January 13, 2015

For ten years I’ve toured solo shows around the country. It happened both by accident and design- I wanted to do solo work at certain periods, at others I didn’t have a choice (KILLADELPHIA happened very much because producing theaters refused to do an ensemble version of the play).

I get emails through here quite often asking me how you do it, or advice in general for touring. And I feel for the folks writing me but have no good answers. i did the same thing when i started out. I’d write playwrights and performers who had blogs and asked for advice, as if there were some silver bullet to it all.

I’m ten years in and still have to fight for every booking. I still have to prove to theaters over and over again that their audiences care about the type of work I’m doing. It’s tiring. And disappointing when it comes down to it. Specifically, on the behavior of traditional theaters. I started out there- regional and off broadway and always thought that people in those venues believed in creating artistic homes. But the truth is my Artistic Homes have become large scale Performing Arts Centers. Which is enviable, they have more money than regional theaters, so the support they can give is dumbfounding. Hancher Auditorium- Jacob Yarrow and Charles Swanson are amazing they looked at me performing KILLADELPHIA in a high school auditorium for children with parents in prison and they said “this guy is a world class artist.” And I have a humble enough background to feel weird writing that even if they and others have said it. But they put me on seasons with Roberta Flack, Aziz Ansari, Liz Lerman, Rinde Eckert, Robert Wilson– they clearly put their money where their mouth is. And they’ve seen the benefit-


Let me re-iterate. I understand and believe almost everything is economic. Do all the social justice theater you want, or musical theater for that much, if it don’t sell you aren’t being invited back. When regional theaters blow past me they often say that regarding my topics (prison; genocide; delinquent youth) won’t sell at their theater.
It’s bad business and avoids my track record. My shows always sell. Audiences come out. Niche audiences already exist.

Shannon Mayers at the Redfern Performing Arts Center is another who has supported me. Ever since she was at the Gerald W. Lynch Theatre in NY. Again she puts me on seasons with Aaron Landsman and some of the most cutting edge artists in the country. And I deliver- show about genocide or no…

It’s strange and it’s why I don’t know what to say to people who email me. Because honestly I don’t know how you make the first step- the smaller to mid size regional theater- who because they have less money (and because they claim to be non profit and in it for art, etc) should be able to take risks because the financial loss implied is so much less than these other places I mention- don’t. Most don’t take risks and most don’t build true relationships with generating artists, solo performers or playwrights.

Outrageous Fortune (plus an influx of money from the Mellon Foundation into the theater world) made everyone and their mother interested in finding new plays. But not cultivating playwrights.

I’ve been developed at an insane number of theaters. I’ve been in residence at a few. I have what feels like a real home at almost none. And I’m a lucky one. I have this presenting and performing arts center world that kind of saved me and said we think you’re high level, we think it’s important and put me on their stage.

In the beginning (and now) I had Available Light Theatre. I had an Artistic Director in Matt Slaybaugh who just thought what I was doing was important and whenever I wanted to do a show would book it, sight unseen. Would make time to develop it. And I can hear AD’S at LORT and mid-level theaters scoffing “that’s not realistic.”

No? Hancher Auditorium does the same thing to this day for WAY more money. And it always turns out. I’m on my fifth large level commission with them. Unheard of.


Because they trust me. Which puts it on me. Which makes me want to do everything I can to make an amazing show FOR THEM. To reward what they did. So that I can benefit and someone after me.

I actually had a regional theater approach me about a play we’d been developing for ayear that they had no interest in producing (they’d expressed it) who were upset when I didn’t think the doing endless readings was support. They said to me:

“You think supporting a playwright is producing them! That’s insane.”

I do. And maybe it is.

But it’s insane how many theaters I see with bailout asks – “we need 500k in a month to survive.” When I see more and more playwrights each year and less careers. When there’s a development program in this country that behind closed doors everyone agrees doesn’t exist.

You’ve all been so safe but not efficient. Not trusting and tepid.

And you get the theater you deserve.

I run a theater company in the six digits that’s never operated in anything but the black. I’ve spent ten years creating work I was told was not commercial that at multiple theaters are in the ten best of sales.

Maybe it is luck.

I’m sure it’s a lot scarier if it’s not.

And so to that person who writes asking how I did it. I had to be humble and arrogant, to respect people if when i didn’t believe what they were saying. I had to strive and find an Available Light, and I’m not sure any exist anymore, who would let me develop as an
artist. I had to create my own company to continue growing. I had to accept that help and support from regionals and new york wasn’t really coming. I def. couldn’t wait.

I kept making stuff. Even when it felt pointless or being cast into a void.

I still do. Even now.

It’s easier and not at the same time. It’s always both which makes giving advice so hard.

We’re all just shouting you know.

And most people aren’t listening.

Most people are just waving you off.

And that’s soul killing.

But there’s a few. And you got to find your own. And be loyal as hell. And do well for them. To make their energy and faith well spent.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Joshua Borenstein February 8, 2015 at 11:48 am

Hey Sean. I took one of your Playwriting courses as an undergrad at Iowa back in ’07 or ’08, and I just wanted to let you know that you were the best professor I had there. The English department was pretty good overall. Can’t complain too much.

But I got to reminiscing about my old professors from the Film department and realized most of them were douchy, pretentious windbags; I see one of them even recently signed a petition “to boycott Israeli academic institutions.” Very attractive woman, but apparently anti-Semitic.

At any rate, you were always very encouraging and vibrant, and it was a fun course. No easy feat when you’re sedentary for three hours at a time. You never talked down to your students and provided insightful feedback. I enjoyed your course so much that I briefly considered trying my hand at writing plays, which later led to sketch comedy, then teaching, and now…

I’m trying to make it as a screenwriter. Just wrote my first spec script and am about to move to LA to try to break into the business. You had a much larger influence on me as a writer than that entire Film faculty combined. Hope things are going well for you as an actor and a writer. You’re the man. If I make it and you ever want a part in a film, hit me up.


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