Saturday, December 22, 2007

John Arthur Lowe: Why I Write (As Shared With Nikki Fikke)...

Allow me to be blunt: I am not a WGA member, but I am a working playwright. I have written over thirty full-length plays, yet I'm still trying to get my first one staged.

Every play I've written was purely on spec. They were conceived and written intuitively and on instinct. They were the end result of specific, discrete circumstances, all derived and all rooted in the primacy of the author. The old maxim is, "As a writer, you write what you know." Knowledge is power and power is knowledge, and all too often it manifests itself on the written page.

Even though I am not considered part of the writers' strike, there are disturbing trends in theatre paralleling those in film and television that has us as dramatists rightfully concerned.

First, this is what you need to understand: Power does not necessarily center in the administrative suite, in the corridors of Hollywood, or even in business and government. True power actually rests amongst those who were too often dismissed or discounted, and that includes the playwright.

And from that remarkable power, all else derives.

Every play I've written is a seperate, revenue-producing company onto itself. When you multiply this by the number of plays a playwright writes over one's lifetime, and when you factor the lucrative subsidiary rights they wield, that can prove to be a potential profit center for an aspiring scribe. It is indeed unfortunate these days that playwrights have to take on writing gigs in film and television becuase playwriting alone does not pay the bills. But then, I find living in genteel poverty has more integrity than living in wretched excess.

Like Hollywood blockbuster movies, theatrical plays are consumer products for the public's consumption. Likewise theatre is driven by market forces. That bottom-line reality is bolstered by the facts that the Barbarians at the Cultural Gate say they want one thing and then make commitments for yet another.

If you think writers have had problems with developmental executives in the Hollywood production mill, I can tell you from my own experiences that the play development process as we now know it is demeaning, debilitating and it doesn’t work, and it's now killing the theatrical art as we know it. You have too many people trying to dictate changes to fit their tastes or try to dilute the play to make it more paliable to the audience. As a consequence, writers are stifled creatively and are further undermined when those in development adhere to what Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles of the calls "the safety of the known variable." As a consequence, authentic voices are systematically stifled or silenced altogether. Knowles hits it on the nail when he notes, "(At) its worst, (script) development is the temptation to be God, to play with cosmic fire. It’s the place where the noncreative suddenly imagine themselves possessed of divine spirit, and capable of making creative decisions on a par with designated artists, regardless of their investment in either the process or the material. That’s hubris, plain and simple."

Magnifying things further are those abusing their positions to manipulate and coerce writers to make script changes they do not fundamentally want -- going even as far as to threaten to withhold possible production of their works. This is antithetical to the principles of artistic and intellectual freedom that we as writers and dramatists hold sacrosanct. We as writers have the right to hold and to express opinions and views, and any attempts to restrict or to suppress these freedoms through contempt, innuendo, harassment, hearsay, bigotry or the threats of retaliatory reprisal should never be tolerated or condoned. Not only they've used covert and myriad means to control and limit the scope of what they deem as acceptable debate within the confines of the theatrical form, this phenomenon has proved to be the unfortunate consequence of an entrenched status quo.

I don't need a smartass dramaturg or developmental executive telling me how to write. I do my own thing and work according to my gut instincts. I do it on my own and at my own pace. I made a conscious choice to write for the stage -- not only for the creative and authorial autonomy that I would otherwise not have had on a film or television set. I write more for the emotional rewards than for pleasing the audience, and for that I leave that to the attention whores of this world.

Fortunately, there are those working outside of the system who are proving you can stay true to your vision yet still be shrewd enough in your business dealings to parlay what you've got in your writers' portfolio into something more substantial. Tyler Perry is doing just that -- adapting his repitoire of plays for the big screen, filling an unfulfilled audience need, and raking in the profits in the process. I don't have the means nor the savvy Perry has, but at least I can take comfort knowing it can be done.

The way I see it, if people have a problem with my writing, the problem is not me, but them. They made the choice to pass on me, and that is their loss, not mine. One of the maxims as a writer is a quote from Lillian Hellman when she testified before the House Un-American Activites Committee: "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions." Likewise, I will not dumb myself down to make others appear smarter. It is unfortunate that there are those who are intimidated by an orighinal thought or concept to where they avoid it altogether. And if that isn't cowardice, what is?

And if I'm not a writer, then who is?

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