Image courtesy of Youngblood
Youngblood co-directors Graeme Gillis and R.J. Tolan talk about a unique organization for up-and-coming playwrights. [22:25]
Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed
It's a fact of Life, Theater is expensive; producing plays costs a lot of money. Which means getting a play produced is difficult at any age but if you're young, it's almost impossible. This is a dilemma. Because if 20-something playwrights can't see their work on a stage, how will they ever hone their skills? How will the next generation of playwrights be able to come into their own.
Worried that vibrant new voices were going unheard and unnurtured, and equally convinced that younger theater artists had their own particular needs, NYC Ensemble Studio Theater formed Youngblood. Now in its 18th year, Youngblood provides artistic guidance, peer support, regular feedback and a way for playwrights to see their work mounted on a stage in front of an audience. The co-directors of Youngblood are Graeme Gillis and R.J. Tolan. I spoke with them in NYC and asked them to tell me more about Youngblood. Here's Graeme Gillis.
Graeme Gillis: Youngblood is EST's company of emerging playwrights—
Jo Reed: And EST is the Ensemble--
Graeme Gillis: Ensemble Studio Theatre, yeah, under the age of 30 so currently we have 21 writers in the group. That's grown over the past couple of years and the writers in the group get in based pretty much on merit. They send their plays in and we take however many we think we can fit in that year and you can stay in the group for-- Anywhere from two to five years is the average but some people stay-- One girl joined when she was 19 and stayed until she was 30—
Jo Reed: Why do you think it's important for younger playwrights, playwrights under 30, to have a place and a group that they can come to, R.J.?
R.J. Tolan: It's a hard time when anybody's just getting their career going in a field like playwrighting that has so sort of few- there are very few ways that they can get feedback that says, "Yeah, good. You're a playwright. You're doing it." Most of them have been in school and either they're just out of school or they're a couple years out and things that sort of validate them professionally as a playwright are just- there are very few of them and they're hard to come by. You can put together readings with your friends, you can do a friend show, you can self-produce stuff, but unless you're getting into one of the handful of programs like Youngblood, like emerging writers group, unless you're getting read at sort of the institutional theaters there's very little that can say, "Yeah, do this. Stick to this. People other than you alone at your laptop believe that you can be doing this." And so that's something that Youngblood tries to do is just read their work, meet them and say, "Yeah, good. We want to support you for as long as you're in the group."
Graeme Gillis: And the nice thing about being in that group is the talent is of a very high caliber and they look around and they see these other writers who are also doing it and they- there's just almost a mutual belief that comes out of it, and it's as important as all the other stuff, all the programming that we do. That faith in themselves is as big as anything.
Jo Reed: What happens when you're 30? Are you given a gold watch and a handshake--
R.J. Tolan: You're immediately kicked out the door, yeah, yeah, without a backwards glance—
Jo Reed: Not even a cocktail?
R.J. Tolan: Plenty of cocktails-- We stop returning their phone calls when they're 30, yeah.
Graeme Gillis: No. Usually it is a traumatic event when they turn 30 for them and for us honestly in the year that they're 30. They don't get the boot on their birthday but they- honestly they actually are pretty fastidious about it themselves. They know when their last year is coming and they- even before- half the time we're not tracking their age that closely and so they just let us know that it's time to go, and sometimes they just rotate out because their- either their career is taking off or they've just gotten what they need to get and it's- we- that option is theirs but usually when you turn 30 you get the year of your 30th birthday and then hopefully you stay related to Ensemble Studio Theatre. Also they tend to stay related to the group although they're not coming to the weekly meetings or writing for the program itself. There's a nice kind of extended community that's developed of the writers who've graduated out of it over the years.
Jo Reed: So you have weekly meetings. What happens at those meetings?
Graeme Gillis: Usually, at the beginning of the meeting we'll talk about what we've seen around town that week, sort of a free-range discussion for about an hour or so, and then we'll get into pages and the writers let us know usually a couple of weeks ahead of time and they can bring in whatever they have got. They can bring in a ten-minute play that they wrote that- the night before. If they've got a full-length that they've been working on for a year, they can bring that in and we'll read the whole thing, and the meetings range in length from two to five hours sometimes, and basically that's one big plank and the meetings run from September through June.
Jo Reed: Do playwrights bring in actors to read or do other playwrights take on roles and read or do the writers read their own work? How does that work?
