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Diary: Abby Rosebrock, Playwriting as Labor and Literature
Layla Khoshnoudi and Abby Rosebrock in Abby Rosebrock’s Dido of Idaho, directed by Mikhaela Mahony, at the Ensemble Studio Theater. Photo by Gerry Goodstein
When Covid banished live audiences last spring, most of my colleagues in New York theater joined in a collective scramble to keep doing some form of our thing. Everyone seemed caught up in a swirl of motivations to keep working: escapism, habit, careerism, loneliness, love—drives that are hard to lock down, especially for people constitutionally disposed to defy reality. The result, especially before unions negotiated agreements for streaming live theater, was a virtual frenzy of volunteer busy-ness. Most people were in dire financial straits but found time to talk shop, make videos, act in Zoom readings, envision a more just industry, and collaborate on new projects. Some of these endeavors—surprisingly, given the limitations of streaming—were potent and beautiful.
Eventually, however, this surge of energy took on a subtle yet illuminating shade of disillusionment. Nostalgic lamentations continued, as some artists gushed publicly over monied institutions that routinely had us competing for crumbs—paroxysms of Stockholm Syndrome in which I sometimes saw my naïve, younger self. But many of us began to recognize that the machine we were a part of had felt pretty unsustainable and monstrous for quite a while. Rather than bringing real change, recent “movements” like #metoo had exhausted the artists they purported to help. On the whole, celebrities, admins, reps, and philanthropists kept right on thriving while artists kept killing themselves to make rent. For the first time I can remember, at least in some circles, spectacle and motion took a back seat to reading, critique, introspection. And in the relative quiet, I started to think in new ways about being someone who writes plays.
In my twenties, even when I was primarily writing, I preferred to call myself an actor. I had more fun acting, and “playwright”—even “writer”—felt vaguely presumptuous. Accurate, but not my style. Female self-effacement and a childhood spent worshipping movie stars were both at play here. But I also had legit reservations about fetishizing my own authorship. College brushes with the elite racket of literary theory had introduced me to Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author,” which contends that a literary text is just “a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture,” and that literature acquires life and meaning not when it’s written but when it’s read.
That argument certainly flouted my favorite romantic ideas about artistry, but it also nailed something. Growing up in the church, I learned early on that reading was less frightening when you didn’t attribute the text to a god. And as I began writing plays, Barthes’ thesis felt almost descriptive. If, as the show-business truism goes, no script is fully realized until it’s produced, and if it takes a reader to bring a poem or a book to life, then it must take a whole company of people, plus an audience, to birth a play. There’s collaboration in every stitch, and no way to isolate a single, authoritative reading of the final product. Even before a script reaches production, and even in the hands of a monastic playwright, the pages evolve in conversation with an unpredictable configuration of generative and editorial voices. Likewise, during and after production, the text’s meanings can transmute through an ever-expanding roster of readers and viewers, directors and actors, scholars and critics.
An experienced playwright feels no less autonomous, creatively, for having written in so much company. Her contracts call her Author because she writes the drafts. But of all writers, the playwright should be most cognizant that authorship is inherently collaborative, and she has a duty to reject the credentialist hierarchies that subordinate her collaborators—particularly actors, whose contributions to play development tend to be the least appreciated, and whom most directors, deep down, tend to view as underlings, not equals. Playwrights who make too much of themselves are destructive clowns, and for fear of being one of them I spent much of my early career determined not to take myself or my authorship too seriously. Compensation and credit for my work meant nothing compared to the moral satisfaction of serving up a script written in my own blood.
There’s anti-establishment power in a sense of service—to one’s peers, to the craft—but problems arise when humility lapses into compulsive pleasing and self-deprecation. As it turned out, I found, directors can be proprietary; producers, tyrannical; “feedback,” self-interested; words like “community,” “support” and “family” cynically wielded to extract labor and manipulate the loyalties of young artists living on the actual brink. In an ecosystem structured by profit, built to protect the money people at all costs—however committed to a crazy-making veneer of political virtue—a playwright can only survive if she learns to experience herself as substantial and deserving. If, by contrast, she feels herself to be precarious—a benevolent poet-machine, whose value lies solely in her efficiency at mining her own wounds and stitching together inherited language—she’ll lose touch with her worth and material needs; she’ll fall prey to exploiters; the systems of her mind and body will implode; she will no longer be able to write or even support herself. Where poverty and self-neglect are the dominant conditions, the phrase “death of the author” strikes too close to home.
