By Laura Brueckner
TBA’s ATLAS (Advanced Training Leading Artists to Success) program started in 2008 as a way to give actors crucial training in time management, goal setting and other professional skills necessary to turn a craft into a career. Seven years later, the program has expanded to address the needs of directors and playwrights as well—and a book on the ATLAS process, edited by TBA program director Dale Albright, is slated for publication soon!
The Summer 2015 round of the ATLAS program, for both directors and playwrights, is something special; both groups have been training together since Aug. 15, getting to know one another’s work as they refine their approaches to their own. For playwrights, whose work can sometimes be a little lonely, ATLAS provides an instant network of colleagues who share similar goals and struggles.
We asked the Summer 2015 ATLAS playwrights a few questions about their careers, and how ATLAS was preparing them to take their next steps. Check out the responses from five of our delightfully determined dramatists!
1. How long have you been writing plays?
E.H. (Elizabeth) Benedict: I have been writing plays pretty steadily for the past 10 to 12 years.
Tiziana Perinotti: Since 2008.
Lisa Sniderman: Three years.
E. Hunter Spreen (Elizabeth Spreen): 20 years.
Austin Zumbro: I think the first true stage play I wrote was Rudolph the Ugly Duckling and Other Cracked Up Holiday Tales for Bay Area Children’s Theatre in 2011. Before that, I’d written a few short screenplays and a few comedy sketches, but for these purposes, I don’t think they count.
2. What made you choose to participate in ATLAS training?
EHB: I chose to do the ATLAS program this year because I am sorely in need of the kind of psychological kick in the butt the program offers. It’s all too easy to let oneself off the hook, and ATLAS provides the time, space and tools to be proactive about the career, rather than moaning and being defeated. It helps me get back on my “front foot,” as the Brits are fond of saying. I have had readings of my work and two productions of short plays, but I really do want to go to the next step; for me, that would be having the full length plays produced locally and perhaps some commissioned work as well. My hope is to work in the Bay Area; I submit all over the country, but I really want to work here.
TP: To learn about available resources, connect with the local theatre community [and] expand my artistic network; to find job opportunities, mentors, and supporters of my work.
LS: [I] wanted tools, training and resources to help me define my career path as an artist, including being a playwright; wanted to get immersed in the Bay Area theatre community, to meet and work with other playwrights and directors.
E. Hunter Spreen.
EHS: It’s time to plan and dream for the next stage of my artistic life. Short-term, I want to create a plan that maximizes my residency with Playwrights Foundation. Long-term, I want a map out larger projects and goals that shift the course and scope of my work over the next 10 to 15 years.
AZ: I didn’t feel like I had a model of what it means to be a “successful” playwright in the Bay Area. Or anywhere, really. I had no examples of how people balance their writing schedules, what would be realistic goals and expectations for making a living as a writer. I didn’t actually know much about how new work is pitched or developed. ATLAS seemed like it would provide me with a skillset and a vocabulary to treat writing as a true career, and not simply “a fun thing I sometimes get to do for money.”
3. What are some of the best discoveries or insights you’ve had so far in the ATLAS program?
EHB: My number one realization so far is that I want Elizabeth Spreen’s career— she is being produced by smaller, scruffier (ATLAS uses the word “edgy”) theatres. She has had a play in the Bay Area Playwrights Festival (a goal of mine), where she is also a playwright in residence, and she has done commissioned work. Maybe she should be my mentor?
The other lightbulb insight has to do with the idea of success and what that looks like in my life. It has a lot to do with not finking out on my commitment to getting my work out there, which includes using all the current tools. I am not so good on anything technological; it’s baby steps for me. And I am a dunce about social media. All this I knew, but it was new to realize that, for me, success means doing everything I can do to get my work produced, and not backing away when I get anxious or frustrated.
TP: 1. [ATLAS is a] good way to connect to other playwrights/artists;
2. [ATLAS is a] good way to learn how to apply for grants;
3. ATLAS uses a career map tool similar to what I have learnt as a student in ACT (American Conservatory Theater)’s music theatre program.
LS: Having dedicated time to work on my 80-year/five-year plan while in our session was such a gift and a blessing! During the session, I had insights into what I wanted (by [noting] what I didn’t include), and also realized I need to really start planning now financially to get to where I want to be in five years. Another insight was my biggest resistance for goals session and finding ways to keep that in check through my advisory board.
EHS: 1. My commitment to sustainable work/life practices has deepened and I have more clarity about how that translates into how, where and with whom I make work.
2. I’ve been slapped upside my head with the ways I sabotage myself (past and present). Just dealing with that has been difficult, and I’ve wanted to take time to absorb it before I try to develop tactics for dealing with it.
3. “Where” is a big issue right now. [In] the last workshop, we focused on local theatre companies, identifying the types of work that gets produced locally, and where I fit into the overall picture. It’s a big unknown right now—and that’s also been something I’ve wanted to hang out with, instead of creating solutions in the midst of panic and fear.
Bonus: I’ve enjoyed connecting with other playwrights and directors. This isn’t a surprise or a discovery…it’s more of a side benefit of going through the program.
AZ: Honestly, just increasing my awareness of grants and development opportunities has really opened my eyes. That kind of thinking—funding a project in chunks during the development process, rather than struggling through in my “free time” to create something that I could maybe sell to someone at the end—is a radical change for me. In addition to making life a little easier with some money behind it, that kind of development model also provides an external structure to the development process—one that isn’t just me berating myself for not working on something to meet a relatively arbitrary deadline.
4. What do working playwrights need most right now?
EHB: I consider myself a working playwright because I write every day. I am not, however a produced playwright. In my opinion, all playwrights need to find their “tribe.” And commissions and productions wouldn’t hurt as well.
TP: More opportunities for staged readings, easier access to directors and producers, mentorship, support networks and financing.
LS: Access to submission opportunities and someone to do footwork/a searchable database to identify all the theatre companies that do the kind of work we are doing to make the search less daunting and more purposeful—e.g., I would love a list of all national theatre companies who: 1. take original new work, 2. take musicals, 3. take full-length and 4. take youth or TYA.
EHS: Time and space to make work. Some kind of artistic home where we can be supported. Ideally, that involves getting their work onstage in some format (lab, reading, production or all of the above).
AZ: For me, personally, I think what I need most is a sense of external structure, although one of the things I’ve been thinking about in ATLAS is how I can generate that for myself. That external structure would be timelines and goals dictated by programs outside the playwright with an eye towards development. So, things like grants, or readings, or workshops. We need both deadlines and the support—money, time and manpower—to meet those deadlines.
5. To which playwright, living or dead, would you most like to be compared?
EHB: A cross between Caryl Churchill and Bruce Norris—if my work could be compared to either of those writers I’d be thrilled.
TP: I don’t like to be compared to anyone. I write straight from my heart and soul, and strive to be my own original voice.
LS: Dennis Kelly (Matilda) or Winnie Holzman (Wicked).
EHS: I don’t want my work compared to anyone’s. But if this is useful, two of my favorite living playwrights are Toshiki Okada and Kate Ryan.
AZ: Tim Minchin?
TBA’s ATLAS program offers several of training rounds per year. Check back often to see when the next round begins!