Your own personal artistic statement (or: articles of faith)

The industry
Ryan Campbell

Another submission season come and gone, another rejection season kicking into high gear.

Here we all are, as Playwrights, knocking on the door with scripts in hand, scripts into which we’ve poured our blood and our souls, scripts that we hope might just move the needle of our society in the right direction, if only ever so slightly. Here we all are, knocking on the door with scripts that are funny, scripts that are tragic, scripts that are researched, scripts that are deeply felt, in our hearts, in our bones. Here we all are putting them into the world, sending them off to contests and development opportunities and writers groups, knowing that most of them will end up rejected.

And, for the most part, they are.


And then we do it all again next year. 

And the year after that, and again the year after that. 

We’re all a bunch of Charlie Browns, hoping that maybe this time we’ll actually get to kick the football, even when all prior evidence and experience points to the contrary.

Although, unlike Charlie Brown, we, for the most part, expect the rejection. We know it’s coming. We apply to so many things that we even get rejection letters to things that we forgot we applied to. And we can use that knowledge, the knowledge that we’re probably going to get rejected en masse, to do a bit of heart-guarding, to steel ourselves against what feels inevitable.

To say: yeah, I did not get The Thing. But whatever, you know, it’s cool, I’m cool with it, I didn’t expect to get it anyway! Plus also, you know how it is – so many factors affect the selection process, and so many people are sending their scripts, and it must be, sincerely, very difficult to make these kinds of decisions, for the selection committees, I mean, who after all are just humans like the rest of us; it must be difficult to pick one Playwright when you wish you had the resources for ten Playwrights, for one hundred Playwrights, for every Playwright, and so I get it: it’s a hard job full of tough decisions and everyone is just doing the best that they can.

There’s a million reasons to not take the rejection personally, we all know this.

But, we must also admit, that the rejection can get to us.

Because it can get bleak sometimes – brutal, even: this tidal wave of e-mail rejection. Even the strongest among us must admit that, hey: this kinda sucks sometimes. I’m kinda getting bogged down here. I’m kinda forgetting why I put up with this.

And to add to the difficulty, every year, for every such-and-such grant or so-and-so commission, every year we have to write artistic statements justifying our desire to be writers in the first place. Which feels, and let’s just be honest here, insulting. Or, at the very least, deeply weird and misguided and a waste of everyone’s time. Because why would a developmental organization or theater need to ask such a question? Why would they say, “Hey Playwrights, we’d like to offer you some money and support to develop your play, but first, before anything else, what we’d really like to know is: why are you interested in theater? Oh and also, please tell us why, Playwright, are you interested in developing a play that you’ve written?” Because the answer is simple, isn’t it? We’re Playwrights. We wrote that play because we are Playwrights, and we need some tools to develop that play because… we’re Playwrights. It’s really that simple. And it can get more than a little frustrating, sometimes, on top of all the rejection, and lack of money, and hustle, on top of all that, to be forced to re-litigate our very existence every time we ask for support.

And even though, once in a while, we might get a reading, or a development opportunity (and that’s great!), or win the lottery and get The Very Big Thing, for every moment of success that we might taste, there are behind it the stings of dozens, even hundreds, of rejections. And these rejections can add up, no matter how thick your skin is.

And it is okay to say that, by the way. That rejection stings, and that stings upon stings can add up – it is okay to say that out loud, to admit it. To acknowledge that rejection is difficult, and that these rejections that we face can, at times, reach a critical mass, and get the best of us.

Which is all to say: yeah, it’s hard out there.

And sometimes it is difficult to keep the faith.

Because that what’s being an artist is all about: keeping the faith.

The faith that our society is worth talking about, is worth putting in the effort to make better, is worth our blood, our sweat, our tears, and our souls.

In a lot of ways, that’s what I think any art, playwriting or otherwise, is good for: to look at the chaos and injustice and darkness that can permeate our society and ourselves and stand against it and say: yes, this can get awful, but let’s keep the faith anyway. In our society, and in ourselves, let’s not give up.

Because it can be hard to keep that faith. It can be very hard. Especially after multitudes of rejection e-mails, and not getting The Thing that would actually really help move the play forward, The Thing that would actually really help you feel that you’re valued, and that your work has value, and that all of the negative things that we as Playwrights are asked to put up with is worth the sacrifice – it can be hard, sometimes, to keep the faith.

And I would suggest, dear Playwrights, that these artistic statements that we are constantly asked to write and rewrite and update, even when it feels stupid to have to do it all over again, I would suggest that even though other people require them of us, that they are not really for other people, but rather they are for us.

That they are part of the way that we can get through the days of being constantly rejected, and being poor, that they are the reminders of why we got into this in the first place.

They are our articles of faith.

And as we change and grow, so must our articles change and grow with us.

And so, even when things are at their most awful, we can find a way to keep the fire burning, to keep the faith. By writing the artistic statement again, and articulating to ourselves, and for ourselves, what we value, we can create a document that allows us to see the forest for the trees, and to be reminded that what we are doing is worth the effort.

Here is a section of my current articles of faith:

Some writers write to entertain, some write to make a political point, some write as therapy, some write for money, and all of these reasons (and more) are perfectly valid reasons to take up the art of playwriting. For me, though, Roger Ebert’s thoughts on film as machines of empathy are the perfect distillation of what makes me interested in being a writer and artist – I want to create art wherein the ultimate goal is to help people feel more empathy, and therefore to feel less alone.

All of us, in our own ways, are interested in The Truth. And all of us, in our own ways, have access to parts of this Truth – I know things about being alive that only I know, and so do you, and so does everyone else that we encounter as we move through life. It is as if each of us is given a small portion of The Truth, and we can do with it what we will. We can hide it, exploit it, try to gain from it in some way. Or we can share it, as if a beacon to others. And that’s what art is (to me): a way to share The Truth that each of us is blessed with (which, in fact, is why I think everyone should be making art, not just The Artists). A way to say: these are the things that I know. And a way to ask others: what do you know that I do not?

And so, while doing my best to be sensitive to the politics and social upheavals of our time, and to weave such awareness into my plays, I must say that my ultimate goal is something other than politics, something other than crusading for social causes. Rather, the goal is to create art that sits inside the contradictions and paradoxes of life beyond the issues of our time, that wrestles with the fear of death, and alienation, and loneliness, and spirituality – to meditate on these parts of life, and to hopefully, if successful, get closer to sharing The Truth that each of us already knows, and in so doing, become more connected to each other.

What are yours?


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About the author

Ryan Campbell

Ryan Campbell is a Texan born playwright currently residing in Minneapolis, MN. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and is a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center. His plays include Preston Montfort - An American Tragedy, Dead Ends., The Zero Scenario, and A New Saint for a New World. He also wrote and performed the solo piece fire chases the sky into nothingness.