Barthes might gesture at critiquing capitalism, but his emphasis on readership as the locus of all meaning is practically consumerist. Writing is a specific kind of labor, and literary authors are workers. Diminishing their humanity in public discourse can prime them for annihilation by a brutal and senseless market. The alternative to writers as recognized creators is writing by committee, the mode of production that’s brought us America-first Marvel movies, Disney musicals, Harry Potter on Broadway, and the lifeless, repressive aesthetic of corporatism. The managerial classes profit from focus-grouped “content” and “merch”; they are monetarily invested in numbing the audience’s will and critical faculties with assembly-line commodities, scripts included. Their interests lie in coaxing authors whose work might otherwise challenge this system to cannibalize each other—to censor and silence and despise themselves.
Playwrights have a special role to play in penetrating this monoculture. We might feel beholden to institutions that imitate and work with Hollywood, but we’re not quite beholden to Hollywood. The stage allows us to take more liberties with language than the screen does; dense poetry and prose alike can soar in live performance. Neither corporate media nor artistic institutions built on corporate models trust the audience to engage deeply and vulnerably with language. Real playwrights do. We have transformative spells to cast in this era of peak insanity. But in order to do so, we need the material wherewithal to conduct writing lives.
A career in playwriting necessarily involves advocating for conditions that actually allow one to write: trustworthy representation, the chance to negotiate on behalf of oneself and one’s peers, stable, affordable housing and health care, accessible ticket fees, and recognition as autonomous professionals, regardless of age, race, or gender. That advocacy isn’t often compatible with the hustle of securing well-compensated productions. But it’s writers who aren’t living in fear of eviction, or agonizing over how the colleagues who bring their scripts to life are being treated, who have the mental space to evolve language and make the quantum leaps of intellect that can expand an audience’s consciousness in real time. Walter Benjamin, drawing on Brecht, makes a related point in his essay “The Author as Producer”: a humane creative process produces the most powerful artistic results.
For most playwrights, ethically run, well-compensated productions are rarely within reach, and a lack of access to producing institutions can feel crushing. Away from the stage, however, a playwright who can keep front of mind that plays are literature—who can, at least sometimes, prioritize her responsibility to the written word—achieves a kind of creative freedom from the old corrupt belittling machine. Theater qua writing speaks directly to readers and to the future. It is not beholden to patrons or the $200-ticket-buying audience. Paths to publication seem more and more improvisational, but play scripts are everywhere, if only in emails and copies passed hand-to-hand or read aloud among friends.
I think of the dramatic writing of James Baldwin, best known as an author of fiction and criticism. His two plays, The Amen Corner and Blues for Mister Charlie, are among my favorites, partly because they’re so powerful and vivid as written texts. Of course I want to see them in production, but the private experience of reading them pays its own dividends. Baldwin’s treatment of humiliation, hatred, race, and sexuality—his precise understanding of the ways they’re all bound up together—is, in my view, unique in literature, and intense to experience. Solitude gives readers the space and intimacy to absorb these painful themes in their fullness. What happens in that private context has social repercussions that are an important part of any play’s legacy.
I don’t believe it’s incidental that the plays of Baldwin and Caryl Churchill, another strong example of a playwright motivated by social conscience, succeed both as written texts and as protest. Transformative theater respects both its audience and its creators. I’ve found that nurturing this dual aspiration makes it easier to avoid the snares and distractions that come with participating in theater as a business. Agitating for change, reminding the audience of their own agency: these are things plays can accomplish when they’re not distorted by a corrupt process. Maybe it’s ironic that a medium as collective in nature as theater derives much of its redemptive power from a playwright’s individual discernment. But if fetishizing authorship (a little) is the price of reviving that power, so be it.
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