Intern Post, Brian Foster: The Truth About How I Became an Agent

The Agency

When talking about The Agency Theater Collective it would be easy to rattle off a version of our company charter. In fact that’s not terribly dissimilar from what I nearly did when I sat down to write this—sorry, I’ll admit it, I can be a lazy writer sometimes. So I was sitting at my computer trying to figure out the best way to hide my laziness when an idea hit me: I could just tell you a story. Some creative nonfiction on how I came to be a part of the company instead of the (most likely) unreadable alternative.

Where to start, where to start…okay, I suppose that if I’m going to give you a full picture—a real sense of the whole—I need to start with when I was a young man living in London. It was spring, if I’m remembering correctly, and I had just turned eleven. My father and I were walking the cobblestone streets of Chelsea when a man ran my father down with his carriage. From that day forward I swore veng…Not buying it? Was it my inability to set it in the correct century? Right, I guess that I can be overly imaginative from time to time. I hope you’ll forgive me; it’s just that the real origin story, well, it doesn’t jump off the page like a murdered parental figure would have. But I guess I did say nonfiction so I guess that’s what I owe you. So here it is; here’s the real origin of my joining The Agency: it began in a meeting.

I warned you it wasn’t going to jump off the page, didn’t I?

TSuperstition Reviewhat meeting really did change the trajectory of my life though and in such a dramatic way that I felt like giving it the sort of fanfare that it deserved (hence the ill-conceived story earlier). The meeting in question was between Superstition Review’s fiction editors, Mai-Quyen Nguyen and myself, and the magazine’s founding editor, Patricia Colleen Murphy. Without getting overly in-depth—trust me, it was tough (I had to erase a whole paragraph)—we talked about the fiction submissions and, ultimately, which we wanted to see part of the 11th issue of s[r]. I hate meetings as much as the next guy, but these didn’t feel like meetings, or work, at all and were often the highlight of the week. There’s seed number one.

Not much further down the time stream my playwriting professor, Guillermo Reyes, asked for help on a play he was directing called American Victory. I volunteered to act as media technician and thus was planted seed number two. I stayed up until midnight trying to get my cues running smoothly alongside the actors, director, and stage management. All those artists working together on a single artistic vision until the wee hours of the morning? I was hooked. From that first early a.m. arrival home I knew that sort of collaboration and dedication needed to be a part of my future.

So the seeds planted by my professors and courses took root and grew. Three months after graduation everything I owned was packed into a wooden crate and on its way to Chicago.

Weirder TheatreOkay, so I’ve gotten you as far as Chicago and this is where it picks up, I promise. I moved to Chicago with absolutely zero prospects; only a desire to join the theatre community there. I spent my first serval weeks combing sites looking for a job in the theater arena and found a posting for the Chicago Fringe Festival. Fringe takes place over the course of two weeks each year and features hour long theatrical performances that are uncurated (applicants are selected lottery style). I could tell you that this means a wide range of shows spanning the gambit of performance from a rap musical (Lil’ Women) to a one man show about being black in America (Superman, Black Man, Me! A Stage Essay) to a live radio drama (Our Fair City). I could tell you that (and I did), but what the Fringe truly was, what the Fringe is, is a gathering of artists, volunteers, and patrons whose only goal was to create/witness this wide variety of (often) less than conventional theatre. It was also my first big step into the theatre community of Chicago.

I Wish to ApologizeWhile working at Fringe I met Cecilia, a company member with The Agency, who offered me a position as assistant stage manager for the company’s upcoming play about political corruption in Chicago, I Wish to Apologize to the People of Illinois. I spent the next several months working in a field that I was fairly green to and trying to absorb as much as I could. It was also the slow season for my freelance work so I existed almost entirely off of giant bags of licorice brought in by the show’s stage manager. I was hungry, cold (the transition from the Southwest to the Great Lakes region is not the easiest), and worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull off my job successfully. I was also the happiest I had been in a long time.

Luckily, I managed not to mess up too severely. You shouldn’t think that means I didn’t mess anything up—I could write a whole article on messing up in live theatre.

 

Wait, you know what, this is actually a great segue to talk about the fear of messing up and live theatre a little bit. See that? I called out my own segue (4th wall be damned). During those late nights of working on I Wish to Apologize I heard about this thing The Agency did called No Shame Theatre, a weekly theatrical open mic where the first 15 performers through the door get 5 minutes on stage. No Shame attracts writers, improvisers and sketch artists, fire eaters and magicians, standup comedians, musicians, and all manner of other performers.

No Shame TheatreThe beautiful thing about No Shame is that it thrives in its brevity. What I mean is that each week is an entirely new show where each artist gets only a short window. You miss one week or step out of the room and you’ll never have the chance to see that content again. That brevity gives people the chance to try anything no matter the stage of development. In fact some of the best pieces I’ve seen were nothing more than a simple idea when the performers took to the stage. A short performance slot also means that whatever mistakes you make are short lived. In a way messing up or putting on a less-than-stellar performance is all part of the show. You learn, you grow, and you come back the next week with something new, something better.

 

Another part of going to No Shame is getting to know its regulars, the diehard fans that come to and perform at nearly every show. One of these diehard performers, Ryan Brankin, is a composer/musician whose music struck a chord with The Agency. They approached Ryan about co-writing a show that would heavily feature his songs. Out of Tune Confessional was born. Part live concert, part drama, and part audience interaction Out of Tune made its way to the Chicago Fringe Festival as part of the 2014 line up—cue the opening number of the Disney movie about a lion prince who would be king.

Out of Tune ConfessionalOut of Tune also marked my second/third time (I also worked on At the Center this last Fall) working professionally with The Agency, this time as production manager. This granted me the ability to apply as a company member. I did so faster than I can count to ten and, not to brag, I can count to ten pretty quick. Luckily this was one Valentine that did not turn me down and I was voted into the company.

 

Being part of a relatively new theatre company is exciting as I get to see its progression forward. Even in the short time I have been with The Agency our numbers have grown by around 25%. I know that sounds insidious (an agency with swelling numbers), but all joking aside it is extremely satisfying to see all these talented artists that we have worked with over this last season ask to join our company.

We Are the AgencyAnother exciting prospect is getting to take a hand in the shaping of our company. This “past” winter (it is -3 as I write this, but surely it’s almost over…) I worked with several company members who helped me to implement a play reading series. Newly launched and titled the Chicago Reconnaissance Imperative the series will serve as a place to showcase and workshop upcoming Agency plays as well as give both established and new playwrights a place to hear their work read out loud by actors (an indispensable tool). I am currently helming this project as our company’s literary manager and I am looking forward to seeing where this and our other projects take our company in the future.

 

I know I took the long, meandering way of getting here, but (aside from that being my nature) I think that it gives a small glimpse into how theatre is made. How easily ideas, dedication, and people step from one project to the next and, in turn, how those artists and artistic endeavors grow.

Technology and the Space between Publisher and Author

The most rewarding experience I had while interning at Superstition Review came, rather not surprisingly, during the selection process for our most recent issue. I say not surprisingly because it is during this process that you get the opportunity to give an author the thing they have been searching for: publication.

What did surprise me though were two works that the fiction editors discussed during the selection process and how we were able to work with the authors of those pieces in order to get them published in Issue 11. Both of these pieces would have more than likely received “nos” if we had not been able to work with the authors, something that I was not previously aware was even possible. I had never before thought of the freedom that technology afforded the literary world and the opportunity it offered in erasing the barrier that seems to exist between the publisher and the author.

The first example I want to talk about is the piece by Jacob Appel, “Burrowing into Exile.” Appel originally submitted a story called “A Display of Decency” which looked at a young man’s struggle with religion. It was well written and a good read, but the piece was drenched in baseball paraphernalia and took place in the 1940s. The general consensus was that this created a setting which might be difficult for our particular readership, which tends to be younger. In fact, one of our fiction editors did not recognize many of the references in the piece. This decision about how any given story fits a publication’s aesthetic is one that all literary magazines have to make (and trust me, as a writer this is a difficult lesson to learn). This could have easily been the end of this story: a decline due to incompatible audiences. Instead we contacted Appel and solicited another, more contemporary, piece from him. This is something that I do not think would be possible without the immediacy available through the internet.

