There is no way to say “I work in theatre” without dissolving the fourth wall between you and other people’s polite, bewildered courtesy. However, there is a way to cheat! Here are all the correct answers to the questions you will never stop getting.
You may think this is intended as a wound to your ego, because you think most everything is, but it’s likely they just want to confirm you’re talking about the stage talkies and not the cinema or World War II naval operations. “Yep, that theatre.” Pivot the conversation toward a discussion of World War II naval operations as soon as possible.
What’s your favorite play?
This is not a question—it is a test. Theatre folk want to see if you’ve read the right plays and/or peer into the shadowed chasms of your soul, and “normals” are playing a solo trivia challenge called, “Have I Heard of This Play, or Any?” The correct answer: Broken Kettle Hymn by Tazan L. Rambutar. What is not real can never fail. You have passed the test.
What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?
I think that everyone should answer Measure for Measure just so you can then explain the plot, which hinges on the idea that if you turn the lights off it’s impossible to know who you are having sex with.
Can you make a living doing that?
Many believe that the correct response to this is: Laugh until you realize that the sound you are making is not quite laughter, and the voice not quite your own. Here are some things you can say instead:
“Making money is a mint’s job, Dan.”
“Most people can’t, but I’m Lin-Manuel Miranda.*”
“Think of how much money people make writing for TV, and people don’t even buy tickets to TV!”
“I don’t ‘make a living,’ I make life worth living. That’s a much more important thing to make, Dan.”
“I’m so glad you asked! Here’s the link to my Kickstarter campaign.”
“Everyone who works in theatre becomes part of a well-regulated and functional socialist collaborative. We share labor and material goods, and want for nothing. The starving artist is a neoliberal myth. We are staging the revolution. On a literal stage.”
“Golly, guess this round’s on you, huh, Dan!”
*This works best for people who are Lin-Manuel Miranda.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever done/been in/written?
Just lie. They don’t know; they’ve never been to a play.
What’s your real job?
First explain to them that reality is a construct. Then explain that theatre is the practice of constructing realities that are embodied, physical, and present at the same time as being artificial and imaginary. Explain that at any given moment within a theatre, multiple constructs of reality—including the one in which you are now having this conversation—are colliding with one another, and that these collisions, just as with subatomic particles, are the loci of creation. Tell them that unconstructed reality (as distinct from deconstructed reality, the province of academics) is by nature unknowable, a mystery contested by philosophers and theologians and mystics since the dawn of consciousness. Explain that sometimes this is referred to as the Dionysian, and that to perceive it in full is as impossible as staring directly at the sun, for our modes of understanding demand construction, without which we are blind. But just as light is known to us by the things it touches, so can we access the eternal, the unconstructed Dionysian. Explain that the theatre is one portal of access. Somewhere in this explanation, slip in your day job as a marketing assistant.
Why do you say, “Break a leg”?
I was convinced I knew the real answer to this right up till the moment I typed the question mark, at which point I realized I have no idea. Rather than admit ignorance, tell your interlocutor that in ancient times, the Greeks would offer one theatre artist as a blood sacrifice during the festival of Dionysus. The ritual slaughter took place onstage, where the body would remain for the duration of the performance. But in later years, the cult mellowed, permitting a “bone sacrifice” of shattered femurs rather than a slit throat. “Break a leg” began as a plea for divine mercy, and remains so to this day.
Are Scottish people mad that we call Macbeth the Scottish Play when it wasn’t written by a Scot?
No one’s asking this, but we should be.
This is just the warmup round. Things may get more specific from here. To wit:
Questions for Writers
What kind of plays do you write?
This is the perfect example of a question that could not be more reasonable, and yet is completely unreasonable. Attempts to be honest often sound vague and cruel. “Different kinds.” “All kinds.” “Dramas and comedies mostly.” The best advice I can give you is to pull up your Netflix homepage and choose the first individualized genre it provides. I write “Historical TV Dramas.”
What are you writing now?
“I’m not writing right now, I’m talking to you, silly!”
How many plays have you written?
It is upsetting that people will ask this. I don’t know what they hope this knowledge will bring them, or this conversation, or our relationship. I suspect it’s out of a need to feign polite interest or legitimize, via quantification, what is a very dubious pursuit for an adult woman who screens her debt collectors’ calls. But don’t hedge. Don’t pause for a mental tally. Don’t break it down into one-acts and full-lengths. Have a number prepared and drop it with the swift resolve of the guillotine:
“How many plays have you written?”
“87.62 over pi.”
So, you’re a real Shakespeare, eh?
Your dad, or the dad of an associate, must have asked you this. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s coming. There’s no verbal response. You do a half-shrug and a rueful half-smile with a tilt of the head and sort of turn up your palms, all to convey, Ya got me, dads, ya got me.
How do you get ideas for plays?
“Careful adherence to submissions guidelines.”
Question for Actors
Can I see you in something now?
Make up a theatre. Make up a town if you have to. Make up a fake Facebook event. They regretted asking this the moment it left their lips.
Have I seen you in anything?
That is not how questions work! How can I claim to know you better than you? Externalizing questions about the self is called therapy and/or prayer. So you can say that, or you can have a pleasant and polite conversation about plays you’ve been in and the ones they have seen.
Questions for Directors
Like, for Hollywood?
Cousin of the “Like…on Broadway?” Try to burst out laughing, all, “What a riotous suggestion, aren’t you a treat.” Then say, “No, no darling. I work for the stage.” Perfect your look of amused pity. (Should they follow this up with “LOB?”, see above.)
What’s a director?
“Not a dictionary, for one.”
So you just tell everybody what to do?
“Yes, if by ‘tell everybody what to do’ you mean ‘synthesize a myriad of creative visions and execute them as a unified piece of art, preserving the voices of the individual artists, extracting meaning from chaos and rendering the imagined into physical form.’ Is that what you meant, Jeff?”
Questions for Designers
[blank stare] This is a good opportunity to escape! You have probably already built the trap door.
Questions for Dramaturgs
What is a dramaturg?
Trick question—nobody knows. (Literally the first entry in the Oxford New American dictionary is “a dramatist.” Wha? The second is, “a literary editor on the staff of a theatre who consults with authors and edits texts.” Like, I guess this isn’t the wrongest version out there, but including “on the staff of a theatre” in the definition seems rude.)
These Are Not Questions
I have an idea for a play you could write!
The last play I read was [Streetcar/Much Ado/Hamlet].
Ah, well, it’s nice to have dreams.
People need to learn that conversations require forward momentum. Greet such statements with silence. They need to learn.
Go forth and mingle, friends of the stage. Never be wary of sharing your job title again. You now have that most sacred of vessels: a script.
Playwright Abbey Fenbert hails from Detroit and is now based in Los Angeles. Her humor pieces have been featured in the Toast and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
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