Fresh off his success of "Selfies at the Clown Motel," Cleveland playwright Christopher Johnston recounts 25 years inside the local indie theatre scene and gives newbies tips on how to break into it.
Playwriting is not for the faint of heart.
It requires tenacity, a sense of humor, dinosaur skin to deflect rejection or unfounded criticism, and – oh yeah – the willingness to write plays, not pipe dream them. And I’m just talking about writing for Cleveland. If you want to go global, well, I leave that topic to the Eric Coble
s and George Brant
s of the world. They have committed their careers to playwriting, so they have built the regional performance credits necessary to elevate to the big time. They are the gold standards – inspiration for the rest of us who write plays when we can.
That said, Cleveland boasts a community of pretty darn good part-time playwrights. Many have had plays produced in other cities and countries as well, but it’s more scattershot. I’ve had about 20 scripts staged at a variety of theaters here, from 10-minute plays to full-length shows - and a one-act in New York.
I made the decision to pursue playwriting as an avocation, mainly because I love theater, but found journalism to be an easier way to make a living as a writer. The greatest reward has been enjoying a family of smart, crazy, skilled, fun-loving artists, because Northeast Ohio’s theater community is pretty tight. There are seriously skilled actors, directors and designers here, all to the advantage of playwrights developing their work.
In the ‘80s, during and after grad school, I began fooling around writing plays. Then, Susan Petrone
told me about the Lab Company playwriting internship program she attended at The Cleveland Play House
. I joined the second season, 1989-90. Seeing the response of audiences to my showcase pieces combined with the support I received from my mentor Roger Danforth
– as well as an uplifting meeting with artistic director Josie Abady
in her office while she slam dunked a Burger King lunch – confirmed that I had stuff worth staging.
I still wasn’t sure how to be a playwright in Cleveland. I had some readings, and Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT
) was interested in my work. Also, I was not an actor, and most playwrights start on the boards. A close friend from the Lab Company, Fred Gloor
, helped me understand the world of theater from the actor’s perspective. Then his former roommate at Kent State, Jeff Blanchard
, co-founded Cabaret Dada (now Something Dada
), an improvisational company in the Warehouse District. I wrote articles about them for The Plain Dealer
and Northern Ohio Live
, and we became fast friends. He wanted me to do one of my plays in their Black Box theater, but I didn’t have anything ready. So, Jeff gently and lovingly shoved me into directing.
In April 1998, I helmed a dynamic adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher
by the venerable Steven Berkoff
. I cast Fred as Roderick Usher, Sarah Beth Jackson as Madeline and Cherie Panek as the guest, and they gave absolutely stunning performances that made me look good.
, whom I had gotten to know at CPT, asked me to direct in what were to be the last two years of their New Plays Festival. I met a number of young theater luminaries such as Terry Cranendonk
, Dave Thomas, James Mango
, Mike Geither
, Liz Duchez Turk
, Andrew Kaletta
and many others. I was still learning what it meant to direct, design, produce and promote a play, but now I better understood the demands of a production, and I had a network of potential collaborators.
Geoffrey Hoffman in Spawn of the Petrolsexuals at convergence-continuum, July-August 2007
I also got to know then-artistic director Randy Rollison
, and I gave him a documentary play I had been working on for a few years called Sexually Explicit Material
, taken from interviews with more than 50 people about their sex lives. CPT produced it in March of 2000, and we sold out every night except St. Patrick’s Day, which was still fun because there were many drunk, green people.
I have witnessed the heights of passion for theater here. For instance, when I emailed my good pal – and co-author of Loud Americans: A Punk Saga
that we wrote for Dobama
’s Night Kitchen in 2004 – Greg “Go Tribe” Vovos
to comment about becoming a playwright, five minutes later I got a 12-page, 4,000-word manifesto. (Okay, maybe not that long.) Here’s a small sampling:
“Playwriting is unlike any other form, and many people feel it’s quite easy to do, and they expect instant success,” e-wrote the gifted, insightful playwright, director and writer at American Greetings. “But there is much to learn about playwriting, and it starts by understanding how the theatre works. This happens in two ways: see plays and work on plays.”
