Fiction, Monologues, Plays & More
I was a fiction writer first, spending many days of my childhood curled on my bed reading Goosebumps and writing silly little stories about traveling elephants on mini yellow legal pads. Finding theater and playwriting specifically was an added joy for me – learning both fiction and playwriting and their individual challenges has helped shaped my voice as a writer overall.
Now, after having been in the real world of theater and fiction as businesses, I’ve noticed several overlapping challenges both disciplines are facing. I’ve spent hours reading articles or interviews or opinion columns about the theater business, only to read the exact same articles about the fiction world the next day.
I’m sure these challenges also touch the film or visual art worlds too – but since my feet are pretty firmly planted in theater and fiction (and I only have two feet at the moment), that’s where my focus has drifted. And all of these could easily take their own blog posts or books to really evaluate, but here’s at least a brief thought on each:
1. The Evolution of How Audiences Consume Entertainment.
We live in an exciting time; the internet has not only changed the speed at which we can consume stories, but the amount of artists readily available.
On the good side of this, independent writers are able to self-publish (blogs, e-books, or even real, physical books) without the approval or commercialization of big-time publishers. Smaller theaters can use social media to really market and brand themselves for relatively cheap, rather than spend hundreds or thousands of dollars taking out an ad in the LA Times. Fans of writers or theaters can connect directly to the artists, engaging in conversations that would otherwise have been lost or filtered through others.
On the downside, the changing landscape of consumption is radically changing the business models of publishers, book stores and theaters. The subscription model, which many theaters have survived on for years, has been dying for a while, with patrons looking for a more flexible and varied way to experience art. Publishers and book stores are dealing with the emergence of e-books, which upsets the very basic foundation of their sales. This income change on both sides makes theaters and publishers even more risk-aversive, changing how they relate to the emerging writer who, no matter how small the press or theater may be, needs someone, somewhere, to take a risk on her/him at some point.
2. The Landscape of Book/Theatre Criticism is Shifting.
The internet has also created a huge shift in criticism in both literature and theater. Newspapers as we’ve always known them are dying off and evolving into the online world, and the first thing to be cut from the budget is always the arts section and the salaries of the critics.
Critics are a necessary part of the evolution of art and artists; many have years of experience and deeply understand the art they are critiquing. A real critic is not simply a fan or audience member who wants to “review” the show. They analyze and connect a piece of work to the larger culture.
With the loss of the newspapers and salaried positions, many critics also turn to the internet to continue their work, but that also means many others, who like to fancy themselves critics, can also freely add their opinions to the table without the help of editors.
Bitter Lemons has been discussing this shift for years, particularly as it relates to theater, but much of the discussion mirrors what is going on with literature as well. During the Hollywood Fringe Festival, Bitter Lemons hosted a Critics panel to discuss the state of criticism. Here’s one point from their list of lessons learned from the panel:
We are smack dab in the middle of a transition from print to the online dissemination of theater criticism, things are murky between what is professional and what is amateur, those sites that offer the best quality in the best way will be the ones ten years from now that will be the go-to sites for theater criticism. The door is wide open for the next Village Voice, but the party will be happening on line. Theater Criticism, like theater, is not dying, it is simply undergoing a shift. We just need to hang the fuck on and maintain our integrity in the process.
3. Production/Publication of Women Writers is Pretty Abysmal.
The representation of women in both the literary and theater worlds is just abyssal. The amount of women being published and produced is somewhere in the 17% – 22% range, depending on the city or genre you’re talking about, but it remains pretty consistent across the board. Women are not being represented. VIDA and the LA Female Playwrights Initiative both have done studies and continually work to understand and improve whatever the hell is going on here.
4. Pressure to Conform to Other Media/Budgets/Commercial Interpretation
This might be connected to a culture shift and the changing perspectives of emerging artists, but the marketing or the budget restrictions of theater and publishers tend to push a piece of work into a certain mold. Many playwrights are writing 90-minute plays with no intermission, not always because that’s what the story needs, but that’s what the theaters want to market (who wants to sit through a 3-hour epic? as if the audience would care if the story is good?) Or casts of new plays tend to be small, because theaters can’t afford to pay more than four actors. We’d have no August:Osage County if Tracy Letts had considered any of that. Hell, maybe he did.
Even the cover designs of books written by women tend to clothe the book as “girly” literature, as if a woman could never write a book that a man would want to read, and marketing only to the Chick Lit mentality alienates a huge portion of the potential readership. And if that book couldn’t possibly be a movie starring Juila Roberts or Tom Hanks, well, what’s the point anyway?
Chelsea Sutton holds a BA in Literature from The College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Her plays have had readings and productions in Santa Barbara, New York and Los Angeles and she is currently participating in workshops with the Skylight Theatre Playlab and The Vagrancy Writers Group, as well as spearheading ECT’s writers group, Eclectic Voices. Her play The Dead Woman, was recently named a Semifinalist in the Eugene O’Neill Playwrighting Conference 2013. Her fiction has appeared in The Best of Farmhouse Magazine, The Catalyst, Spectrum, and Fictionade, and she was the 2011 Winner of NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Contest. Her story The Tick and the Tocking received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She is a member of the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative. WithCoffeeSpoons.com