R.J. Tolan: No. We have the writers casted among the circle of the other writers and it's funny. There is a sort of trend that we've seen of-- It turns out playwrights give a pretty good reading of new work because they tend not to be- because they're not trying to be like "Hey, look at me and look at my acting." They can give often a very clean, sort of just the words kind of read. There have been times when we've seen stuff that we've- that has been developed in the group go on to full production and we've sort of pined for the days when we were like "Oh, remember when Sam Forman played Pappy. That was <laughs> pretty damn indelible. This guy's good but he's not as good as Sam's Pappy."
Jo Reed: You have performances of works in reading during Ensemble Studio Theatre's Oktoberfest. First what is Oktoberfest?
Graeme Gillis: Oktoberfest is a sort of staple of the EST calendar where they have- the theater has been around for 40 years and it has 500 member artists. The Oktoberfest exists so the members of the theater can initiate any project they want and get it heard out loud with the artistic staff and with an audience and they- the stage is theirs for a month or often six weeks because it spills over past October. And the Youngblooders are essentially given the same opportunity at EST so they're included in the Oktoberfest, and you can do kind of whatever you want. You can either have a staged reading of a play. Sometimes they're off book and reasonably rehearsed and staged.
Jo Reed: That's different from the reading series that you have.
Graeme Gillis: Well, the Bloodworks Reading Series that comes at the end of the season is- that's part of what happens at the weekly meetings is the idea is while they're doing all the other writing 'cause there's a lot of different programs that are going on in the course of the Youngblood year they're also working on a full-length play so that they know that at the end of the season there is this festival where there's going to be actors, there's going to be audience, and you're going to have this chance to have your play heard. And what's happened the last couple of years is the plays from that 21-night reading series are called for the unfiltered workshop production series which we do on the main stage at EST every year. So between three and five of those plays the next season get three weeks of rehearsal and a couple of weeks of performances and it kind of has a continuum to it. We sort of keep an eye out at the end of the year reading series.
R.J. Tolan: We're sort of looking for the scripts that feel like they've gone where they're going to go on the page and in reading and that really feel like they're at the threshold, and to take those last steps in development as a new work they need to be in the hands of a cast and in the hands of a director and up with some design in front of an audience just to really give them a thorough road test.
Jo Reed: On its feet so--
Graeme Gillis: Exactly, and off book and they're really quite thoroughly done if on a low budget and with shared sort of technical elements. And those aren't open to review so part of it is just realizing the play, and for a lot of them that's the first crack they have at really doing that with professional actors and professional designers.
Jo Reed: And for playwrights. How important is that? It would be like a dress designer having to design a dress and only see it on a mannequin—
R.J. Tolan: Or only sketching it. .
Jo Reed: --or only sketching it. You really—
R.J. Tolan: No. Exactly.
Jo Reed: You need to hear what it sounds like in the mouth of somebody else.
Graeme Gillis: Well, the hardest thing in- for a writer is-- It's wonderful to have readings. Readings are great but if all you do is have readings then you can't help but start to write for readings and then your writing becomes kind of dead in a way. You invest a lot in your witty stage directions. And for a young writer who is still figuring out what their writing voice is the opportunity to actually when you say, "He pushes him" or "She kisses her" to have that happen in front of you you really- it's just such a different deal. You can't underestimate it.
R.J. Tolan: That's one of the things that we've tried to really ramp up over the last five or so years at Youngblood is just the number of times that they're writing something to be rehearsed and performed. And even if it's really quick, even if it's a 12-page play that we do at the Youngblood Sunday brunch after three rehearsals, it's up, it's on its feet, it's off book, it's- the lights go up, the lights go down, and it's front of people and they get to really see how did that work, how that did go from my head to people watching it, and that's just- we try to get them that experience as much as we can. So it's in your head that I write plays to see them performed and staged rather than I write plays to have them read and rejected. <laughs> Yeah.
Jo Reed: I would also think that since theater is so collaborative as an art form moving young playwrights particularly into collaborative process as soon as possible is- can only be a helpful thing.
