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TBA Online: News & Features: September 2015

San Francisco’s Exit Press Gives Playwrights a Fair Shake

Monday, September 28, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Jean Schiffman

Central to the San Francisco theatre scene since its inception in 1983, Exit Theatre has always been indie artist-focused. So too is its publishing division, Exit Press.

Established in 2010, Exit Press has by now published 16 books of playscripts (and one children’s book), beginning with acclaimed local playwright/director Mark Jackson’s Ten Plays.

“Exit’s mission is to support performing artists and the development of their careers,” explains publisher Richard Livingston, who is also Exit Theatre’s longtime managing director. “After 30-some years of that, it seemed that publishing was a good idea. It would give the work a longer life.” Most of the material is original (or original translations, such as Paul Walsh’s The Chamber Plays of August Strindberg); most of it has been produced or developed at Exit Theatre.

When Livingston and Exit Theatre founder/artistic director Christina Augello were first planning a publishing division, Jackson approached them. He’d heard they had a connection to City Lights and wanted some of his plays published, most of which he’d premiered at Exit Theatre (some were produced there by his Art Street Theatre). Thus his anthology Ten Plays was the first to roll off the press, so to speak (later it would publish Jackson’s Three Plays). 

Although playwrights often approach Exit Press, as Jackson did, at other times Livingston makes the first move; such was the case with Elisa DeCarlo’s Cervix with a Smile (“She’s an alternate performance artist with a body of work that’s substantial and unique,” says Livingston) and with Stuart Bousel’s 2014 TBA Award-winning play Everybody Here Says Hello

“Having the plays in printed form,” says Jackson, “legitimizes them in some people’s minds. It’s another way for people to access the plays and for me to get the plays into their hands.” Sometimes funders request published plays. Comments Livingston, “Many of Mark’s plays were produced only once. It’s important that his work lives, for scholars or interested readers or potential producers.”

Experimenting initially with design, Livingston ended up with two basic styles of formatting script on the page: for large books like Ten Plays, which is 470 pages, characters’ names run on the same line as the dialogue; for shorter works, with more space available, the format is more traditional, with characters’ names on a separate line, centered. 

“Working with Richard was very smooth and easy,” says Jackson. “They’re very artist-centric at Exit, even in their publishing. I had a lot of say in the formatting, what it would look like.” Playwrights are involved with Exit Press’s publishing process to one degree or another. Sometimes the process can involve 10 to 12 drafts to get it right, other times just one or two.

Each cover is approached differently. Bay Area actor Kevin Clarke designed the Ten Plays cover; Livingston has designed others, such as the cover of Rob Melrose’s anthology of new translations (Woyzeck, Pelleas and Melisande, Ubu Roi), which features a photo of actors David Sinaiko and Chad Deverman from Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Woyzeck. 

Maintaining an artist-friendly ethic extends to contracts as well. To help Exit Press craft a nonexclusive contract for playwrights, law students at UC Hastings worked pro bono. Exit opted for a one-page contract that allows the playwright to retain copyright (which means they can have the play republished elsewhere); the press pays royalties of seven percent of the retail value per book sold. 

Small Press Distribution in Berkeley warehouses the books and ships them off to bookstores. Individuals can also buy the books on the Small Press website at retail prices. Exit also sells through Amazon, which prints and ships copies on demand. 

Playwrights tell Livingston that having their plays published is great for their resumes and their status within the academic world—they’re not just playwrights now, but published playwrights. Some of Exit’s books have been picked up for college courses, and Livingston notes proudly that 15 books have been sold in England (“not a lot, but still—15 books crossed the pond!”).

But, he acknowledges, there are still challenges. Hardly any publication reviews scripts, and bookstores barely stock them (they’re even less read than poetry). Exit Press initially published on Kindle as well as in hard copy, but no longer—formatting on Kindle turned out to be very limiting, and Livingston guesses that play readers don’t like to read scripts on tablets.

“Authors’ ideas evolve over performances,” muses Livingston. “Going through the process of having work published is beneficial for authors—it forces them to be evaluated and to make decisions about it in a way that’s different from directing it, or having someone else direct it.” He considers Exit Press books to represent the final editions of the plays.

Jean Schiffman is an arts writer based in San Francisco.