Dallas — In April, Jonathan Norton received the prestigious M. Elizabeth Osborn Award at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. After receiving national attention for Mississippi Goddamn, what has happened next? Norton is also in the middle of a commission at Dallas Theater Center, working through the summer with readings of the full script. With this activity, I decided to pick his brain concerning his career as a playwright and what he hopes to see develop in Dallas.
The Osborn Award is given to a playwright who has not yet achieved national recognition and is determined by the American Theatre Critics Association, and is selected along with the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award (of which Mississippi Goddamn was a finalist). After being nominated, Norton had to mail out 11 hard copies of the script to critics across the country (most of the critics on the panel received digital versions).
“The funny thing is we were so close to not applying…so I had a moment with Vicki Meek [of the South Dallas Cultural Center, where the play premiered] wondering if this was worth our time,” Norton says. “You may not think that sending out 11 copies of a script would be that much of an undertaking, but when you’re submitting across the country on a regular basis, postage and printing adds up quickly. Why spend all that money on one opportunity when you don’t know if it’s worth it?”
To say that a career in playwriting is difficult is an understatement. From Todd London’s book Outrageous Fortune, even the most successful playwrights struggle to make money from their work and get multiple productions of their plays. For emerging playwrights, it’s even more difficult to just get your plays read by the right people. Literary offices are filled with submissions and different kinds of stacks—unsolicited scripts (the biggest stack), plays by people who are getting buzz (a smaller stack), plays by writers who have a relationship with the company (an even smaller stack), and so on. What Norton has discovered is that winning the Osborn has served as a step towards more possibilities.
“Almost immediately after the announcement of the finalist list, I randomly got emails from theaters across the country—Literary Managers and New Play Development Directors, random out of the blue,” Norton says. Even some theaters who originally passed on Mississippi Goddamn asked if they could read the script...without realizing that they had read it two years ago. The most common result Norton is finding so far is that theaters are interested in and show it by moving him into a new stack. Norton says, “But you still don’t know what that means in terms of time or the possibilities. And now get moved to this other stack…It’s exciting, but what’s the outcome of that stack? Is just it that you’re in a smaller, slightly cooler stack? And then there’s another stack next to that stack. So then you’re like, I just moved from one stack to another.”
When Norton received the award at Humana, he admitted that the experience was a bit intimidating. He has made some brave moves to leverage the award into developing relationships with theaters across the country. “I got to talk to the director of new play development at a theater on the west coast when I was at Humana. A week later I built up the courage to send her an email to say, ‘I’m aware of this commission for emerging playwrights that your theater has and I think I would be a great candidate.’ I was so ballsy.” A couple of days later, Norton received an email that enthusiastically said he had already been moved to that stack. Norton notes that while progress is exciting, the idea of being in a stack is still a little strange.
Like many playwrights, Norton has experienced dark times of waiting and eventual rejections—which makes this career in theater the most isolating. “You send a play off to a theater and you wonder. They’ll say it will take 6 to 9 months, but that doesn’t really tell you anything. The longer the time span, the more you begin to believe the best. That’s the thing I hate about playwriting. So much to the extent that about a year-and-a-half ago I created a ‘no submissions’ policy for myself. I’ll submit to development organizations, no problem. But submitting directing to theaters with an inquiry or synopsis, I cut that off.” Part of the difficulty with blind submissions is that you have no idea when it will be read, if it will be read at all, or who will actually read it (literary manager, intern, volunteer). Norton holds some jealousy for actors, because they can audition. They can actually meet a select group of people (casting director, director, producer), show their work, have a conversation, and know that some kind of evaluation process took place. For writers, it’s a seemingly endless waiting game. Norton notes, “I always tell people to be really nice to playwrights between March and May because that’s rejection season.”
So if blind submissions and even to a point national awards aren’t showing the results you want at the time, what does? Producers. Arts Administrators. People willing to invest in artists and play development. People like Vicki Meek.
Meek gave Norton his first opportunity to consider himself a professional playwright. He took an independent study course at Southern Methodist University under Meek, and at the end she encouraged him to keep working on the play. Not just with words, but money. She commissioned Norton to finish the play by paying him $2,500 through the Diaspora Performing Arts Commissioning Program at South Dallas Cultural Center. Before, Norton (like many of us) had only received tiny stipends for their work. But $2,500, “I can pay my rent with that, I can do so many things with that.” (Cue $96,000 from In the Heights.)
Norton notes that Mississippi Goddamn would not have happened without the help and resourcefulness of Meek, an arts administrator (now retired) and visual artist. Without a foundation in theater per se, she does understand that artists need specific resources for their work. Norton notes, “A visual artist needs certain tools to make you art, certain media, a space to create your work of a certain size or ventilation lighting, all these resources and tools. To get these things you need money. As opposed to theater, I think we become so accustomed to working in thrifty and scrappy ways on a shoestring budget.”
We have a “make it work” mentality, and it feels like every penny has to be justified. Usually that’s all going into production, not the development process. Norton’s first major Dallas notoriety was when his play homeschooled was given a grant in the first round of TACA’s Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, and that bulk of that $25,000 went to expenses for the production company, African American Repertory Theater, for paying actors, designers adding a week-and-a-half to the rehearsal period.)
