It was the summer of 2011 and I could all but keep my head above water. With a steaming pile of student loans, an ambitious professional dramaturgy gig coupled with a local company’s literary management, a new relationship to navigate, and (compounding the water metaphor) a day job narrating boat cruises of historic Boston harbor, I had a lot on my fresh college graduate plate. Oh yeah, and writing. Between harbor tours and rehearsals downtown, I’d often pause on the Rose Kennedy Greenway before heading into the T at rush hour to count my tips and cram as many filched peanut butter crackers into my mouth as possible.
As the seasons changed, my high-sodium moments of zen were frequently interrupted by parades of painted cardboard, sharpie markers, makeshift drums, and ebullient chanting sliding their way down Atlantic Avenue. Occupy Wall Street was born on September 17, 2011, with the Boston demonstration settling in Dewey Square less than two weeks later. At the time, the whole point of the movement escaped me: Hazy media representation combined with my lack of free time and total focus to the show I was turging left me underinformed and disengaged.
“I have a theater arts degree and I managed to find a job out of college! What are you all so upset about?” I thought to myself as I dashed home through South Station. With vague impressions of the housing crisis, corporate corruption, and class inequality, I passed over the movement with equally low portions of understanding and sympathy. When Occupy Boston was evicted early in December, I felt only a passing twinge of regret that I hadn’t been a part of it.
I’d all but forgotten about Occupy until my next dramaturgy project, Danny Bryck’s tour-de-force one-man docuplay, NO ROOM FOR WISHING, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Composed of Danny’s painstakingly transcribed interviews of Dewey Square Occupiers, the protestors and I were now confessing, laughing, wrestling, singing, and working together in the same room night after night. Between my own research, Danny’s hilarious and heart-wrenching primary source material, and the post-show anecdotes of Occupiers with whom we chatted over the course of the run, I came to understand Occupy’s unclouded message, which, in my outsider’s estimation, is this: An egalitarian society can exist anywhere, with all people, in any condition. Watch us do it. Occupy led by example in the face of not only the 1%, but also the 99% who pass the Occupiers every day, painting an alternative portrait of what a country focused on mutual success can be.
Despite this, the call for human equality in society at large fell on the deaf (or underfunded and understaffed) ears of not-for-profit (NFP) arts organizations. Occupy’s decisions are made at public General Assembly meetings where anyone’s voice can be heard; theatre companies operate behind closed doors. Occupiers work together without pay, but find ways to support each other’s livelihoods; arts groups continue to scale the pay of individual artists according to a measured level of contribution, if compensated for time at all beyond “the experience.” The People’s Mic gives voice and power to the parts of the whole; the theatre company’s power ultimately rests in the hands of high-ranking administrators, an artistic 1%. The arts thrive in an Occupy society that encourages and celebrates its citizens’ unique and individual music, visual art, film, photography, dance, design, puppetry, and theater, regardless of qualifications, prior experience, networking, or background; NFP arts seasons and the artists who create them are carefully curated to ensure a “high quality” artistic experience, shutting out generative artists whose aesthetic falls outside the popular market and the predetermined mission statements of established producing organizations.
In my time as a literary manager I read countless scripts: many were excellent and easily warranted a Boston production (including John Greiner-Ferris’s TURTLES) but were assessed in programming meetings as a “great play, but not for us.” These evaluations, while true to this company’s mission, and valid for the small amount of production slots and company resources, wore me down. What happens to these excellent plays? Where do they go and what audience sees them? How do these playwrights, who have already invested so much of their heart, thought, and time, witness these characters in action? Isn’t the strength of the writer’s primal impulse to create a new work reason enough to see it to fruition?
What’s so exquisite about 13P’s mission and revolutionary structure is its creation of guaranteed space for work to happen. The writer’s knowledge that they are putting their energy into a future living, breathing piece of art that can be developed in tandem with other theater artists is wildly valuable; the free informational tools they left behind to inspire similarly minded groups of writers is priceless. Like Occupy, 13P’s spark began in New York and is spreading to urban centers around the US. Another playwright-driven producing org is thriving in DC.
When John and Kevin invited me to join Boston Public Works, I jumped at the opportunity to contribute to Boston’s sizable playwriting community, not just for the road to production BPW offers, but also for the demonstration of mutual success BPW illustrates. BPW supports not only our playwrights, but a diverse community of designers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, technicians, and other theater artists committed to the long-term development of ten plays because ten artists cared about them enough and about each other’s work to bring it into the world.
By staging plays free of literary gatekeepers, we aren’t the example—we are an example—to any other like-minded group of playwrights, invested enough in a thriving new play scene to make a bounty of new work happen the way it wants to happen.
Keeping your head above water by yourself is hard. As it turns out, with nine other playwrights in the water with you, it’s easy to stay afloat.