Our second “on the edge” story was from an undergraduate student at Utah State University. Since we tend to publish mid and late career authors, we get very excited when we find work from undergrads that make the top of the pile (we don’t publish any ASU undergrads since we have a non-compete agreement with the ASU undergraduate literary magazine LUX).The editors involved in the selection process saw the potential of Kendall Pack’s story, “Make Your Own Lawn Darts (and Rediscover Happiness) in 8 Easy Steps.” It was equally clear that, as submitted, Pack’s piece was not quite where it needed to be in order to be published. There were rough spots and inconsistencies and neither the author nor the publication benefits from bringing a story to the public which is not really finished. This could have easily led to a rejection letter for Pack as well, but the freedom of Superstition Review’s setup allowed us to contact Pack and offer him publication contingent on his willingness to revise his submission. What could have easily been just another homeless story became Pack’s first publication which can only be seen as a great success story.

This ability to become an entity which can work hand in hand with an author to get a piece to publication level is one of Superstition Review’s greatest strengths. As a writer, I am well aware of the distance that often exists between the writer and the publisher, an expanse that is so large that agents are sometimes required as go-betweens. But the landscape of publishing is changing and no longer is an author required to mail out manuscripts and wait months to years before hearing back (at least this is becoming a near extinct process).

Technology has the capability to erase the gap of information between the publisher and writer, something that has not really existed on a wide scale until now. No longer is it a requirement that a publication send out a faceless rejection letter that tells the author only that they have not been selected for publication. Now, with the ability of submission programs to organize all submission along with the comments of the editors involved, it is easier to go back and see which submissions were on the cusp of publication. We can then look at these submissions and see why they were turned down and make that a part of our rejection letter. In an industry where so many variables can lead to a piece not being published it is an invaluable tool to be able to offer the writer at least a slight indication of why a piece was not selected. Or, even better, there is an opportunity to not only disclose these reasons but allow the author the chance to correct these mistakes if they so choose.

Obviously this cannot always be the case. Some large publications just do not have the time to look through all their submissions and tailor a specific response, but they at least have the option to tailor one for the submissions that are on the edge. It will also to take time for these technologies and the assets they offer to catch on. However long it takes, it does give me a great sense of hope for the future of publishing and I see a time where publishers and writers can work as closely as peers in other fields. I can see the benefit of writers and publishers establishing professional relationships that provide brief points of contact concerning the craft of writing.

Bonus opinion: without delving too deeply into an already cantankerous subject, I see these constantly evolving technological tools as a gateway to a future where biases can be circumvented by using submission programs to cloak the identity of submitting authors. This seems like an unbelievable boon to an industry which so recently suffered from a humiliating setback.

The Aesthetics of Scale: An Artistic Collaboration

The Aesthetics of Scale InterchangeNow through April 28th the Orlando Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition titled The   Aesthetics of Scale. The exhibit showcases the collaborative work of Rachel Simmons and Lee Lines and explores the ways in which landscape affects how people live in conjunction to the land. Perhaps more importantly, from an artistic perspective, the exhibit opens a discussion about artistic collaboration and what it offers to those willing to pick up its admittedly unwieldy mantle.

The project that would eventually lead to The Aesthetics of Scale started in 2010 during a research trip to Iceland. What was eventually born out of this trip was the marriage of Simmons’ artistic background and Lines’ knowledge of geography and environmental issues, a collaboration of not only academic goals but artistry.

This does not mean that the marriage of their backgrounds and intentions came together easily. In an interview conducted by Laura J. Cole for Rollins College, Lee and Simmons discussed a point of tension between the two over an image for a presentation. Simmons wanted to flip the image because she felt that it looked better aesthetically while Lee saw that as a misrepresentation of the regional landscape. Simmons was speaking from the artist’s point of view and was more concerned about how the piece spoke to its audience. On the other hand, Lee was looking at it from a geographer’s point of view and felt that repositioning the piece was dishonest from a scientific standpoint.

loft windowHere, in the variance of vision, is where collaborations like this so often fall apart. These differences in artistic direction are likely to pile up and can easily have the capability to either destroy the project completely or just pull it towards a weaker middle where neither artist’s vision is fully realized. Art is, after all, to be done in one’s loft in total secrecy and seclusion until gallery opening or publication.

