By Riti Sachdeva, member of the 2013 Emerging Writers Group
I hesitated to move to New York. “Go on,” people tried to persuade me, “New York’s the center of theater.” Having made theater in Albuquerque for the past fifteen years, I know one doesn’t need to be in New York to make compelling theater or to cultivate discerning audiences. One does, however, need to live in New York to get paid to make theater. Thus, the truer statement, New York is the center of the economy rang clear as I headed back to the east coast. Being admitted into the Emerging Writers Group at the Public has led me to commit to being in New York for at least two years.
As we were walking to Union Square one night after an EWG meeting, my sister EWGer asked how I was doing. I replied that July was a month of reflecting on the excess data in my brain and body about the last seven months as a theater maker in New York. Was it the thin tone in my voice or the slump of my shoulders that lead her to ask, “Yeah, kind of heartbreaking, huh?” Well… yeah… kinda. It seems like New York is my new squeeze, the honeymoon period’s been over, I’m learning to accept its offerings and rejections, wondering what I can live with and what is a deal breaker, contemplating a monogamous vs. bi-coastal relationship, and anxious about how long it might last.
Don’t get me wrong, New York has given me so much love: friendly people, eager collaborators, wonderful sublets, lucrative projects, brave productions, and so many opportunities. What I didn’t expect to experience is the crisis of NOT ENOUGH. With all the blessings I’ve received and continue to receive in this city, I find myself in the abyss of “it’s not enough, I want more, there is more.” The feminist socialist in me thinks, “Of course you’ll think this, you’re in the gut of capitalism and the bile of the system is all about MORE, BIGGER, BETTER.” The meditating spiritual seeker in me thinks, “You’re here to work through this – it’s a core issue that has arisen, once again, to pass.” The underdog artist in me thinks, “Fuck this New York theater caste system and the contest for the theater elites’ attention.”
All the banter in my head still can’t stop the rise of the noun that acts like a verb- AMBITION: a desire for personal achievement. In Albuquerque, ambition was an internal gauge of continuously pushing myself to write, act, perform, produce, create, build audience, and generate dialogue. Within the EWG, ambition is to rise to the standards of nine peers who are phenomenal writers and generously sharp, critical thinkers. In the larger context of the New York theater pecking order, ambition has come to mean acknowledgement or recognition from theater institutions with resources and networks. I’ve spent over twenty years being an independent artist, telling stories of people whose experiences are largely invisible, casting people who otherwise have rare opportunities, bringing in audiences who are sure theater is utterly irrelevant and now, having moved to New York, I crave the approval of important people who run important institutions? Really? How did I get here?
Part of the issue is that what was once my art is now becoming my profession. Money and economics walk hand in hand with power and prestige and create a hierarchy. The insidious way in which I’ve bought into the theater caste system over the last eight months is a little scary and embarrassing. What I mean by the theater caste system is the top down pyramid of levels of shows that presume quality through economic investment: Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, off-off Broadway, and community-based theater. Admittedly, even the idea of attempting to climb this ladder of success wouldn’t have entered my consciousness if I weren’t part of the EWG. That the play I submitted to get into the group is a fourteen character piece set in 1947 South Asia, weaving the intimate, epic, and speculative, makes me sometimes hope there just might be room for my voice in the “upper rooms” of the theater hierarchy. The questions then are about my attachment to this ambition-this moving up in the hierarchy to be bestowed the resources so I can have MORE, BIGGER, BETTER.
What will happen, what will it mean if I don’t get MORE, BIGGER, BETTER?
And maybe more importantly, what am I willing to do to try to achieve it; give up to achieve it; to say/not say to achieve it; who am I willing to befriend/avoid to achieve it; who/what am I willing to support/ignore to achieve it? What will mark the “achievement of it” anyway? Or is it a bottomless desire?
In conversation with the EWG compañeros, we’ve talked about not begrudging each other’s opportunities and achievements because recognition for one makes us all more visible. We trust this to be true. Spiritually, however, I know that any attachment to receiving opportunities and accolades is a set up for envy, misery, resentment, and the no-win situation of comparing myself to others, in which, I will always come up short.
The interesting aspect about my struggle/discomfort with ambition in the context of the New York theater hierarchy is that I belittle my achievements in a way I do not judge others. These are things I’ve caught myself thinking and saying about my work: it was only an off-off Broadway production; it wasn’t an Equity so-and-so; it was just a short independent film; it wasn’t a national commercial; it wasn’t a paid blah blah. The list in my head of why it is not enough, why it should be MORE, BIGGER, BETTER goes on and on.
I have a friend who would read this and say, “Girl, you just being a damn ingrate – that is-ungrateful.” I smile as her voice in my head reminds me that I’m taking my professional/creative salvation through the theater caste system way too seriously. Other theater makers have shared that these thoughts and feelings are part of the transition of being a working artist in New York. As I finish writing this, I look forward to the next EWG meeting when an agent is scheduled to come to talk to us more about the business. I can’t help it - I’m seduced by the vast opportunities and encouraged by the endless trajectories…and grateful for a spiritual practice that occasionally challenges me to act on principles like integrity, generosity, and compassion to help keep MORE, BIGGER, BETTER in perspective.
Riti Sachdeva is a theater maker, dancer, and cultural worker currently writing a revenge fantasy with a boring working title so let’s just call it UNTITLED REVENGE FANTASY. Her piece SCENE/UNSEEN, which she conceived, co-choreographed, and performed in, was awarded Overall Outstanding One Act at the 2012 Planet Connections Theatre Festival. You can check out more of her work at http://www.facebook.com/midniteschild.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.