The Art of Supporting a Writing Life: Joshua Young and Phillip Christian Smith with Elisabeth Ng
What does it mean to be an emerging theater artist in New York City? My friends and family who don't live here like to think I'm living a version of Lena Dunham's Girls, going to warehouse parties and drinking overpriced matcha lattes. Or they romanticize the idea of being a poor, starving artist living in a cardboard box.
"You're living the dream!!"
The truth is that being an artist in New York is more bread and butter work than Brooklyn parties. Romantic "poverty" does not enrich the artist. If anything, financial stability allows time and energy for creative work.
The Playwriting Collective, which I joined in 2016, was created by co-Artistic Directors Joshua Young and Phillip Christian Smith to support working class artists as part of the growing movement in intersectional diversity. I meet up with both for a roundtable discussion on what it means to work and live in New York as a theater artist.
Elisabeth Ng (Rail): Well, before we move into the heavy stuff—let's catch up! What's going on for both of you? Joshua, I know you joined the Public Theater's 2018 - 2019 Emerging Writers Group. What has that been like?
Joshua Young: It's a privilege. It's a blessing. It's a great group, and well curated. We've all become friends. I've been seduced into seclusion for the past few years, and now it feels like I've found a community. It's like winning an Oscar. But also, when you're an emerging playwright, you put so much emphasis on "getting the thing" that once you get it, you realize you're still basically in the same boat! Getting institutional support is a good step to accumulate, but there's still a lot to do. I was unprepared for that feeling.
Phillip Christian Smith: I'm not up to much right now. I had a production in August of last year, my play The Chechens, about what is going on with the President of Chechnya rounding up gay men. I'm just working on my writing. I didn't get into any big groups this year, and I'm just applying, hoping to get into a writing group that will help me get some form of community.
Rail: Writing hasn't been as much of a priority for me right now, unfortunately. I've been working at the Public Theater as their production associate—which is a vague term.
Christian Smith: I was going to ask you what that is!
Rail: It is a great institution to work at. I do designer contracts specifically, so I'm negotiating with their agents and working with the unions. Something you guys mentioned tonight: Community. Working in this industry can be lonely and competitive if you don't have some form of community. I like getting up every morning and seeing the same faces. But it is always a negotiation, trying to find energy out of a full-time job to be creative and write.
Young: I get it. For those of us whose lives have been dictated by the lower tiers of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, having a day job is existential—it is life or death.
When I got to New York, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller, and that later solidified into wanting to become a playwright. I had technical aptitude, so I trained to be a projectionist to support myself. I would try to be creative and still write, but I worked long hours. I was manic about it. I was a projectionist, an electrician, a designer. It was a grueling schedule. But this was my approach—I wanted to put in all the hours up front so that I could get into the union, and get a house gig with a more regular schedule that could afford me time to write.
And I will say this—tradespeople and technicians work long hours and are to a degree exploited. I'm a big advocate for unions. I have a union job now and a healthier schedule. What haunts me is that I took a calculated risk that could have failed. It didn't, but it could have.
Christian Smith: I've been through a couple of tough years with my cancer, and now that I am in remission, I only have to go for treatment once a month. I called it a part-time job when it was once a week, and then every other week, and now that it's just once a month, I still call it a part-time job. Because it's long—it takes a whole day, the day is just gone. Sometimes I can write when I'm there—I try to write at the beginning or at the end when I'm awake. So that's one of my part-time jobs:immunotherapy!
I work long hours in catering. I start work at 3:15 p.m. and I punch out at 1 am, depending on how the business is going. I have to get my stuff done before 3:15 p.m., but I don't get home till 2 a.m. usually. It leaves a short window for writing. It's tough to keep up the writing. I dream of being invited to retreats. I've been on a couple of retreats and they are very helpful. I can see why they got invented.
Rail: What is it like writing at a retreat?
Christian Smith: I was at a retreat called Forge. You get there, say hi, they show you the room, and then nobody speaks to you again till dinner. At dinner you say hello, everybody talks about what they are working on, and then nobody speaks to you again till breakfast. You don't have to speak to anybody! There are all kinds of open spaces to be at.
Most of all it is the freedom of not having to work a day job. It is like having a socialite pass where people do stuff for you. You say thank you, and then you get back to the work. Just the ability to write nineteen pages over your weekend—
Rail: At a leisurely pace!
Christian Smith: Yeah! It's free time. Time is a luxury in this city. People pay for time here. To have some of that time for yourself, it's valuable.
Rail: How long have you guys been in the city? Ever think of leaving permanently for a more relaxed pace of life?
Young: (to Christian Smith) You've been here since the '90s right?
Christian Smith: Yup.
Young: I moved here in '99, so this is my twentieth year.
Christian Smith: I moved to New York the day that OJ did the Bronco chase—in '94—all that crazy drama. I didn't know about it till the next day! Because I was in a moving van.
Rail: I moved here in summer 2013, and I met both of you straight out of graduation, actually. What's your experience with being a creative person in this city?
Christian Smith: My husband likes to mess with me. He'll say, "Let's move to Westchester! We don't have to stay here." And I'm like, "NO, we have to." "Darling give me Park Avenue"—except I live in Harlem.
I have to be here. I do have to get out, here and there, but I need to see that it is not impossible for my work to get on stage here. When people talk about what plays are good, I need to go see it for myself. I need to know—is the hype real? Or is it just hype? I think we need to see things in order to have more scope on our own work.
