By AR Nicholas
We struggle to write, often looking for something to take us out of the struggle. Just
for a few minutes, we tell ourselves, then we’ll come back fresh, inspired by new ideas
of how to fix what’s not working. Despite the struggle, we are compelled to write. It is
a calling and a padded cell of our own making. We feel bad about ourselves when we
don’t write, and guilty about doing anything else unless we’ve had “a good day” and
gotten a few words out. But when we overcome the impediments of the day job,
family, illness and limited time to actually write something–that is, to pull something
out of a hat where once there was nothing– it’s the best feeling in the world.
I’ve grown to love the process of writing even when it goes nowhere. Good thing,
because the results, if measured by my work being chosen by others, is about 200 to 1.
I send plays out far and wide to be considered for festivals, readings and labs, usually
landing a rejection in reply. Mostly though, I hear nothing. At least a rejection is
acknowledgment of my existence even if there’s no guarantee someone read my play.
And I am not being wholly cynical when I tell you that not all submitted plays get
read, or that theatres have closed-minded, pre-existing agendas for programming.
I’ve been a “selector” for various theatre contests over the years and witnessed the
behavior first hand. These theatres may appear inclusive but they want their selected
playwrights to tick certain boxes. Blind submissions? There are ways around them. A
similar process goes on with union actor auditions. SAG/AFTRA and AEA mandate
auditions for projects but they’re often going through the motions. Producers and
directors know who they’re making offers to when those auditions begin.
I don’t say these things to depress you. It’s taken me a very, very, very long time to
accept that the likelihood of a visionary Artistic Director discovering my work and
plucking me from obscurity is pretty much nil. And the older I get, the less likely it is.
Honor Roll, the advocacy collective of female playwrights over 40, has said as much,
which is why they formed to fight ageism and sexism in theatre. But I’m over 60, now,
so probably a lost cause. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also developed a true
love of writing for writing’s sake. But I also write because I want to share my thoughts
with other people. In theatre, that means a reading or production, when there’s an
opportunity for me and other humans to be in conversation about things we think
matter. So what happens when those opportunities don’t arise? Sometimes having
written is not enough and I need to find a way to get my words into the world.
The pandemic showed just how vulnerable the performing arts are to plague. But the
truth is, and for lots of different reasons–ticket prices, cheap streamers, the cost of
gas and childcare and other logistical hassles– it was increasingly difficult to get butts
in seats even before Covid hit. When it did and theatres shut down, theatremakers
sought other outlets and many found ways to share their work online. Zoom became
the go-to for readings and productions of various sorts. Previously filmed and taped
plays were brought out of the archives and streamed while some new work, when
able to be captured safely, found its way online as well.
You may be done with Zoom plays but even NY Times critic Elizabeth Vincentelli,
says online theatre is not going away. There are audience members who claim they
will never sit in a theatre again, who actively search out plays they can watch from
home. Yes, it’s difficult to get people to watch them sometimes but is it any easier to
get people to drive 45 minutes to a theatre? It will likely depend on what the play is,
who’s in it, etc. but I’m not talking about the star-studded, LORT, extravaganza. I’m
referring to the new play by the unknown playwright starring no name actors. That
play doesn’t get the buzz and it doesn’t get the butts.
So if you’re tired of waiting to be chosen, I’m making a pitch that you get your work
out using Zoom or other online tools. Take advantage of what these platforms offer
rather than falling victim to them. Turn them on their heads. And you can do it inexpensively–possibly even for free. I know because I did it with my one hour Rom-
Com, BRIDE & ZOOM, and we had a blast.
A Zoom account is free. You can record what happens on Zoom onto a hard drive.
Decent audio quality is well within reach with a few adjustments in preferences. And
once all is captured, you can edit what you’ve recorded using the editing software that
came with your computer. Put some titles on it and if you’ve hired non-union actors,
you may have created something that was entirely free. Of course you should pay
actors and if you’re not directing, you should pay your director and because you’ll be
editing the recorded footage, you will likely need to pay an editor, unless you want to
teach yourself. But you can produce your work and post it online for free.
Now consider producing for a 99 seat black box. Let’s say your show runs Fri-Sun for
4 weeks with a ticket price of $25. The max box office take would be $29,700. But you
know you won’t sell all those tickets, at least not at full price. And the cost of
producing the show will far exceed that amount, between renting the theatre (low
end $10K for 5 weeks), hiring tech–lighting, sound, costume and production design
(all in, maybe $12K)–actors (depends on how many but let’s say three AEA actors for
rehearsal period and the run, maybe $8K), not to mention building the sets ($5K),
equipment rentals, insurance, props, craft services… you are looking at a LOT of
money, close to $40,000, that you cannot get back from ticket sales unless your show
is a giant hit and goes on to theatrical success all over the country. Spending that on
ourselves should give any of us pause. Talk about a vanity production!
On the other hand, BRIDE & ZOOM was a union show conceived and written for the
Zoom format and produced for $6000, which included a website and professional
Zoom and Vimeo accounts. We used the SAG-AFTRA microbudget contract for
projects under $20K. (Note: The AEA and SAG-AFTRA contracts, are a moving target
so if you want to use union talent, read the fine print) and employed eleven actors!
B&Z was shot out of order with extensive editing so the SAG-AFTRA contracts were
the only option for us, which turned out to be fortunate. The project was eligible for
film festival submissions and has been official selected at a couple so far. The thing
to remember with the SAG-AFTRA microbudget contract is, if you, as producer, have
the opportunity to make money by posting your project for sale online, you need to
discuss with the SAG-AFTRA rep before you do so.
I started writing a rom-com as antidote for my pandemic gloom, and then realized
Zoom was the perfect place for it. If not for the pandemic, I would never have
thought to re-envision BRIDE & ZOOM for Zoom itself. But having produced for live
theatre, I can tell you producing for Zoom was a lot easier, not to mention cheaper.
And taking control of my writing felt empowering.
We all want someone to love our work and produce it for us, but in the absence of
that benevolent someone, it comes down to, “If not you, who?” Producing your show
online is a way to avoid the gatekeepers.
AR Nicholas is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and consultant who, during the
pandemic, created Bride & Zoom, a “vidgie” written for and shot on Zoom
(BrideandZoom.org). She is preparing her 3rd feature film, @oldladiesfindmoney. More at: