How A Slam Poet’s First Play Went From A College Campus To New York City

Editor’s note:  this is a guest post by Takeo Rivera, author of the play Goliath.

I’m not really a playwright.

When I’m hanging out with real playwrights—folks who have been trained in a dramatic, theatrical tradition with gorgeous well-refined scripts, I feel like an imposter. That’s because, my female, male, and genderqueer friends…

I’m not really a playwright.  I’m a poet.

Not only that, I’m the worst kind of poet: I’m a spoken word/slam poet, the kind of poet to whom Harold Bloom has attributed “the death of art.” So anytime I’m hanging out in theater soirees, I can’t help but shake the feeling that I should gather up as many hors d’oeuvres as I can before the bouncer figures out that I don’t deserve to be there.

Why am I revealing this deep, dark secret? First, I wanted to amuse you. But secondly, and more importantly, I want to express that even if you come from a poetry background—or hail from any non-theater disciplinary upbringing—the realm of drama is, in fact, open to you, perhaps even imperatively so.

Despite the fact that I write choreopoems instead of bona fide, dramaturged, character-driven masterpiece scripts, I have one such piece staged in New York City this month.

And to think that back when I was a sophomore in college, I was terrified of getting into the field.

Playwriting seemed so massive and intimidating back then, not just in terms of genre but in terms of logistics; assuming I could even get the play staged, the notion of relying on an entire infrastructure of directors, set designers, and actors seemed far outside the scope of my comparatively myopic solitary writing practices. If it wasn’t for Cherrie Moraga, my writing mentor at the time, who forbade me from writing poetry in her classes in order to force me to attempt dramatic writing, I would never have expanded beyond the comfort zone of poetry.

Sometimes we need some prodding to try out a different form.

In short, what I am trying to say is that you can do it. It is possible to enter playwriting and maybe even get your work staged, and it isn’t that painful.

Allow me to try to dispel some myths and provide some tips for you today:

Myth: Writers need to specialize in one form at a time. I shouldn’t even try playwriting until I get poetry/short stories/creative nonfiction mastered. Or, if I do try doing multiple forms, I should keep these skill sets separate.

Reality: Boundaries between writing forms are meant to be semi-permeable.

Trying playwriting will make you a stronger poet, fiction writer, etc. Conversely, contrary to popular belief, your preexisting training can inform your work in other forms in positive ways.

Allow me to illustrate: once, in the process of playwriting, I’d find myself wanting to bust out with some intense lyricism or metaphor or such, even if it didn’t necessarily fit the character. What I came to realize was that the artistic project required a formalistic shift—that the entire internal logic of the piece would have to transform in order to fully actualize what it was I wanted to accomplish.

My first play became a choreopoem, infusing styles from spoken word poetry, in order to best convey my message. That project had to go in that direction, and it ended up being fairly successful and well-received by both mentors and audiences.

Depending on the project, I have often found it simply easier for me to write scripts as if they were poems. Quite literally. I write many of my scripts with line breaks; this gives not just the text but the writing process a kind of aural quality, with each breath punctuated in the text. Since plays need to come alive on stage, I find it very helpful to break the formatting standards.

The point is that you can make the form fit your voice, rather than the voice fit the form, and that applies to playwriting, as well.

Myth: Writing a script is one thing. Getting it staged is downright impossible, so it’s not even worth writing a script if I could spend my time working on a manuscript of poetry instead.

Reality: While it’s true that getting staged is a challenge, it’s not impossible.

From what I can tell, getting staged is largely about building connections: connections with actors, directors, etc. before the writing has even started. It is possible conduct some research to ascertain who is in the local theater scene, then try to attend or apply to their workshops and exercises. However, it is often easy to build these connections unintentionally while in a university setting, which was my case—the majority of folks who were part of my first staged production were friends I already knew through classes, extracurricular activities, and the like. Even if you are a grad student, tap the undergrad student community:  there are often legions of undergrads who want a shot at an acting opportunity, many of them absurdly talented (like undergrad Ollin, by the way).

Of course, you can still do this even if you are no longer a student:  you can use your alumni connections and contact folks in student groups (or corresponding faculty) at your alma mater. Many well-established playwrights apply for prestigious fellowships at universities largely to have a student pool with which to workshop and stage their new work; with the right connections, you may not even need a fellowship to gain such access.

In my case, the producer and director also nominated the collegiate production of my play to the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival.  A representative from the Kennedy Center came to watch the production and accepted the play into the ACTF Regional Festival in Los Angeles. Thus, by applying to theater festivals, it is possible to rise from the “amateur” student level of theatrical production to that of a more prestigious setting.

As you can see, it can pay to start small and branch out further.

Myth: If my play hasn’t been staged, I’m a failure and it was all a waste of time.

Reality: Even if your play is never staged, it’s worth it on several other levels.

Let’s say that staging doesn’t happen, or it’s just something you don’t feel like doing yet. Of course, playwriting is an excellent artistic exercise to perform even if it doesn’t ever see the light of a theater. However, you can still submit that script to playwriting contests, workshops in the area, etc.

Try to get on listservs for budding playwrights in your region, as there are many excellent opportunities for such. Not to mention that all you need is a couple of friends to put up a roundtable reading of your play, which is excellent for both “sounding out” the work and establishing an “event” for the work to go semi-public!

Well, in any case, no matter what your background, be it poet, scholar, essayist, or fiction writer, just know that it is still possible to try to write something for the stage by just adapting your preexisting skill set.

It isn’t as hard as you might think!