R.J. Tolan: 'Cause that's something that you find especially young playwrights even in colleges even if they knew in undergrad that they wanted to write plays there are often not really those channels where their work is getting done a lot. So we'll have very, very talented young playwrights in there, early, mid twenties, who have never interviewed directors. They've never talked to a director about their work so if they get a chance at production people say, "Well, who do you want to direct?" and they go "I don't know" and I've literally never sat and had a conversation with a director about my play and gotten to judge how do I figure out that this is the right person to shepherd the play out to the audience let alone having a meeting with a designer or seeing- realizing when you write he takes the violin and smashes it that's going to cost a hundred bucks a night to- just figuring out the real practicalities of what it means for this inspiration to have to have all these other people make it happen.
Jo Reed: You mentioned earlier there are a lot of workshops that Youngblooders can take. Give me an example of what you offer and how that works.
Graeme Gillis: Usually what happens, as R.J. was saying, in the season a big goal in the Youngblood year is that you're always writing. You never stop writing. You always have a deadline. You always have something that's going up so in addition to the Oktoberfest and the Bloodworks which are reading series there is the unfiltered workshop productions which get three weeks of rehearsals just like an equity showcase or what have you, and then they get two weekends of performances off book and fully staged. The season starts with a ten-minute play festival that it's one of these where you pull your cast and director out of a hat and you have a short period, a week, to write a play for them and they have a week to rehearse it and just sort of gets you in the mix. And usually that's right after you've joined the group. You get the phone call that you're in Youngblood, you come to the first brunch- the first Youngblood brunch of the season, you get introduced on stage, and then you immediately are picking actors out of a hat so that you're- you have a play due the next week. And then the Youngblood brunch is this series that we run first Sunday of every month where people from the public get pancakes and bacon and mimosas and bloody Marys and there are five plays around a particular theme each month. So this month the theme's going to be science. Other months it might be mothers or God or dogs, haven't done dogs or the-- We have done pirates, the erotic brunch that was a memorable one, so- but- the mother brunch, the mothers, yeah, so the idea is that they- and most of that stuff is except for the Bloodworks and the Oktoberfest-- We have all these names for our things. Everything else is off book. Everything else is you have to recognize that the actor- that has to be staged in some way so over the course of the year, all 21 of them have a couple of things that they're working on for us in addition to anything else that they might be doing outside.
Jo Reed: Here's the question. Playwrights are often playwright directors. Youngblood the focus is pretty much on playwrights, not directors, not actors, playwrights.
R.J. Tolan: Yeah. We've got a couple of playwright/actors. We always joke that we let them in spite of that.
Jo Reed: Isn't Graeme a playwright/actor?
Graeme Gillis: That's right. That's right. You've just insulted me. I have. I have--
Jo Reed: I think he's pretty damn good.
R.J. Tolan: Yeah. Oh. Yeah. Stop. Don't-- <laughs> That's all we need. No. No. He is. We just cast him. He was- actually just did a piece in one of our unfiltered productions this year. He was in Josh Conkel's The Sluts of Sutton Drive as the creepy mailman. Yeah. I grew a mustache. He grew a mustache, that's right, to great acclaim. There's a feeling that we are looking for folks who they are- they have decided yes, playwrighting is what I am doing in the theater. That doesn't preclude them doing other stuff. We have some very talented performers. We have some folks who've had an interest in directing but we certainly want it to be their main thing.
Jo Reed: Getting paid as a playwright is very difficult. Is there a way that Youngblood tries to help with financial support, not necessarily give money out but help people in terms of finding jobs or finding out where money might be had? Is that one of the things you do?
Graeme Gillis: To some degree. Part of being in Youngblood means it's a foot in the door and you have an advocate for us so we'll push them for whatever we can push them for. We'll try to recommend them for whatever we can get them in for. We'll direct them to jobs if we hear about them. At EST we have- a big part of the life at that theater is the EST/Sloan project which I'm also the director of and that's a commissioning arm for plays about science that's a collaboration with the Sloan Foundation. Right. So there's a lot of good early career grants for that and usually the members of Youngblood just honestly by the strength of their submissions for it two or three of them a year get commissions through that. And then wherever we can we'll kick them money for the various workshops or productions that we do throughout the season.
Jo Reed: How many of the members of Youngblood actually can live off their work in the theater?
R.J. Tolan: None. It's bleak but that's the deal. And it's not just current members. It's even rare among alums and even the folks that are established. That's a huge, huge dichotomy in the industry is you can be doing very well and it can still be extremely difficult just maintaining a life in New York and paying your rent. We've had some folks go to Hollywood. We've got some folks writing for TV who got in Youngblood and then got TV gigs and went out west and had to sort of suspend their membership but yeah, it's tough.