You’ll note that I’ve done a lot of name-dropping. If you want to be a playwright, I hope you’re catching my drift that productions, especially on the local level, come from relationships. I will forever owe Fred, Jeff, James and Randy for helping me move my playwriting career, such as it is, forward.
Then there’s Clyde Simon
, who I also met when he directed the last year of the New Plays Festival. He went on to co-found convergence-continuum theatre (con-con
) in Tremont. I’ve seen every main stage show he has produced. After a few years, he asked me when he would see one of my scripts. I have since written three plays specifically for con-con, became a company member and then a Board member. Here’s another lesson for neophyte playwrights: See shows at a theater before you submit scripts. Clyde has shared stories of receiving conventional plays from playwrights who’d obviously never been to the no-fourth-walls-wanted con-con.
Cleveland has a Groove-A and growing alternative, experimental theater scene, and significantly more opportunities to get new work produced than when I was coming up. Within the last decade alone, several theaters have emerged that favor new plays. The always-innovative Jeremy Paul’s Theater Ninjas
aptly pop up all over the place to surprise audiences with engaging shows. Blank Canvas Theatre
has a cool space in the West 78th
Street Studios, and founder/artistic director Patrick Ciamacco is fully committed to darker, wilder fare.
Spawn of the Petrolsexuals at convergence-continuum, July-August 2007Talespinner Children’s Theatre
works exclusively with Cleveland theater artists, and every play is a new play. Whether or not you write for children, I recommend checking TCT out, because they’re producing exceptionally high quality theatre. I guarantee the opportunity to create a play with founder/artistic director Ali Garrigan is priceless.
Dobama Theatre has the Playwrights Gym
professional development program, which was founded by previous artistic director Joel Hammer and is burgeoning nicely under the guidance of Nathan Motta. However, it is open only to invited members. I had to leave recently because of other writing commitments, but I treasured my workouts in the Gym. Under artistic director Celeste Cosentino, the old guard Ensemble Theatre
launched a Wednesday night Stagewrights
program for playwrights several years ago. They produce readings throughout the year and some productions each spring during the new works festival named for Celeste's mother and ensemble founder, Lucia Colombi.
Last year, five Cleveland playwrights founded Playwrights Local
specifically to produce the work of their fellow writers from The Land. Schedule a trip to their space in the Waterloo Arts District to see a show. Volunteer. Get involved. Audition. Working at the theaters in whatever capacity you can is a great way to meet the people scheduling and producing new work.
Finally, I recommend that playwrights employ The Dark Room
at CPT to test writing in a no-shame, friendly setting and meet directors, actors and writers. I was fortunate to be a founding member and host in March of 2005, along with Fred, Margaret Lynch, everyone’s maven Linda Eisenstein
, Mike Sepesy – who coined the name – and Mike Martone. So, get your script together and get over there on the second Tuesday of the month. Mindy Childress Herman
and John Busser
do a heck of a job running the Dark Room, and it’s just a lot of fun to see what everyone is cooking.
MorrisonDance in The Mad Mask Maker of Maigh Eo at Cleveland Public Theatre
Additionally, CPT offers a full spectrum of new play development programs
that you should explore and participate in as a playwright.
In just the past ten years, we’ve produced 81 staged readings and showcases, 107 workshop productions and 42 full productions of world premieres,” informs CPT’s Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan. “That doesn't even include the hundreds
of shorter plays read, workshopped and produced, or the 50-plus community-created shows with our education programs.”
Today, I’m working on several new scripts, as always. I am directing two shows next year, have a couple of readings and productions pending, and will have a new play, The Rainbow Serpent
, at Tailspinner Children's Theatre next fall.
I’ve been very fortunate to have my work performed. I never take that for granted.