Takeo Rivera is a poet, scholar, and activist who is currently enrolled as a PhD student in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. For the last two years, he has worked as a rape crisis advocate and educator in San Jose, CA. His play, “Goliath,” directed by Alex Mallory, is currently enjoying a seven-performance run in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity in New York City, which concludes June 18. See http://www.poetictheater.com/goliath for more details

Have you ever thought of writing outside your own genre or form? Ever experimented? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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10 comments on “How A Slam Poet’s First Play Went From A College Campus To New York City

  1. Ollin says:

    For those of you who don’t know, I met Takeo in college were we became friends. I remember seeing this show when it was first produced at Stanford and it really impressed me when I was there.

    There was a synchronistic moment late last month when I was thinking of Takeo’s play–which was literally about four years ago when I first saw it, and thought that Takeo would be great to have over to inspire all of you writers since I remembered it had gotten recognized by the Kennedy Center when he was a college student. Which is a huge honor for a first-time playwright.

    Turns out the whole request to have him over was perfect timing because the show is now in a New York City production and is gonna close in NYC in about a month! Crazy how things happen this way. I mean I really hadn’t thought about his play in years and suddenly it came back into my head just as it was about to be brought back to life.

    I guess that means one thing: you all HAVE to go see his show if you’re in NYC. You will NOT be disappointed.

    I hope you keep writing these kinds of pieces Takeo, I think you are an essential voice for America today, and I know that your work is only going to get better, and we’ll all get to say: “I knew him when…”

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your story!

    • Takeo says:

      Thanks sooooo much for your enormous support, Ollin!!! It’s an honor to post on Courage 2 Create.

      Let me also put out there to the world that, if y’all didn’t know already, Ollin was not just a fantastic writer, but also one of the most impressive performing artists at Stanford during my time there. His one-man show “BACKWARDZ” was a stunningly gorgeous treatise of the current state of Chican@ America, and was a huge inspirational force for one of my other plays, “R&L.” I definitely need to see more of your shows, Ollin – let me know when you’re staging something in the Bay!!!🙂

      • Ollin says:

        Thank you Takeo! The play didn’t fare well when I submitted it to festivals, and unfortunately when I was trying to convert the show from video to DVD the footage was lost. Bummer, right? I guess it was not meant to be. I still have the script stashed away somewhere and most definitely it will be published when I have the resources necessary to give it a proper treatment. It’ll be available so that others could stage it as they wish.

        As far as me, I’ve left acting indefinitely. I might go back one day, but for now I’m happy typing away at my laptop writing this novel. Acting has taught me so much about the novel writing process so it was no waste. Thanks for the kind words!

  2. ‘Sometimes we need prodding to try a different form.’ Excellently said in this post!
    Thanks for prodding us all today and encouraging us to step forward sometimes instead of hiding in our safe little worlds, or in my case, safe little garden! LOL

  3. kaleba says:

    Timely post for me!

    I just started writing my first play THIS WEEK.

    I’ve tried fiction, I’ve tried non-fiction, but neither of those projects is going anywhere. I’ve been wanting to write a play for a long time. I volunteer with a local community theater (VERY small town) and have been encouraged by a couple of other volunteers to try writing a play. Long story short, I finally got started. It’s so much fun!

    Which for me is what your last point is all about… even if it doesn’t get staged, it’s so worth the effort because it’s so much fun. I’m co-writing a play with another volunteer, in addition to writing my own, so maybe, maybe, maybe one of those two will get staged. Even if neither do, it’s so worth it to try. Creativity and art is supposed to be fun; and as one writer told me, “everything I do is fun, so it’s never a waste of time.”

    One caveat I feel I need to add here is that since I’m writing for my local community theater, there’s almost no pressure. It’s not like I’m trying to get it staged on some more legitimate stage, and the folks at the theater are all my friends, so I’m not too worried about failure. They’re supportive no matter what. No pressure means I can relax and enjoy the process. Maybe that makes it easier than for someone trying to sell their work?

    Thanks Takeo and Ollin, and break a leg!🙂

    • Takeo says:

      Thanks for sharing! As far as the pressure issue, that can be a blessing depending on your work style. If you feel like you need more pressure…. I feel that I derive a lot of self-imposed pressure from the notion that if there is anyone who is going to be reciting my words, then I have a responsibility to make the words as strong as possible so they do not humiliate themselves onstage, even if they are supportive to me. Too much self-imposed pressure, of course, becomes both unhealthy and unrealistic, though – try to find a balance that works for you, yes? Good luck, and congratulations!!!!!

  4. Takeo thank you for an awesome blog post. As a spoken word poet I am impressed with what you are doing. Congratulations. I love what you said about writers allowing themselves to specialize in many different forms of writing and giving yourself permission to evolve, because it could lead to new and interesting ways to use your art form but beyond that it forces you to dig deeper and become versatile and with this comes through artistic innovation. I also loved what you said about going out to a college to find a testing group for your work. This is important because too many writers create in isolation or a vacuum and often we do not know how our work will be received until we bring it out to the public and that can bring out a host of fears which could lead to self sabotage. Having a testing ground for your work is like putting on a beta program and it gives you time to fix the “bugs”.

    • Ollin says:

      Hey Vangile, I’m glad you loved Takeo’s post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

    • Takeo says:

      Mm, amen, Vangile, I’m really happy to hear from a fellow spoken word poet. I also think that spoken word is also one of the most interesting entry points into drama; going from performing-self-authorship to penning-for-others-performing; and often, from direct identity performance to drawn-out narrative. The forms really feed into each other in really generative ways, and I’m excited to see what you’re going to come up with!!!🙂

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