they’re gonna say? IT TAKES TIME. (They’re also gonna tell you writing a 10-minute PLAY is one of the hardest things to do in playwriting.)

There is definitely a time and a place for the Bake Off process. These things are fun and a great challenge. The writing that comes out of our uncensored, creative spirit in a limited time-frame is sometimes priceless. But the outcome is not certain…it can be good, it can be crap, it can go nowhere. But in order for it to become playwriting, it’s going to TAKE TIME.

And before you whip out your Webster’s and explain to me the difference between a COMMISSION (working for hire) and a BENEFACTOR (financial support to do the work you love), yeah, I know the difference. And I know it’s Clubbed Thumb’s prerogative to do as they see fit. And I know their guidelines leave it open to create however you want and not all the ingredients have to be present. And I know the actual writing of the commissioned play will come later over TIME and the Bake Off is simply the “jumping off point.” I know. I know. I know. What’s got this particular bee in my playwriting bonnet is the SPIRIT of the thing and the message it sends about playwriting.

Why couldn’t this commission—this SIGINIFICANT commission—from a theater that can clearly make a difference in the development of PLAYS, which are the things we playwrights contemplate, agonize over, and develop deep personal relationships with… Why couldn’t this commission simply keep things more open in their guidelines (as they have in the past) so some of the wonderful, incomplete scripts from playwrights’ own impulses might get a shot at being written, finished, finished well and potentially produced? And the playwright won’t have to take out a 2nd mortgage to keep writing what they already have in them but actually get decent money to be a playwright.

Why use a risky endeavor for such a significant award that’s supposed to be about supporting playwrights and playwriting? Why the parlor games to invent a brand new play that may or may not resonate or go anywhere because it hasn’t had the proper amount of time to develop in a playwright’s soul? Where’s the next HAMLET? DEATH OF A SALESMAN? ENDGAME? RINOCEROS?

Why not simply use the theme “The Matriarch”? It still honors the ladies who initiated the commission. It also inspires the development of a pivotal role for a mature (and underrepresented) female lead. Or how about limiting the commission to female playwrights, who we know are under-produced in America? That would be incredible. Not just for the playwrights, but for Clubbed Thumb and theater in general. A great new American play written to honor two great women who loved the theater and financially supporting the playwright in the process…how fabulous would that be?

I realize a Bake Off process might be exactly what some writers want, love, need, crave. But this feels like one more significant move away from craft in playwriting. It feels like more discouragement for playwrights to write what they’re passionate about and what they understand deep in their bones like no one else. It feels like another obstacle for plays written without boundaries because they are a fine art and not a completely commercialized commodity. In fact, I feel like I see a lot of TV on stage when I go to see “new work” in the theater, so it’s no surprise these exercises to create new material persist.

A play should answer to no one but the world of the play. And when I talk to fellow playwrights, we all seem to understand this. But we keep doing these pressure-created short forms and fight for commissions that encourage the reverse-engineering of passion because we need the money, we want the recognition and we’ll have better chances of getting produced.

I encourage theaters who commission work to take a stand for art and, as much as possible, help playwrights develop the plays they already have inside them whenever possible.

Is this really such a novel idea?

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Amy Tofte About the Author: Amy Tofte is a writer/director who worked way too hard for her SAG card that she stubbornly hangs on to. She has her MFA from CalArts (Writing for Performance) and has seen her work produced all over the country and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She is a founding member of Fierce Backbone in Los Angeles (a theater dedicated to all levels of play development) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America. Visit Amy at http://amytofte.com

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  1. Melissa Tofte says:

    Love your post, Amy!

  2. Looks like the LA Times’ Culture Monster has a full-fledged Bake Sale going on right now that YOU TOO can become involved in. That’s right, fully interactive. And the playwrights who will be writing their play LIVE are Neil Labute and Teresa Rebeck.

    Here’s the link for all your confectionist perfectionists out there: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/

    I find the whole thing a little “groan-worthy” but if it’s your cup of tea, enjoy!

  3. nancy beverly says:

    Love this post, Amy. Time. Yes. I can’t write in small bits of time because I can’t conjure up and hold the entire play in such a small container.