by Rudy San Miguel
“House opens in five!” My stage manager’s head floated above the tiny balcony, which looked like a treehouse perched over the 15 x 20 room where my play was about to be presented. She queued up the house music I had hastily burned onto a CD earlier, just before I had taken a call from my director while buying ice for concessions at a nearby gas station. Now, I stepped onto the stage—a small platform two inches from the ground—and studied the rows of chairs around me. Were there too many? This was opening night of the inaugural production for our company, Generate Ink, and online ticket sales were abysmal. I was less worried about patrons fighting over the last seat than I was about the few people in attendance pitying me and this sad, empty space.
I tugged at my collar, wondering if we shouldn’t crank down the air conditioning. Then an entire side of the room lost power. We knew the makeshift theater had its problems, and we’d spent a lot of the rehearsal process testing what combination of lights and appliances we could run simultaneously before the theater dropped its own curtain in the middle of the show. I looked to my stage manager as a bead of sweat rolled into my eye, blinding me.
Theater is hard. It’s also expensive, time-consuming and exhausting. On top of this, it can be costly to see theater, so producing it in a city like New Orleans, where it’s a luxury for most, is like throwing one last middle finger at your attempt. But if you love to make theatre, you’re powerless to do anything else.
Just two years before, I was bounding down the steps of the 207th Street Station in very upper Manhattan. Now that I’d finished grad school, the A train was my way to the shows in Midtown and my job all the way down on 14th Street where I managed a busy taqueria. On this day, however, I was having lunch with a man I consider a mentor, Gary Garrison, who played a key role in the degree I’d just earned.
Gary was a busy man: In addition to playwriting and acting, his required course for writers at NYU was legendary—both for the invaluable education and the sheer terror of his Socratic Method. His day job was executive director for the Dramatists Guild of America. I considered his advice gold.
“Move where you are loved,” he told me. “Write where you are loved.”
The last syllable had no sooner left Gary’s lips than I imagined unloading a U-haul into the humid embrace of New Orleans. I expressed my desire, and he offered a list of people I should look up once I got there.
One name on the list was the producing artistic director for Southern Rep Theatre, Aimee Hayes. I reached out and she graciously agreed to meet. My goal for the meeting was simple: obtain advice on how to become a useful, active member of the New Orleans theatre community, and not die a penniless burrito roller.
Aimee offered a bounty of suggestions, including one that really stuck: “Why don’t you do 13p here?”
If you’re unaware, 13p is a production company begun by 13 “mid-career” New York playwrights in 2003 because they saw limits in the constant readings-and-development process behind new American plays. Their goal was to create a company dedicated to the production of each playwright’s work, often one that would otherwise never see an audience. What made the model unique was that each writer would serve as artistic director of their own work, allowing them to make all key decisions for the production. Upon completing their goal, the company would “implode” and be no more. Among the 13 were Rob Handel, Lucy Thurber, and Sarah Ruhl.
Aimee’s advice was radical to me. I’d spent the past three years timidly handing my plays to people who would throw them in piles of unread scripts and tell me they’d be in touch, or submit my writing to various workshops and programs alongside hundreds of talented playwrights but never get in. She was suggesting I skip the winding line and jump right into the front car on Magic Mountain. Furthermore, I should find a bunch of other playwrights crazy enough to follow me into the terrifying unknown. It seemed daunting, but, like most great ideas, it kept me awake at night.
Then I had a plan. reached out to every local playwright I knew to see if they had a full-length play ready to be produced. If they did, I inquired as to whether they’d be willing to raise funds for every playwright in the group and act as their own artistic director. At the end of my search, I had three allies: Kate Bailey, Bridget Erin, and Brian Sands. (Brian would have to step back because of conflicting commitments, but his name bears repeating in that he was on Gary’s list with Aimee, and he came up with the name “Generate Ink.”) The three remaining playwrights wanted to distinguish ourselves from 13p, which produced 13 plays in ten years, so we decided to produce our three plays in one year, and we agreed to utilize and pay as many people in the New Orleans theater community as possible.
I was up first. For my play, I chose my graduate school thesis—a three-character thriller about love called “Human Resources.”
The first thing we needed was money. Around that time, I came across a 2011 New York Times piece by Patrick Healy that stated, “Broadway plays invariably cost at least $2.5 million to mount…” While Broadway wasn’t our immediate goal, we knew we couldn’t get a play on stage with five bucks and confidence. We explored every imaginable way to raise funds. Our first haul was about $1000, which was a little shy of $2.5 million but not an unreasonable start for a low-budget production. As luck would have it, a hometown fundraiser, led by a lifetime friend with the help of my mother, amassed an additional $2000 for the Generate Ink coffers.
I created a budget to account for every penny I would spend, one that was ever mindful of leaving the next playwright with more than a pocketful of lint. In addition to those partners, I enlisted friends in the community with whom I’d worked in the past and offered them much less money than they were worth. The list of duties to perform and people to find was long: venue, director, actors, stage manager, costumes, set, lighting, advertising, rehearsal space, theater staff, etc. Beyond questions of my own sanity, I worried about what I’d gotten my fellow playwrights into. As I daily balanced the weight of these duties, a nagging voice whispered, “Don’t forget you have a play to rewrite!”
The process was grueling: playwright-me sat and edited the script when questions arose in rehearsal while producer-me dissented over choices with which I disagreed, from script to set to budget. My brain was at the floor of my skull, kicking and screaming.
But for every surprise cost, someone donated an item or their time; for every choice with which I disagreed, an actor read a dull line in a way that made my words soar. In those moments, I was knocked back on track by these wonderful people—the ones who chained themselves to me as I shoveled coal into the fiery engine of a crazy train steaming toward the station.
On opening night, we got the AC and soundboard back on in time to open the doors to several people waiting outside. We didn’t sell out that night, or any, but on most nights there were only a few empty seats, and that was good enough for me. I was proud that I’d added a small piece to the enormous fabric of theatre.
After the show closed, my partners went on to produce their shows with roughly the same misstep-to-success ratio. We never broke the bank but we ended the year in the black. After the dust settled, we met at a coffee shop to discuss our own implosion but we quickly recognized a shared ailment: We were addicts and needed one more fix. So we went another round, adding two more New Orleans voices, Anita Vatshell and Jessie Strauss, and had them produce their work.
When we finally ended Generate Ink, we did so with pride, not just because we had done something that had never been done in New Orleans, but for recognizing that even though it’s hard, expensive, exhausting, maddening, and might possibly suck the very life out of you, there’s nothing else we’d rather do.