Life/Art Lessons from the Trenches

by Charlotte Meehan

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation,National Conference

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(This post is a part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

 

A little over a decade ago when I was studying in Brown University’s MFA playwriting program, a celebrated playwright visited for a week and told me I’d have to decide whether I want to be Pina Bausch or a playwright. At the time I realized that he was kindly informing me I wouldn’t have a theatre career if I kept up this nonsense of blending forms, but for some reason (no doubt having to do with my mutinous nature) all I could think to myself was, “cool, I’m Pina Bausch and a playwright.” As it turns out, he was correct in that my plays have been sparsely produced. For a few years after graduating from Brown, I remained hopeful about the “high level rejection letters” I received from the country’s top non-profit theatres. But as time went by, I began to realize they were not going to produce my plays and that perhaps no one was going to produce my plays. Mac Wellman was instrumental in getting my play, Work, produced at The Flea Theater under Jim Simpson’s direction. Artistic Director Vanessa Gilbert premiered Sweet Disaster at the former Perishable Theatre in Providence under Ken Prestininzi’s direction. Dixon Place’s Artistic Director, Ellie Covan, offered me a residency/workshop for 27 Tips for Banishing the Blues. Beyond that, nothing, nothing, nothing.

 

But this is not a winge. It’s a reality check. It’s a DIY how-to for people whose work does not easily fit established categories. I say to you now: DO IT YOURSELF. I did that for years in New York before going to Brown to pursue my second MFA. I’d thought that the Brown stamp of approval would lead me to productions at the theatres where they wouldn’t even read my work previously. What I hadn’t considered is that reading the work and producing the work are light years away from each other. I just couldn’t head into my 40s without any financial security (i.e., eating way too many egg noodles with watercress) and keep putting up plays that were very well received but not reviewed. I had to consider the tenure-track teaching position route if I was going to keep writing doggedly idiosyncratic plays. In my ninth year at Wheaton College (MA), after having received tenure, I decided to re-launch my company, Sleeping Weazel (www.sleepingweazel.com), in Boston so that I could make theatre where I live and stop imagining that New York is the center of all things that matter.

 

The idea for this new incarnation of Sleeping Weazel was to gather a group of [mostly New England-based] affiliated artists, to curate seasons of three or four shows, to produce one of my own plays per season, and to have a “next generation” arm of the company led by my former Wheaton student, Adara Meyers, another playwright. She and I also co-curate a cyber art gallery where we present monthly exhibitions of new video work that live on the Sleeping Weazel website. Essentially, in addition to forming a company, we’ve started a movement. What I love about this model is that it diminishes the dangerous tendency to feel isolated in one’s work and personally victimized by “not being understood.” Any one of us alone can be thought of us smart, but too far out or, worse yet, dismissed as obscure. But you put 30 wildly interesting artists together, and that becomes very hard to ignore. We started small and we want to stay small. We present our work primarily at The Factory Theatre, which I like to call mini-LaMama. It’s a 40-seat theatre with brick walls and the most basic of lighting plots. But everyone who enters the space feels its charm. We’ve sold out all our shows except for one this March when we had the esteemed Ruth Margraff, Lisa Schlesinger, and Magdalena Gomez presenting works-in-progress during a huge blizzard. Still, those who made it out that night will never forget it. We are now in the middle of the last show of our first season, my play, Real Realism. It’s been an amazing year of discovery, joy, and gigantic leaps of learning. I can honestly say, do it. Start your own company. Make it happen. If you are so inclined, you can even design costumes yourself. I just did and I’ve never been happier with the look of one of my plays. No one else would ever hire me as a costume designer. But I love it and I want to do it again. Above all, I am intensely proud of all the works we presented this year, and it’s enormously gratifying to see my play as part of an aesthetic landscape that enriches my dreams for the future of theatre.


Charlotte Meehan is Artistic Director of Sleeping Weazel and Playwright-in-Residence at Wheaton College. Her recent stage works include 27 Tips for Banishing the Blues, Sweet Disaster, Crazy Love, Looking for George, and Work. She has received support for her plays from the Howard Foundation, the Alpert Foundation, and the Arnold Foundation, and has had artist residencies in HERE Arts Center’s HARP program (NY), Perishable Theatre’s RAPT program (Providence), and at the MacDowell Colony. Among the theatres that have presented her work are Dixon Place, the Flea Theater, The Culture Project, Perishable Theatre, and the Alma Theatre (UK). She is a playwriting committee member of VIDA (vidaweb.org) along with playwrights Lisa Schlesinger, Ruth Margraff, and Caridad Svich. www.charlottemeehan.com.