This is an old post that I removed from my blog after selling it to an anthology.
Now that the anthology is out of print, it’s time to bring it back. The message is important, I think. Plus it’s fun!
About 20 years ago, long before I became a children’s book author, I wrote for the stage. I found a little success soon after graduating from college, getting a number of my short plays produced in New York. The theatres were all small (79- to 99-seaters) and not in the best part of town, but I was ecstatic. Almost every weekend I was somewhere on 10th or 11th Avenue attending a rehearsal or seeing a show. I felt important, or, if not exactly important, busy enough to convince myself that I was on the cusp of importance.
And I was right to think this; for one day I was contacted by an artistic director. I won’t say which company this artistic director worked for, but it was a good one, a prestigious one. The theatre space they performed in was small—but not the same kind of small I was used to. The theatres I wrote for had difficulty filling the house. Sometimes the number of cast and crew exceeded the number of people in the audience.
This theatre, on the other hand, was not acquainted with half-filled houses. This theatre was small because it was exclusive. Its shows sold out. It advertised its plays in actual newspapers. Its stage was beautiful. This was the real deal.
The artistic director invited me to submit a script. The request could not have come at a better time; I was just putting the finishing touches on a 40-minute one-act titled Exacta Men that I knew would be a good fit for that stage. I mailed it off and then began my negotiations with God.
“What sins can I jettison to make this deal happen?” I asked Him. “How about if I stop saying the F-word? Would that work?”
My bargaining worked. Mr. Artistic Director liked what he saw and soon set up a backers’ meeting. A backers’ meeting, for those who don’t know (and at that time I sure didn’t), is an event where actors read a promising script to an audience of Rich People. If the Rich People like what they hear, they hand over money to Make The Play Happen.
The meeting was arranged in a comfortable and well-appointed office space in Midtown Manhattan with windows that proffered views of the Chrysler Building.
I approved. I like Midtown office buildings. I like the Chrysler Building. I like being in rooms filled with Rich People. Oh, yes, all of this suited me just fine.
There were several plays up for consideration that evening and Exacta Men was the first one to be read. Mr. Artistic Director got the Rich People settled into their chairs. He found me sitting in the front row, made me stand up, and introduced me to the crowd as “Michael James Allegra The Author Of The First Play We Are About To See This Evening.”
Let me digress for a moment to say that I really dislike such pre-play introductions. I don’t know how to respond to them; the audience doesn’t either. The audience hasn’t yet heard the script, so it doesn’t know whether to applaud or throw tomatoes. So they usually just stare at you—and that’s what this one did.
Believe me, that stare is excruciating.
“Would you like to discuss your play, Michael?” The Artistic Director asked.
I would’ve replied “F*** no,” but I had recently negotiated the F-word out of my vocabulary. So I shook my head and sat back down.
The reading began. The Rich People took to Exacta Men instantly. They were engaged. They were laughing in all the right places. I was very pleased with myself.
But things were about to take a turn.
Exacta Men is about three 20-somethings who have a guys-night-out tradition of going to the racetrack to bet on the horses. One of the men, however, named Sean, has upset the natural order of things by inviting his new girlfriend, Marla, along. The other two guys, Jim and Carl, are none too pleased with this new development. So, as soon as Sean and Marla are out of earshot, Carl starts grumping.
Why would anybody take a girl to the track on a date?
It’s not much of a date.
(He stews over this a moment. Then:)
First he blows us off for, like, what? Two months?
Couldn’t be two months.
I’ll bet it’s two. I’ll bet it is. And then when he starts to hang out with us again, he brings this girl along.
And then Carl says this:
And she’s pretty uppity for a chick who isn’t all that good looking.
As a writer, I liked this line because it does some heavy lifting in establishing Carl’s character. It illustrated Carl’s views toward Marla in particular and women in general. In short, it showed that Carl was a pig. Everything Carl said up to this point suggested this, but that line drove the point home. It was also supposed to be a laugh line. A line where you could laugh at Carl.
When the line came out, however, the audience gasped. The gasp was so long, so loud, and so violent, it frightened me.
I leaned over to my friend, Bill, who had accompanied me on this particular jaunt, and whispered, “I just lost the whole room.”
“No,” he whispered back, but Bill was not a theatre person. He wasn’t attuned to these things.
From that gasp onward, the audience sat in stony, arm-folded silence.
The reality of my situation could not have been more crystal clear. We were three minutes into my 40-minute play—and everyone in that room had every intention of hating the remaining 37 minutes of it. Carl’s line gave them permission to hate it. And they hated me for writing it. And they knew what I looked like. And they knew where I was siting. I was in the front row. Oh, why did I have to sit in the front row?
Then an idea popped into my head that almost made me vomit: “What if,” I thought, “these Rich People think I agree with Carl’s views?”
My head pounded. My stomach churned. I could feel Rich-Person Hatred burrowing into the back of my sweaty neck. Rich-Person-Back-Of-The-Neck Hatred is sharp, jackhammer-y, and fire poker hot.
At one point I was nearly overcome with the urge to yell, “I’m not like Carl! I want you to laugh at him! Let us mock him together! HAHAHA! What a dweeb he is!”
At another point I came up with the slightly more pragmatic idea of popping out of my chair to announce, “And then entire cast got trampled to death by a racehorse! The END!”
But I did neither of those things. I just sat there and soaked up the blurbling bile.
After several lifetimes, my play ended. I made a beeline for Mr. Artistic Director (who looked like he just witnessed a murder, and, in a way, he had), thanked him for the opportunity, and strode with great purpose to the exit.
“They didn’t seem to like it much,” Bill observed after the elevator doors closed behind us.
I then reneged on my agreement with God and used variations of a certain F-word to commend Bill on his acute powers of observation.
That evening was the most awful experience of my writing life—but I did take something valuable from it. It proved to me once and for all that I was supposed to do this writing thing for a living.
Big Honking Failures, I think, separate the wannabes from the gonnabes.
Up until that reading, I had nothing but success in my writing life. My successes were very modest, but they were still successes. It was easy to keep plugging along. I was getting positive feedback from actors and audiences. I was getting produced and having fun.
That reading on the other hand, shook me to my core. After that night, I could’ve walked away from writing forever and I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me for doing so.
But I didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I needed time to lick my wounds. And for years afterwards, whenever my mind flashed back to that night, my body turned on the flop sweat machine as if it was happening all over again. But I still wrote. Writing became a kind of therapy, I think. It was me saying, “My career is not going to end this way.”
Exacta Men eventually became a two-act play, titled Rebounders. Rebounders fared far better than its predecessor. Three years after my Exacta Men backers’ meeting, Rebounders won a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. It’s been performed in front audiences, too, and those audiences laugh at Carl rather than hate my guts. I prefer this.
Big Honking Failures happen. You can’t always avoid them, but you can keep them from destroying you. And when that Big Honking Failure does arrive, take my advice: Be sure to have a few F-bombs at your disposal. Trust me; you’re gonna need ’em.