Book Reviews

How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career by Lawrence Harbison

Book Review by Michael Ladenson

How I Did It Setting out to make a living from writing plays, as far as practicality goes, is like expecting to find a sword embedded in a boulder that you can pull out and become king of England. Luckily for those of us who love theater, there are still hardy souls who try and make a go of this perilous career. And, oddly enough, some of them actually make it. Lawrence Harbison, who spent over thirty years in charge of new play acquisition for trade publishing giant Samuel French, has interviewed a select band of these fortunate and gifted souls in How I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career. If, like me, you were once infected with the playwriting virus, you may find yourself devouring this volume like an order of nachos.

None of the playwrights he interviews are household names—but in this day and age, can you think of anyone still writing for theater who is (besides maybe Stephen Sondheim)? For the record, the playwrights Harbison interviews are David Auburn, Stephen Belber, Adam Bock, Bekah Brunstetter, Shelia Callaghan, John Cariani, Eric Coble, Jessica Dickey, Kate Fodor, Gina Gionfriddo, Daniel Goldfarb, Kristen Greenidge, Rinne Groff, Lauren Gunderson, Michael Hollinger, Rajiv Joseph, Greg Kotis, Neil LaBute, Deborah Zoe Laufer, Wendy Macleod, Itamar Moses, Bruce Norris, Lynn Nottage, Aaron Posner, Adam Rapp, J. T. Rogers, Lloyd Suh, Cori Thomas, Sharr White and Anna Ziegler. If you follow the stage, you may recognize some hot regional theater names, and even a handful of Pulitzer Prize winners (Auburn, Norris, Nottage). You may even know that Kotis co-wrote the Broadway musical hit Urinetown.

This isn't a book that will guide you to how playwrights think of their ideas, or how they develop them into scripts. Harbison isn't shy about mentioning shows he thought were wonderful, and if you apply some Internet research to his hints, you'll discover that he (reasonably) believes Dan Sullivan to be the best director in New York. (He discreetly refrains from mentioning the New York Times reviewer who lost her job after categorically dismissing Sullivan's direction of Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel). What he focuses on is how these writers built their careers, how they started writing and how they leveraged their efforts into paying productions and livelihoods. When a playwright mentions an agent, Harbison invariably wants to know how he or she hooked up with them; when a writer mentions a big-time (or medium-time) production, he asks how they got that opportunity.

I can't pretend this doesn't get repetitious. In a way, each playwright transmits the same message: keep writing, produce yourself if you have to, take every bare-bones production, and don't stop networking with other professionals, aspiring and otherwise. Be nice to everyone. And most important, don't lose faith. Harbison skeptically repeats the old saw that if a playwright hasn't "made it" by age thirty, they never will; like the theatrical superstition that follows productions of Macbeth, this bit of stagey folk wisdom gets repeatedly disproven. A few saintly names recur as saviors of some of the playwrights here: selected agents, Ensemble Studio Theater, the playwriting program at Julliard, and the O'Neill Festival. These have all rejected as many strivers as they've accepted, but to some they held out precious lifelines. Not to mention the various incarnations of the TV program "Law and Order."

I've enjoyed the work of several of the playwrights interviewed for this book; I even casually know one of them, Michael Hollinger, who does most of his work in Philadelphia, where I live (for the record, he's very talented and a nice guy). And I even got a little tired of the repeated networking message; writer after writer mentions how they got a production because so-and-so, who happened to see some storefront theater production of theirs, or whom they met in similar circumstances, sent the script to a big theater or agent. But I did not get tired of the overarching message of hope.

Harbison is a compelling writer and interviewer, but what keeps you reading this book isn't his questions or his prose. What keeps your attention is that, in a profession full of discouragement and despair, he does (you should pardon the expression) God's work. He encourages everyone sitting at a keyboard and cranking out plays to not give up. Nearly every writer in this book struggled with despair, with the absurdity of what he or she was trying to do. Some had high-profile flops, crushing disappointments. Yet somehow, they put one foot in front of the other, kept working and eventually, they were "discovered." Eventually, they got productions. Some also wrote movies and TV shows, some even had Broadway hits. In the ever-discouraging world of the business of shows, who could ask for anything more?

How I Did ItHow I Did It: Establishing a Playwriting Career
Lawrence Harbison
232 pages
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
Publishing date: March 1, 2015
List Price: $24.99
ISBN: 978-1480369634
Available at Amazon in a Paperback