big sky theater workshop.
Even though it's been almost a week since Montana ended, I want to reflect on my time at the Big Sky Theater Workshop in writing. I've been running around the Bay Area for the past couple of days without much coffee shop time to crank out a blog post (eventually I'll have to write a post or two up about my time in San Francisco!). I promise I'll get to my experience in beautiful Big Sky, but I have a few words first about why programs like Big Sky Theater Workshop are so important for "emerging" artists like myself.
As young theater artists, we often face a daunting & perplexing road towards actually making our art. We want to write or act or design or direct, we want to do the work. We know that we have important, interesting offerings for the world. Very few of us step out of our educational institutions made in the shade, performing at the highest caliber or writing commissions for regional theaters. So, at our mentors' suggestions, we make our own opportunities. And that satisfies us, for a time.
But not all of us are cut out for the art of producing (yes, this is an artform, just like all forms of management are artforms). Artists who produce their own work have to walk a very fine line between the art and the business of the art. I do think every artist should tackle producing at one point or another. We should recognize that the moment we decide to pursue theater as our line of work, it becomes our career, and needs to be treated as such. And four productions later, producing my own work has led me to realize that my art is worth my full investment. It is. It must be. If I didn't believe this whole-heartedly, I wouldn't be in this line of work.
Even though most of us have attended some sort of training program, and maybe shelled out way too much money for it, we don't always learn how to turn our artistry (that's probably pretty awesome by the end of our education) into a career. So a question arises: how can I invest in my career?
An obvious answer would be to just get someone else to produce your work. But when someone else produces your work, they're taking an artistic & financial risk on you. In an age where more people will willingly subscribe to Netflix than buy an often pricy ticket to see theater (sad but true), this is no small risk. Simply & frankly, it's often impossible to get the support established producers or producing companies or artistic organizations when you're a young artist. Maybe you submit to festivals or contests, but not all these opportunities are safe for "emerging" artists who crave to get their work onstage in front of an audience. So you take a new direction, and this, at least for writers like me, is where the endless feedback loop begins, at the dreaded d-word: development.
There's lots of awesome places out there. But even then young writers at the beginning of their careers don't get picked up, even if they've worked. It doesn't always mean the work isn't good. I have to imagine that because the market is oversaturated, not every good application shines in the pile of hundreds of 10-page samples. Plus, in order to give artists the experience they need to make good work, these new play development organizations need funding. They need to be able to show that their organization is "working", that they're actually providing a springboard for the next generation of artists. So I can only imagine that it's a little more enticing to take on an artist already starting towards an upwards trajectory. And let's be honest, picking up a trendy writer with a recognizable name is so much more appealing than a virtually unknown artist. I totally get that, and I can't say I wouldn't do the same.
So the artists at these development programs built for "emerging" artists become less & less emerging and more & more established. Until you have something substantial under your belt, it's understandably difficult to convince an organization what you feel so strongly in your heart: that you have the right to be in the room. So where do you turn if development isn't working out for you? Well, besides throwing your computer out of the window & retreating into the Canadian forests to whittle action figures out of sticks, you're pretty much left with the option that you turned away from at the beginning. You need to get your work produced.
It's a total catch-22.
Maybe I'm arrogant, but I believe my art is good enough to merit attention. Maybe I'm naïve, but I believe that I can make that happen. Or maybe I'm just every single young, "emerging" theater artist in our oversaturated field.
All this is to say that we young artists who want to invest in our careers need places like the Big Sky Theater Workshop. We need these meaningful experiences to away from our daily lives to create freely. We need safe spaces to experiment & fail where we can recognize that we ourselves are not failures when our art is not immediately Pulitzer Prize-worthy. We need to be able to pull our identity as an individual away from our identity as an artist, so that we can be less precious & more generous with our work. We need to remind ourselves that diving head-first into the unknown is never as scary as we fear, and always more rewarding than we could possibly imagine.
Stephanie DiMaggio was my very first acting teacher at Fordham, who kicked off my undergraduate journey as an artist. We've kept in touch over my four years at college, and this year she told me about the new writing program at the summer conservatory she runs in Montana. It's been a while since I've had concentrated time to focus on playwriting, so I decided to apply. And it was such a good decision for me as a recent graduate (incidentally, getting accepted to a program in Montana also sparked this road trip I'm on, which has been the other crucial gift to myself this summer).
In short, Steph & the rockstar team she assembled led us through an incredibly intense week of craft & reflection. The actors (two still in high school) got thrown into grad school. The writers, into a simulated professional writer's retreat. That in and of itself is a gift, because now I understand what's expected of me as an artist when I apply to these opportunities in the future.
In terms of my art, Steph encouraged all of us on the first day to write the thing that terrifies us. I thought I was doing that (key word: thought. red flag: thought.), but our mentor/dramaturge/director Jack Cummings III made me realize otherwise.
On the second afternoon, he kept asking me a bunch of questions about myself, my work, my family, my past...it all basically came to a boil when I blurted out that I was so frustrated explaining myself as a POC to other people, because my family basically assimilated into American culture to survive. I said how I felt like I had no stories to tell about my family...and then proceeded to tell stories about them for the next 30 minutes.
Earlier in the summer, I made a list of plays about my Korean-American family that are swirling around in my head. There were seven.
The terrifying work I had to do at Big Sky was coming to terms with the open-ended nature of my family's story. It seems obvious now that I'm typing it out, but the complicated & ambiguous nature of my story is exactly what makes compelling drama. But see, it took getting away from New York City, away from my status quo, from the noise & the politics of the business & all my personal frustrations in order to come to that realization. All artists, but especially "emerging" artists, NEED this space to grapple with our art.
In terms of career, I think the most beneficial skill I honed while at Big Sky was articulating my work. Now that I'm more adept at talking about my work in a meaningful way, I'm understanding more profoundly what kind of work I want to make. I'm realizing what kind of work is most important to me, and therefore who I am as an artist, and why I make what I make. It sounds simplistic, but until you have the space to reflect, your identity as an artist can get pushed down from the surface, to the point that you never pause to think about it. And nowadays, understanding your personal narrative & the ability to spin a story about the genesis of your work is almost as important as the work itself; if you can make the wrapping paper sparkly & enticing, people are more inclined to open your gift.
But most importantly, the Big Sky community reminded me why theater is important work. I often feel like in this time of turmoil in our world that I'm not doing enough, sitting in coffee shops & working on a new play. But art builds community, breaks open the structure that we so often impose on ourselves to feel like we can survive. Making someone smile, laugh with their neighbors, tear down the walls we put up between us to feel like we can survive.
I want to give a huge shout out to all the incredible folks at Montana. Obviously Steph for her incredible leadership & for sending this opportunity my way; Jack, for knowing how to push playwrights just the right way; the rest of the acting faculty, Michelle Pawk, Ben Graney, Benjamin E. Kline (& Stephanie F. Kline!) for being so game when us playwrights were having minor panic attacks about our new pages; and John Zirkle, the visionary Artistic Director at Warren Miller Performing Arts Center (& also our bus driver). And obviously, to Kristen, Eva, and the rest of the Big Sky community for welcoming us with open arms.
I believe Big Sky Theater Workshop is going to become an important program in the coming years. I'll be very happy to say that I got in on the ground floor. And I hope I can return to beautiful Big Sky one day soon!
Like I mentioned, I'm in San Francisco for the rest of the week, but I'm quickly approaching the final week of my road trip. I've been doing a lot of contemplating & reflecting, so hopefully I can articulate all of these thoughts swirling in my head in August, before I fly back to NYC.