[H]e hoped that soon—given the opportunities for production—there might arise a school of vegetarian dramatists.
Graham Greene, The Comedians
Another day, I thought as I opened the self-addressed stamped envelope, another rejection.
Who was it this time? I wondered. The Tri-Valley Thespians, with their call for ten-minute plays on the theme of “Burying the Dead White Males”? The Inclusivity Fest, which was open to all as long as you were female, transgendered or neutered? The Lithuanian Sodality Society of Worcester, which would stage one (1) winner and two (2) runners-up next fall as long as the playwright was willing to bend his or her art to the theme of “Lithuanians’ Many Contributions to American Society.”
No, it was a submission I’d completely forgotten about. “Dear Playwright,” the mimeographed note began, “Thank you for your submission to the Somerville Drama Society’s 2017 Celebration of Self-Abuse Series. Although your play was carefully considered by our panel of three leading experts on the topic, we regret to inform you that” blodda blodda blodda, followed by the usual “We encourage you to submit a new work next year.”
Yeah, right, I said to myself. Fat chance and all that. I’d had it up to here (Note: author’s hand held at eye-level) with narrowly-tailored solicitations for dramatic works with hyper-technical production requirements (no more than FIVE actors, at least ONE left-handed. Please help us reduce the amount of waste in our local landfill by printing on BOTH sides of the paper).
It’s enough to make one cynical, to suspect that there’s more than just objective analysis at work in the selection of plays to be performed–without compensation, of course–by our nation’s community theatre-industrial complex. And with cynicism comes a willingness, nay an eagerness, to flout the rules in order to further one’s pathetic career as a playwright.
I click the link to Fotheringill’s Dramatic Submission Opportunities (“Trust us–we were around before the Internet!”), and scroll down through the possibilities, eliminating all that have an entry fee or a DNA requirement that screens out those with one or more Y chromosomes. The pickings are slim so when I get to the bottom of the column I pay closer attention to final entry, the way one glances down at the dashboard when approaching a sign that says “Last Gas for 50 Miles.”
It’s the New England Anti-Vivisection Society’s First Annual Ten-Minute Play Contest, open to all residents of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont (okay), who are at least twenty-one (got that one beat by a mile), are willing to attend if their play is selected (no problem), have not previously had a play professionally produced (as if!), and are . . . uh oh . . . vegetarian.
Dammit all to hell! I said aloud, causing the nice lady who walks around checking the copy paper and toner in my office to jump a bit and turn her head. Why can’t somebody put on a drama festival I might possibly qualify for, I say to myself, and my self–as usual–has no answer.
But before I pass on, I read to the end of the notice and see–$1,000 grand prize! Pretty lucrative, and with that much lucre involved, it behooves me to consider the big picture before I pass on. Should I fuggedaboutit, since I have been known to eat my share of chicken, fish and the occasional pig and cow? Or should I b-e-n-d the truth a bit? I mean, I eat a lot of salads. I love peas, I like asparagus and Brussel sprouts, and I’m not averse to a little broccoli every now and then. That ought to count for something–shouldn’t it?
Of course it should. I wrestle with my conscience and quickly win best two falls out of three, and it is the work of an instant for me to email the “artistic director” with some of my art for her to direct. Back comes the automatic response: “Thank you SO much for your entry in our play contest. We look forward to reading your work.”
Weeks pass–as they always seem to do–before I get an email with an exclamation point in the subject line, right after the word Congratulations. My heart starts to race and makes the turn around my left lung and slides back into position after bump-drafting down the back stretch across my esophagus–I’m one of two finalists for the $1,000 prize of the Anti-Vivisection goo-goos! I know they can spare the money–they’re the beneficiary of more residual bequests than any non-profit outside the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the charity of choice for human New England antiquities when they reach the end of their days.
“If you remain interested and eligible, you will be interviewed by our panel of judges along with the other finalist, Bendal Hynde III.”
Good God, I groaned, not Hynde! Back when he was a budding college dramatist and I was a mere phototypesetter, I once had the displeasure of reading his work in its raw and unedited form. He’s never forgiven me for the letter I wrote to the editor of his student newspaper, laying bare the major surgery that had to be performed on one of his dead sentences to bring it to life. The words “incoherent” and “rubbish” come to mind.
Still, I suppose if you have to compete against somebody, it might as well be Hynde, a buck-toothed red-headed Englishman with a keen sense–however misguided–of the superiority of all things British to all things American. He can’t possibly have progressed to the point where his stuff would actually be semi-demi-quaver literate, could he?
I show up for the interview and there’s the panel–Cecilia Eversharp, artistic director and heiress to the pen and pencil fortune; Niles Nostrum, a big donor who regularly gives the anti-vivs major gifts in the high four figures; and Beverly Mangel, the woman who answered my email with a smiley face, who is apparently the festival’s “dramaturge.” I’ve never known quite what it is that a dramaturge does; urge others on to drama? It remains one of those unsolved mysteries, like Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle.
I say my how-do-you-do’s and take my seat at the table facing the three people who will decide my future as a dramatist. There’s a pitcher of water and I fill my glass in anticipation of their tough questioning. I’m just about to take a sip when in walks Bendal, fruity as ever in a tweed grouse-hunting jacket, and it is all I can do to keep from spritzing the selection committee.
“Hello . . . Chapman,” he says in a contemptuous tone.
“Hello, Bendal,” I say, matching him sneer for sneer. “How’s the grammar coming?”
“I’m sure that you, as an American, wouldn’t be able to detect the enormous progress I’ve made.”
I give him a little so-funny-I-forgot-to-laugh shake of the head, and turn my attention towards the people it’s worth directing it to.
“Well, we were very impressed with your plays, it was too close to call,” Eversharp begins, “so we thought we’d invite you in for a little tete-a-tete to see if one of you was clearly more compatible . . .”
“I think I can answer that question for you,” Hynde says, cutting her off. “There’s only one of us here today who’s eligible for the prize, and that is I.” Like so many Anglophiliac poofs, he has a deathly fear of objective case pronouns.
“And why is that?” Nostrum asks, his eyebrow inching up an inch. He likes to feel that he’s making an intellectual contribution to the area’s culture, and not just a financial one, and so would resist any attempt to cut him out of the deliberations.
“Because this man here,” Hynde fairly spits, “is not a vegetarian!”
A collective gasp escapes from the mouths of the panelists.
“You’d better have some solid evidence to back that up drama-boy,” I mutter out of the side of my mouth, but in my heart–as they used to say about Barry Goldwater–I know he’s right.
“His very words indict him,” Hynde says, and then–in a neat trick that would have been impossible before the invention of the World Wide Web–he adds a link to his accusation.
“Take a look at this!” he snaps, and I can only shake my head in despair.
“How did you do that?” Mangel asks.
“You copy the link, then you paste it over the text using the little paper clip thingie on the tool bar,” Hynde says. The three judges click on the link in the fetid atmosphere of the room, and find my “Ode to Chicken Skin.” He’s got me dead to rights.
“Well,” Nostrum intones ominously, his eyebrow continuing its climb to his hairline. “What do you have to say for yourself.”
“Just this,” I say, and as I do I gulp loudly, trying to work the clock in the manner of the old Oklahoma State four-corner stall offense.
“Well?” Eversharp asks, ever so sharply.
“When you think about it . . .”
“Yes?” Nostrum asks.
“Compared to a cow . . .”
“Um-hmm?” It’s Mangel’s turn to heighten the drama.
“Isn’t a chicken really a vegetable?”