Jo Reed: It is hard.
Graeme Gillis: It's a tough landscape. One thing we always talk about in the derby of trying to get funding for your program or whatever one of the things that if we could it would be great to do would be get commissions for graduating Youngblood members because as rough as it is when you're in Youngblood I think that there's a real whiplash when you graduate. We were talking about when you hit 30 and then you're sort of out of the garden in a way and a lot of those youth-focused emerging focused grants have age cutoffs and it's tough. And it's actually in the interest of EST, which is this longstanding theater with this big veteran membership, to keep those writers in the fold. So one thing that we're trying to figure out is how we could do something like that because I think it would almost be like the missing piece of what it is so when you- you're really launched; you're not just- "Let us know if you've got something going on around town" or "See you at the next show" or anything like that. It's "Here's a pact that you're going to continue your relationship with this theater into maturity."
Jo Reed: I wish I could remember who I was talking to but it was a director. She was talking about how casting men between 35 and 55 is really difficult, that up until 35 it's not that hard and after 55 and it's because at 35 you're realizing I really want to start a family; a hundred dollars a week is not going to cut it; I need to get a job. And then at 55 you're at the other end; okay, I put my 20 years in; the kids are grown; I can go back to that love.
Graeme Gillis: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Honestly, part of the reason- if we were going to be really honest about it the reason that Youngblood is able to do as much programming as it does and have the kind of energy that it has is because everybody's relatively free. One of the writers is getting married and one of the writers got- is going to have a baby in a month but basically- and they're- but they're graduating next year. Basically, everybody can commit and they tend to write- they certainly have a wealth of older roles and we're lucky to have the EST membership for that, but they tend to write stuff that you can grab young actors to do and you can grab young directors to do. And so everybody's able to do it for the love of it and for the opportunity and the foot in the door and they can pour endless hours 'cause they don't have to take their kids to kindergarten and they don't have to get home at night 'cause their wife is up with the kids or their husband is up with the kids. You're right. It does get tougher once you pass that threshold I think.
Jo Reed: Graeme, R.J., Let's talk about your role in Youngblood. First of all, are you under 30?
R. J. Tolan: I'm not. I'm not. No. I'm well not under 30 and Graeme is the middle well not under 30. Graeme and I run the program and sort of figure out the programming and choose the writers and choose the material that we're doing but the- we're very, very clear in the room especially at the weekly meetings that this isn't school; this isn't anybody saying--that's really important--"What you need to do to be a writer is do this and that." It's pure feedback and we'll try to sort of give the writers the opportunity to shape it so that if they've read pages the first question will always be: Well, what do you want to hear? so they can sort of set the parameters, but it's very much them giving feedback to each other as peers and just telling each other what they're seeing. We are older than they are so there's a bit of that relationship that develops but most programs offer mentorship and it's- in a way it kind of infantilizes that writer and just keeps them in the junior position and they never have to take responsibility for themselves or for their art.
Jo Reed: What are some of the accomplishments that Youngblood has that you're very pleased with?
Graeme Gillis: It's interesting. I've been running this with R.J. for a couple of years and it's only recently that I've started figuring out that it functions really well as an incubator and it- a lot of the time the achievement of the group is what they go on to- what the writers go on to because they find their voice while they're in the group whether it's for two or five or eleven years. And so when they move on I think that's partly why they come back to the group and why they tend to tout it and tend to come back to the theater because they recognize that it was a way for them to advance kind of with no strings. We're not looking for anything other than for- to help them become the writers that they set out to be when they decided to do this ill-advised profession. And it comes from the fact that we take them into the group because we're excited about them as writers and that's really as far as it goes and that's the only criteria. I'd say that that's something that we take a lot of pride in that they- it's not like a school where you go and you graduate and you're done. They're part of a larger community and it just grows each year, which is kind of an amazing thing to be part of, to see happen and be at the middle of.
Jo Reed: I would think. Well, gentlemen, good work, both of you, and thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Youngblood: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was Graeme Gillis and R.J. Tolan, they're the co-directors of Youngblood, Ensemble Studio Theatre's collective of the next generation of playwrights.
You've been listening to Art works produced at the national endowment for the arts,. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpt from "Foreric: piano study" from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, director Derbra Granik talks about her academy award nominated film, Winter's Bone.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.