And this is the opinion I had for a long time. Having been an artist earlier in life and now, as a writer, I knew the value of working in an environment free from distractions. Another artist who might question your decisions or vision certainly has to number extremely high on the chart of distractors.

While that need for seclusion is still strong and one that I find necessary a great deal of the time, something changed for me recently and I no longer feel that sequestering oneself is a hard and fast rule. The first step was realizing the value of another artist’s opinion. This began by using family and friends in the artistic community as sounding boards. This practice was broadened during my exposure to writing workshops. Granted not everything you hear from either group will crack open your work, but by listening to others’ perspectives you may begin to understand how your work appears to your audience, something which is certainly invaluable. Whether this newly shifted perspective on your work means a change in the work itself or merely a change in how you see it working is entirely up to you.

theaterThe second big break came when I started to become involved in theater. Here is an art form where artistic collaboration is an undeniable necessity. Actors, directors, lighting, media, and stage designers, and playwrights are all necessary for any given project. Each person involved has their own artistic vision for the piece they’re working on. It goes without saying that this often leads to creative differences and disagreements, but once you do you are more likely to end up with a piece which is more fully realized. What I’ve found is that, and partially because of artistic differences, you are left with a much stronger piece. In a well-functioning group, each artist will have had their input and that input will push the piece further than any one person might have been able to do alone.

The interesting thing about collaboration is that it is not an event that happens terribly often in the artistic community and even less in the literary world. Obviously a lot of this has to do with the private nature of writing itself and how differently the craft operates from one writer to the next. This is disappointing because artistic collaboration seems to have such an interesting potential if for no other reason than expanding the understanding of craft for those involved. In her interview, Simmons said “there’s nothing like trying to understand the point of view of another academic discipline to help you understand your own.” Why should this be any different for the artistic community? Shouldn’t we, as artists, being doing all that we can in order to push our craft to the highest level possible? It seems that collaboration is just another step down the road to self-actualization for any artist.

The entire interview with Simmons and Lee can be found here.

The Dramatists Guild of America; “New Play Development in the Phoenix Area”

The Dramatists Guild of AmericaThe Dramatists Guild of America is hosting “New Play Development in the Phoenix Area” April 7, noon to 1:30 p.m. The event is open to the public and will feature local theater representatives and dramatists discussing new play development in Phoenix. So far, representatives from Phoenix Theatre, Theater Works, Childsplay, Space 55, Teatro Bravo, Black Theater Troupe, and Stray Cat Theatre have been confirmed.

Phoenix Theatre, founded in 1920, is one of the oldest arts organizations in Arizona. Their upcoming season includes many theater mainstays such as RENT, The 39 Steps, and Les Misérables.

Theater Works is a non-profit theater operating out of Peoria. They run YOUth Works, a program aimed at involving the valley’s children in the theater.

With an upcoming lineup including Uncle Vanya and a revolving all-woman show titled A Bitch in Time, there can be little doubt that Space 55 is up to something. The ensemble was formed in 2006 with the purpose of providing the valley with innovative theater which explains their interesting staging choices.

Childsplay is a theater company aimed at entertaining and engaging the valley’s children and families. In their 36th season, their upcoming performances include A Wrinkle in Time, Rock the Presidents, and The Giver.

If you are looking for a theater group whose purpose is to explore the rich Latino and Latin American landscape of Arizona, then Teatro Bravo is what you’ve been looking for. Teatro Bravo was named Arizona’s Best Ethnic Theater Company by The New Times.

Established in 1970, Black Theater Troupe’s aim is to produce plays that delve into the African-American experience and culture. Their current season concludes with The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin which will be held in their beautiful new theater.

In their 11th season, Stray Cat Theatre is bent on exploring theater’s most contemporary work while testing its boundaries.

The event will take place April 7 at noon. It is located at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus at the Nelson Fine Arts Center, Room 233.

The Editing Process: Fiction

I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.

This may have a different meaning than intended.

This may have a different meaning than intended.

Self-Editing

This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.

Nail that Opener

Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.

Perspective

PerspectiveThe point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.

Dialogue

Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.

My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The Last ManThe thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.

One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.

Clichés

It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.

Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.

Balance

It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.balance

There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.

Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.

Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.