And I need to see people like you, and like you, I need to have these friendships to not be alone. What we do, we have to be alone. You have to sit down, turn your phone off, and work! I think New York is worth it for the friendships, the support of like-minded artists.
Maybe when I get famous I'll move to Wyoming like all the rich movie stars.
Young: I pretty much feel the same way. Having been here for so long at this point—I've lived here longer than anywhere else—it's become a core part of my identity. I'm not ready to completely let go. I often tell people I'm not in love with the city any more. I'm here for all the reasons Phillip [Christian Smith] said. It's a paradox.
The reality is, the career that I want and the things I want to do—there are only a few places where I can do them. If one of the goals as a playwright is to connect with someone, there are few places where you'll have the same opportunities that you get here. Suburbs frighten me.
Christian Smith: I don't feel safe outside of New York City!
Rail: I've only been here for six years, but I'm feeling the fatigue. And if I'm being honest, a lot of this fatigue isn't about the city. It has more to do with our current socio-political climate than our quixotic struggle with the MTA. I feel paralyzed reading the daily xenophobia that is in our news. To constantly worry about how things may change, having to be alert—is exhausting. It gets to you.
Young: I write a lot about the rust belt and the Midwest. I'm from Columbus, Ohio. There is a lot of oddity going on in America right now, because of factors like technology, social media, politics. Vocal, hostile minorities—not ethnic minorities, but people with minority views—they have made it uncomfortable for everyone, even here in the city. It is madness out there. As I'm saying this I realize it's quite pessimistic, but I think your anxieties are warranted.
Rail: Well, this is a nice segue into something that has always interested me: How do you navigate our ever-changing political climate as an artist?
Young: My number one thing is: write from a place of authenticity. That is one way to navigate. A fear of mine is that I will die before I get to write all the plays inside of me. Because of that, I think there is such great value to giving credence to stories that are formed by intersectionality. As long as you are authentic, it will avoid a lot of the hot button issues.
Rail: To me, responsible writing is not sensationalist. And it is too easy to lean into sensationalism right now. There is a reliance on keywords—and a tendency for words to take on a different meaning in a social media flash. I find it stifling. Instead of writing, I'm preoccupied with editing myself to make sure I don't get into trouble. Or sometimes I find myself tempted to throw in the correct hot button words because they will get me noticed.
That is not to say that I disagree with the current liberal message—not at all! But I do think it is important not to be cynical about the message. Not to appropriate a social message into simple branding.
Christian Smith: I have a couple of very difficult plays. And I've had Black people tell me, a Black person, that they didn't appreciate my portrayal of a Black person. But I'm not all the Black people, and this character is not all the Black people. I am one person. I think that's a danger. If we as Black writers don't write Black villains, then Black actors don't have roles to play.
The sidekick doesn't win an Oscar. The boring Black person doesn't get accolades. If there is nothing there, you might as well be writing Black characters in horror movies who were really nice but get killed early.
I think we have to write our characters as complicated as White writers are writing their characters. I get bit all the time on this.
Rail: But if you have something to say—
Christian Smith: And I do have something to say!
Young: I have some insight into this—Phillip, I thought your play Jig*a*boo was such an inspired play.
Christian Smith: To give some context, I've been working on Jig*a*boo since the '90s. It's set at a tech company in a future where Black people have been re-enslaved, where Brown and Asian people are deported or murdered. And it had a challenging reception.
Young: I found it imaginative, especially your incorporation of technology which seems prescient today. And because the play is science fiction, it also requires the audience to take a creative leap. It's not literal.
Rail: For me, I want to write and play characters that are allowed to be themselves, and not the conscience of their identity. There was an interview with Louis Garrel where he talks about the movie Two Friends, which he wrote for the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani. She was doing these French movies where she was always the voice of Iranian women. And he wanted her to have the opportunity to just be a character—someone with everyday aspirations—not a symbol.
And that to me is representation. It's not about being a symbolic figurehead representing some movement. It's about being a specific person, with specific problems. Then you are no longer "the other"—you are someone that people from different backgrounds can perhaps relate to.
Christian Smith: I wrote a play set in Russia, with a White character that dreams of dating Black men. And someone told me that they didn't like that I wrote that. I'm like, excuse you?! Have you never met the White guy in real life who only dates Asian girls?
Young: The play is also set in Russia, and they have a different perception of whiteness than we do in America. If we lose the ability to contextualize as artists, we are lost.
Rail: I agree. And I don't think representation should mean putting only the happiest or the best things on stage. That's boring. It's not truthful, and it's unimaginative.
Christian Smith: I'm the last person that watches Grey's Anatomy. But it is a popular show, and they have a Black character who deals with mental illness. And I thought that it is such a great thing that they are showing: a Black character who is a doctor, who is going through a mental health crisis, who is a Black person seeking help. I've never seen this on TV before, and I think it's great. People need to be shown in all the complicated ways that they are, in every color.
is the production associate at the Public Theater and an artistic associate of the Playwriting Collective. She has produced work at The Tank, 14 Street Y, Video Art and Experimental film festival among others and was awarded the ICWP 50/50 applause award in 2016 for her commitment to diversity in producing. Her plays have been staged in various iterations of the OMPF in NYC.