Archive for the ‘World Interplay’ Tag

Publish and Perish   2 comments

Publish and Perish – Part One

I recently received a flurry of emails from participants in the World Interplay Festival of 2001. These are young playwrights from around the world whom I worked with when I was the Canadian delegate to this festival that runs every two years in Australia. Only now, of course, eleven years later, most of them are at the next stage of their careers. They’re not so young anymore and are becoming established in their various countries.

If there is a universal concern shared by these emerging playwrights and myself, it is the sad and worsening state of publishing that seems to be pretty much the same wherever you go. I shared my situation with them and thought I’d share it here. It’s rather lengthy, so I’ve broken it into two parts, the first having to do mostly with play publishing, the second with poetry.

My situation: 10 years into a two book publishing deal with a reputable Canadian publisher, I received my Royalty Statement last week and learned that I am now at a balance of -$239.53.  This is presumably good news, showing positive growth from last year’s figure of -$249.06. It looks to me like I made $9.53 last year.

At this clip, in 23 years or so I will be out of the red and into the black.

One of the books in question is my old chestnut, Some Assembly Required. It was originally published by another publisher. Although the play has received scores of productions, at least one a year in the 18 years since I wrote it, and although it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, when the initial printing sold out, that publisher decided not to reprint it. I never understood that, other than to think of it as being a typically Canadian decision: that thing is too successful. We want no part of it! If nothing else, at least that decision made the play available for the other publisher with whom I now am in a negative variance.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like anyone is purposely trying to rip me off. Sadly, it’s just how it is. There’s no skullduggery here as far as I know. Anyone involved in the book publishing industry these days must be driven by only the fuzziest of romantic notions of a world that has books in it. Canadian plays published and on the shelf is a laudable dream. It’s no one’s fault. The reality is there’s just no money involved. We simply don’t have the numbers. It’s just how it is.

So when my friend Michael J. Finner approached me almost five years ago with the hair-brained scheme of starting our own publishing company, I thought I could hardly do worse than I was already doing, and so B House Publications was born.

Trevor Leigh and Arielle Rombough who starred in the premiere production on the cover of B House's first book.

We chose as our entry point into the madness my play Writer’s Block. To make a long story short, we had the play in the lobby on opening night and we sold more copies than I thought possible.  A subsequent launch of the book at the Auburn Saloon made the book a virtual best seller in Calgary. Thanks to a generous contract I negotiated with myself, I was in at about a 25% royalty. You can clearly see that even selling one copy of the book would put me miles ahead of where I am with my other publishers.  As far as play publishing goes, I did quite well on that book. Don’t get too excited, though. All in all we’re only talking a couple hundred copies.

Suddenly we had a publishing company and now there was work to be done. It was never my intention for B House to be a vanity press. As was the case with T.S. Elliott and Faber and Faber, I thought it would be permissible for me to publish with my own company as long as we were publishing other writers as well, and I was publishing with other presses, which I have done.

In the world of drama, we published a book I am very proud of, Lindsay Burns’ two marvelous scripts, Dough and the Vajayjay Monologues. I have had many conversations with Calgary playwrights (we think of ourselves as a Calgary only publisher) and as far as I know we are now moving forward, roughly at the speed of a glacier,  with works by Ethan Cole,  Jason Long and Neil Fleming. I hope before too long we come out with books by these fine Calgary playwrights, and others yet to be identified.

In the meanwhile, B House published another play of mine, Queen Lear.  Again, we had it in the lobby on opening night. Again, I made more money than I could have hoped for from a “real” publisher. But that’s as far as it’s gone in drama publishing, as this point in time.

I should mention that the name of the company, B House, is a frank if somewhat tongue in cheek admission that we wouldn’t think of ourselves as anyone’s “A” choice. I encourage the writers who come to me to exhaust other possibilities and only come to us as a last resort. “Start with Random House! Start with Frontenac!” We have no resources, no marketing, no one to maintain the website, no one to pick up the phone, no phone on any account, no one who even knows how to create an invoice. More and more, the company is sliding into the deep abyss of  “a great creative venture marred by the absence of any organizing principle or anyone who knows how to do or is willing to do what the fuck needs to be done.”

Yet, B House has had something of a resurgence thank to the very rich poetry scene here in Calgary. I will pick up on this theme in my next post . . . coming to you a few days from now.

Thanks for reading!

Some Thoughts on Teaching   1 comment

A million or so years ago, when I was completing my BA in English at the University of Regina I was hired by my mentor and namesake, Gene Dawson, to be his TA. This meant that I was thrust in front of a class of engineering students barely younger than me to teach them something about English grammar, which I knew very little about.

“Stay one chapter ahead and don’t let them see you sweat,” was the advice given to me then, and many times since in other situations. Anyone who plans on a career in education would do well to have that bit of advice tattooed on some part of his or her body.

I survived the class and learned something about English grammar, an increasingly rare skill to have. Here’s an example, free of charge. “Between you and I” is incorrect because between is a preposition which is followed by an object and never a subject; therefore you should be saying “Between you and me.” If you’ve been saying “Between you and I,” now you know better, so stop it. You see? Grammar can be a wonderful thing!

Since then I have taught in many place, mostly in creative writing, mostly playwriting. I have led workshops for young playwrights from around the world at World Interplay in Australia. I have taught kids from the hood in Harlem, in New York City. I’ve taught in Singapore, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and other places, classes ranging in time from a few hours to a full university semester.

My mother and her mother were both teachers. They say that the desire to teach, the need to teach, may well be hereditary, passed down through the genes. I have no reason to doubt this.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it has to do with the photo I poached and placed at the top of this post, and it comes from a Zen parable which goes like this . . . A Canadian scholar was seeking the wisdom of a famous Zen master about the secret of education. She was invited to have tea with the master. He began to pour the tea into the cup, and then continued to pour as the tea filled the cup, spilled over the edge, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and the floor, but still he kept pouring until finally she exclaimed: “Stop, Master, you can’t get any more tea into that cup!”  He stopped pouring and said, “You have learned what you have come to learn from me.” And that was the end of the lesson.

Through all the teaching experience I have had over the ensuing decades since I dazzled that class of young engineers, maybe the one thing I’ve learned is when to stop pouring it in. We tend to think in quotas, of material that must be gotten through, and so we keep pouring and pouring even as our students’ eyes glaze over because their cups are full. I believe more and more that if we just allow the time and space for our students to probe the essence of the thing we are teaching, they will somehow get it, if they are meant to get it. This is certainly true in the arts. You might not want to use such a philosophy in teaching pilots how to land an airplane, or surgeons how to cut.

Just allow . . . it’s harder than it seems. It takes a measure of wisdom and patience, and a healthy ego.

Another thing I’ve learned comes from the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors say, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make teachers say parts of it as well.

                              I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and do no harm to anyone.

I always think if nothing else, if someone comes to me because he or she is interested in the theatre, don’t let me destroy their love for it. If nothing else, even if they learn nothing, do no harm. People learn in their own time, at their own pace. Maybe something they hear today will lie dormant for years, and when the time is right, suddenly it will make sense. I’ve known this to happen. A delayed reaction, sometimes by years. Finally it sinks in. We can’t always control when that will happen.

So. Just some thoughts on teaching on a cold snowy day in Calgary.

I honestly think it’s the highest calling.

Something by one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was swirling around on Facebook the other day. I shared it with my students at St. Mary’s University College and it seems like a reasonable way to end this bit of rambling. I believe what he says is true, and that in part explains why I have spent so much time and energy over the years teaching the next great generation of artists.

Enjoy! And thanks for reading,

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