What We Do in Literary

[Originally posted 09.10.2012]

The primary task of the Literary Department is to oversee incoming dramatic material.  A secondary task, broader and more encompassing in theory, but necessarily less pressing in application, is to define and elaborate what has lately been called Undermain’s “literary footprint”.  Both of these projects take up the majority of a day in the office.

When I arrive in the morning, my first move (that is, unless Mr. Midnight needs feeding) is to scan through any e-mails that may have come in after hours.  Occasionally I’ll have already been alerted to new activity in the mailbox by one of the other lit folks.  A side-effect of being the sole employee (to my knowledge) who tends not to check work e-mail from home, is that I am often the last to know what’s going on in my own mailbox.  Though, we are fortunate to have many submissions of new work, it is rare that messages need immediate (as in: first hour) response.  Once I’ve seen what’s there, I usually move on to the true beginning of the day: surveying the kingdom.
Surveying the kingdom is my private (not any more, I guess) term for the hour or so I spend each morning scanning theatre and arts sections in various major publications.  It’s a matter of seeing what’s going on in the world.  Current reviews are a valuable resource, even if the productions are oceans away.  So, too, are longer profiles of working artists, or reconsiderations of past giants.  Good criticism usually contextualizes, so even if the actual subject of the piece lacks promise as a lead, it is common to pick up one or two other names or traces lying around.  Trying to grasp the drift of contemporary theatre allows us to better determine our position within it.  It’s almost an act of echolocation: fix all the surrounding bodies, and then you will know where you own body stands in relation.  With respect to objective number one, it is rare my survey doesn’t result in at least one or two names or titles on a sticky note.
Because our work is not strictly dedicated to the season, we have the flexibility to look for good writing in non-dramatic forms.  Absorbing essays on 60s fiction writers may yield a finer appreciation for the role of experimental art in American society.  Studies of non-fiction work may suggest topics worth our attention.  June’s presentation of Joyce’s Ulysses: A Bloomsday Celebration Of The Modern Classicgrew out of a New Yorker article addressing the expiration of certain Joyce copyrights and the legendary combativeness of the Joyce estate.
Once the survey is complete, I typically return to the business of the inbox.  If we have a backlog of submissions, I prefer to tackle those as soon as possible.  Undermain is committed to being a writer-friendly theatre.  That means protecting the author’s work and advocating for them in production.  For those of us in the lit department, it also means being responsive to those playwrights kind enough to share their work.
Finding productions as a playwright can be a crushing challenge.  Undermain produces only three plays in a typical year, choosing from among the best of contemporary writers.  A playwright submitting their work here will be in competition with current stars like Young Jean Lee and living legends like Sam Shepard.  To make things still more difficult, Undermain often produces at least one play a year by a “literary ancestor” – meaning Beckett, Pinter, Strindberg and others are also on the pitch, fighting for space with Hopeful Writer X.
This is all to say that playwrights labor over projects of great personal meaning, projects in which they may be putting a great deal of artistic and professional hope, and their chances of winning a positive response are quite low.  Even when the play is excellent.  So the least we can do is pay attention and respond in a timely manner.  I’m quite aware that it is common in other organizations to have a cut-off page (sometimes as low as page five or ten), by which if the reader is not impressed with the submitted material, the script is simply dropped.  While there are good reasons that practice exists, and I would not criticize companies (or individual readers) who deal with overwhelming inflow, our department is proud to give every submission a more thorough, considerate reading.  Sometimes this consideration may not be warranted: it is all too common for authors unfamiliar with our work to submit plays so far afield, generically, than even excellent craftsmanship could not make the work suitable for Undermain.  Still we try to remember that the work of reading a script is usually very little compared to that of writing one.
Most plays of note are kept on file and given a one-page write-up by someone from the department.  These aren’t reviews per se, so much as general notes, descriptions, and abbreviated opinions, meant to guide us later, should we need reminding.  These plays are also circulated within the department, usually reaching at least two desks before a decision is made whether they ought to be passed up to the Artistic Director.
Having finished with the submitted materials, it is time to resume the hunt.  Names and titles taken down from the survey (or reached through other sources) now get a fuller investigation.  On lucky days I find texts available immediately online.  More commonly, I must track down representation for the playwright and see what plays the agents are willing to send us.  Though it can be a more time-consuming hunt, this method has its virtues: often agents will send us not only the play requested, but several other titles in addition, some of which I may never have heard of.  When it comes to older authors, I find it best to go directly to the library.
Thankfully Undermain is located not five minutes from the Central Branch of Dallas’ Public Library, where the Humanities Floor is home to an extensive selection of theatre writings.  Very rarely do I return from library trips without a heavy haul of fresh books.  The bounty is divided among the department, and we quickly report our findings to one another.
Again, it’s worth emphasizing, that only a modest portion of the library materials will ever be in consideration for Undermain’s season.  Many texts are sought simply to expand our knowledge of various areas of theatre, to probe deeper into the corners of our little world.  The work pays off when we begin to discuss future productions (as described in a pervious blog post).  But it also benefits us on afternoons nearly every week, when we gather in the kitchen over tea to discuss what new things we’ve learned.When we talk about the theatre’s literary footprint, we are also shaping it.  Passionate arguments about an Afrikaaner artist spiral off into racial politics and magical realism, which spin in turn, forming new topics, and all the time we’re saying who we are and where we want to go.  That’s what all the reading’s for.

Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager