How to Stay a LA Playwright

I recently read a beautiful article by Barbara Hammond called How to Stay a New York Playwright.  I loved it.  But I don’t live in New York.  I live in Los Angeles.  And while I think everything in this article applies to all playwrights, wherever they happen to call home, the simple fact that it specifically says NY Playwright in the title made me feel a little left out.

Especially after attending the TCG Conference in LA this year, and reading through dozens of commentaries in the general “state of the LA Theatre Scene” conversation, it got me thinking about how the experience of being a playwright changes from one coast to another, or from one generation to another.

Not that I’m really tackling any of that right now.  Anyway, my more LA-centric additions are below – and additions from others are welcome.


Learn the art of thrift store shopping, of bargain bins, of one-room apartments cluttered with books and hand-me-down furniture.  Know that you don’t need more than this.

Give yourself another year before moving to New York or Chicago – where you think you’ll finally be treated more “seriously” or with more “dignity.”

Know when to ignore those who suggest you should turn your play into a screenplay.  Pity those who don’t know the difference between the two.

Endure the fact that most people, at first meeting, will assume you are an actor, that the notion you can write may never cross their minds.  Especially if you’re young.  Especially if you’re a woman.

Dare to write a play that runs longer than 60 minutes.  Hell, let it run past 90 minutes.  Trust that your audience is capable of staying with you for longer periods of time, longer than YouTube clips, longer than sitcoms, longer than the latest stoner-comedy at the movie house.  If you are telling a story that speaks to them, they will stay with you forever – as long as they get a chance to take a bathroom break and grab a Diet Coke.

Do not seek out fame, though you are in a city that attracts such goals.  Do not forgo doing the art you want to do until you make a lot of money.  If you wait to make money or if you wait to be famous, it will never feel like enough.  No amount of money or fame will make you feel secure enough.  Take the risk now.

Love when there is love to be had.  Do not underestimate its significance in your life and your art.

Find a group of artists you can respect and trust and be vulnerable with.  Be grateful for them.

Talk to other theater-makers.  Have cocktails.  Get hotdogs.  Take a walk downtown.  Bond.  Help each other grow.

Wallpaper your bathroom with rejection letters.

Never rewrite to fit someone else’s vision.

Go to your theater as you would a church of the highest order.

Leave the city once in a while.

Be real.  If you are real, those that are not are more apt to drop their defenses.  Angelenos have a lot of defenses – but we are all looking for relief from them.

Go to every type of theater you can.  Even the type you hate.

Be your own champion, but never be satisfied with your current state.  Fight for your work as you would your child.

Do not apologize for your work.

Live somewhere you can walk places or use public transit.  When in your car, make it your sanctuary.  Sing at the top of your lungs to something that inspires you.  And don’t notice when the people in the car next to you are staring.

Remember that writing is real work, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  It takes time and skill and patience.  You will not be a master overnight.  You will not become a master by signing up for that $1,000 screenwriting course.  So don’t be discouraged when the short cuts don’t pan out.

Remember that other lives, other careers, other families may look like they are happier or offer more immediate satisfaction, but it’s an illusion. We all have perfect moments in our lives.  The art is in enjoying those you get.

If you want to stay semi-positive about life, stay away from the 405 between 8am and 8pm.  If you are doing research for your next Great American Tragedy, go no where else during those 12 hours.

They will try to break your heart by taking away your dream.  Don’t let them.

Find comfort in the fact that half of this city is dieting themselves into oblivion for the chance to be on television – but you don’t have to.  You’re a writer.  When and if people notice what we look like, just be sure to wear clean-ish clothes and brush your teeth, and they’ll be impressed.  If you can’t do that, wear all black.

When you can, learn all the other areas behind theater producing – the business and the creative sides.  It will come in handy.

You will never be finished.  So know when to abandon a project for the next one.

Don’t feel as if you have to know all the right answers – but figure out how to ask the right questions.  That’s your job.

Finally, love it.  Everyday.  It’s hard.  It’s work.  But love it.

3 thoughts on “How to Stay a LA Playwright

  1. Is this where I mention that I’m madly in love with 99 Impossible Things, and really want to see it remounted some day? Also (and really, please don’t hate me for saying this) I think if done right it could be a really great indie film. But NOT turned into. Adapted from. I’d rather see it remounted.

  2. Bravo, Chelsea! So cool to see my essay “How to Stay a NY Playwright” inspired “How to Stay an LA Playwright” —

    — would love to hear what Chicago has to say. Or Cairo, for that matter.

    Being a 21st century playwright is an honor, a privilege and a pain in the ass.

    Greetings from NYC!


  3. Thank you Barbara! Your essay was indeed lovely! Got me thinking, obviously. Greetings from LA!

    And Sean – I don’t hate you for saying that! An adaptation and/or remounting is always possible…though improbable…

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