Meek supplied Norton with $13,000 to workshop and develop Mississippi Goddamn. This was just in the early stages of readings and developing the script. That kind of funding is unheard of in Dallas, but developmental residencies and paid workshops occur regularly in other markets. Norton developed the play nearly a year in this way, with rewrites and readings. For the real production, Meek gathered $23,000 from various grants and gave it to Norton as the playwright/producer of the project. “That production would not have been that same production without those resources provided... And that’s why it’s challenged in this city. We have a very small handful of theaters that have the infrastructure to really do brand new work.”
Dallas does have a group of energetic emerging writers, but will they remain working in small, sporadic readings and DIY productions? What happens if you premiere a play here and the right people don’t see it? Or you’ve used up the premiere of a play here and no one else shows interest in it?
Thankfully, Norton is receiving more support from a major theater company, Dallas Theater Center, one of only two LORT theaters in Texas (the other is Houston’s Alley Theatre). He’s been commissioned to write a new play (along with two other local writers, Steven Walters and Matt Lyle), and Norton is dreaming big with this opportunity. The play in progress presents a mom and mop business Norton’s parents used to run, taking place at the start of the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980’s.
DTC hasn’t imposed any restrictions for the scope of the play, so Norton is writing a 10-character work that is proving to be a challenge. “There are muscles you develop when you tell a bigger story that you don't get to exercise when you write a small cast play. Simply deciding how much total time a particular character needs onstage is a huge thing. Like, you might have four characters who are only onstage 40 percent of the play and you have to make sure how to make their time onstage count and mean something.” As part of the commission, Norton will be able to hear his play at readings over the summer. DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty and Director of New Play Development Lee Trull have been supportive through the commission as resources for Norton when the scope of the play feels too monumental. Norton says, “I think commissions give you more permission to make those leaps of faith as a playwright. I think if you play it too safe with a commission then you're not using it in the way it was intended.”
With all of the excitement surrounding Norton, it paints a picture of the life of a contemporary American playwright. The real magic happens when people invest in playwrights with real resources—real funds to develop their work, real chances to be seen and heard. Blind submissions don’t necessarily work, but connections offer potential.
» Shelby-Allison Hibbs is a Dallas-based teaching artist, playwright, director, performer and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. In her Work in Progress column, she'll have conversations with playwrights, theatermakers, directors, designers, dramaturgs and others involved in the process of realizing new work from page to stage as she explores new plays and musicals being developed/created by theaters of all budget sizes in North Texas.
NEW WORK CURRENTLY ON LOCAL STAGES
- The Festival of Independent Theatres, featuring four premieres (Echo Theatre's Blisters, Frieda Dunkelberg & Company's Hospit(al)able, House Party Theatre's Wealth Management and Proper Hijinx Productions' Missed Connections), through July 30 at the Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas OUR SPECIAL SECTION WITH REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND MORE
- The Distant Echo of Ancient Youth, a new work from Johnny Simons at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, through July 31 OUR ANNOUNCEMENT OF HIP POCKET'S 40TH SEASON
- Querolus, or Missed Fortune, a premiere translation of a Roman comedy by Mark-Brian Sonna, presented by MBS Productions at the Stone Cottage in Addison, through Aug. 7 OUR LISTING
SELECT UPCOMING NEW WORK
- The Tribe presents Claire Carson's Hypochondria at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, July 28-31 OUR LISTING
- Ohlook Performing Arts in Grapevine presents a new musical about the current presidential election, Citizen Drumpf, written by Matthew Lord, Aug. 5-13 OUR LISTING
- Don Quixote, a new visual theater adaptation by Lake Simons and John Dyer at Hip Pocket Theatre, Fort Worth, Aug. 12-Sept. 4 OUR LISTING
- Kitchen Dog Theater presents the third Dallas One-Minute Play Festival at the Trinity River Arts Center, Aug. 13-15 OUR LISTING
- The Ochre House presents Justin Locklear's Dreamless, Aug. 20-Sept. 10 OUR LISTING
PREVIOUS WORK IN PROGRESS COLUMNS
- Len Jenkin's Jonah at Undermain Theatre (April 15, 2016)
- David Lozano and Lee Trull's Deferred Action in a co-production between Dallas Theater Center and Cara Mía Theatre Company (April 28, 2016)
- Janielle Kastner's Ophelia Underwater, presented by The Tribe at Margo Jones Theatre (May 11, 2016)
- Caridad Svich's De Troya, a developmental reading presented by Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth (May 13, 2016)
- Steve Yockey's Blackberry Winter and The Thrush and the Woodpecker in Kitchen Dog Theater's 18th New Works Festival at Undermain Theatre (May 18, 2016)
- Stefany Cambra's Finding Myself in Bed from Proper Hijinx (June 1, 2016)
- Acoustic Nerves/Therefore, a collaboration by Dean Terry and University of Texas at Dallas artists, at the Texas Theatre (June 9, 2016)