Draw this picture in your mind: I was at a Valentine’s Party (okay, right there I’m suspect. Who has a party for Valentine’s Day?) crowded with too many people in too small a space that either arrived drunk, were actively getting drunk or were in the process of leaving drunk. It was, in a phrase, a party of . . . well, sloppy, gross drunks. That’s never, ever my idea of fun. But because I wanted to be a good sport (and a semi-gracious guest), I decided to stay five minutes longer than the 30 minutes I normally spend not to appear anti-social.
At exactly the 35 minute mark, as someone was doing a bad imitation of Kathy Griffin doing an imitation of Oprah Winfrey, I make my preliminary exit with one arm in my coat and the rest of the coat dragging across the floor. I get tangled in a “where is my other sleeve dance?” and draw more attention to myself than I mean to. My host, of course, spots me: “You can’t leave, Gary! You haven’t met Blah Blah Blah,” at which point I turn to see an extended hand coming toward me from Mr. Blah Blah Blah. The host screams, “You have so much in common. You’re playwrights! Get to know each other!”
Mr. Blah Blah Blah and I look at one another, smile, and me sensing he’s not going to say a word, I offer simply, “How’s it going?” I wasn’t prepared for what fell out of his mouth, without him taking a single breath: “Fantastic, if you don’t mind being at the bottom of the food chain in the theatre. Don’t you LOVE being ignored? Don’t you love being rejected? Don’t you love being dismissed by every theatre in New York City? Don’t you love being overlooked by producers, directors . . . ” I gulped. My mouth dried out in an instant. I began longing for the bad Kathy Griffin imitation, with or without Oprah.
I slip my other arm through my coat, pop up my collar and zip the coat, signaling to Mr. Blah Blah Blah that I’m there for only seconds more. Unfortunately, he’s clearly on a roll with someone he thinks is a sympathetic listener. “I mean, c’mon. You either have to be 20 years old or black or from Yale or a damn women to get anywhere. Anywhere! And even that’s not a guarantee. Trust me, I know. “ Now I’ve stopped listening and instead am talking back to him in my head. Here’s what I’m saying: “Wow. If bitter were a garment, you’d be dressed from head to toe.” I look around the room at all the drunk people. “Would anybody notice if I sucker-punched you right here?” Now, that’s what was going on in my head. What I actually said to him was, “Ohhhhhh, I think you got on the wrong bus. You wanted to be on the ‘Easy Life for Playwrights’ bus, and somehow you got stuck on the ‘Life in the Theatre is Hard’ bus. Maybe you can get a refund.” If you know me, you know I smiling the whole time I said it, but honestly, I was deadly serious.
Look, of course I’m sympathetic to anyone’s struggle and frustration. But I can’t think of anything more unattractive or heart-sickening than a healthy mouth full of bitter words from someone you don’t know. And quite frankly, no one has to tell me how hard it is to be a playwright in this day and age: I’m my own authority on it. If you want to express your frustration, call a friend – that’s why they’re your friend. But don’t dump your frustration on some poor soul who is about as connected to your personal misery as he is to your navel. I mean, no one wins: you look bad, I feel bad and we both walk away with our tails between our legs. Maybe even more importantly: what if I’m a fairly new writer with little more than a dream? You’ve now succeeded in tarnishing something so dear to me with your careless words.
Without being polly-anna- ish, can we collective agree that very few people have an easy time of it, particularly for any artist working in any medium that is often driven by a bottom-line figure on a balance sheet? Can we agree that despite the laundry list of things that are really tough on all of us, we have to learn to embrace the small successes we’ve had and not overly mourn those we haven’t? We have to measure our success in baby steps, not giant career leaps forward. We have to learn to pat ourselves on the back, because so often there’s no one else to do it. We have to learn to stay positive among people that are often anything but. We have to dream and write about other worlds, but stay focused and clear-minded in the world we have to conduct business in. And finally, we have to remember that more times than often in this business, people meet us first and our art second. If we look like a dog biting his own tail out of frustration, chances are it’s
going to be hard to get anyone to notice your art.