No.18 Literary Managers I've Tea'd With
Updated: Feb 2, 2019
In 2014, I took myself to London for 50 days for my 50th birthday. Before I left the northwest, a Seattle union theatre had put out a call for a new literary manager. I sent them my resume and cover letter and then got on a plane to London. In my cover letter, I talked about reading all of Tennessee Williams' plays when I was in high school and how when I got to college, I went to the library and made a vow to the bookshelves that I would read every theatre book in the stacks by the time I graduated. And I did. It was a good cover letter. I don’t know if it ever got read.
After being in the UK for a couple of weeks and having checked my emails with no response from this Seattle union theatre – not even an acknowledgment of having received my application - I thought I could turn disappointment into Lemonata using this non-job potential as leverage. I wanted to learn how the literary office of The Royal Court Theatre manages to make such astonishingly brilliant choices. I saw my first play at the Court in 1986 and I’ve been hooked ever since by their dedication to the text being first and foremost.
I sent the Court literary office an email explaining that I was applying for the job in Seattle and was hoping to meet someone in their office while I was in London so I could learn about their work. What I did not expect was to hear directly from the Royal Court Literary Manager, Chris Campbell. He was more than happy to meet with me.
In my journal, I wrote:
"I’m nervous about meeting the Royal Court guy - Chris Campbell - for fear he won’t think me intelligent or sophisticated enough."
Chris was warm, welcoming, and completely unaffected.
When we met, Chris Campbell had been at the Court for five years and before this, Deputy Literary Manager at the National Theatre. In the restaurant of the theatre over tea, our conversation started with him telling me about a crazy email exchange he had with an agent about a writer the Court didn’t want to produce and how he negotiated that email exchange. Right out of the starting gate he launched into the day to day challenges of his job and it just got more interesting from there.
Some of my notes:
“Playwrights are the primary artists in theatre”
“We choose plays that are connected to public life.”
“We get new writers to the point where they have a play we want to produce. We don’t teach them how to write.”
“Is the writing honest?”
“Playwrights are, for the most part, lower middle class. Actors are not."
“We hire 12 readers and pay the £10 per script. I don’t ask them to read more than 10 pages unless they are hooked.”
“Commissions are £2000 to write, research, and develop new plays.”
“You’ve got to look at everything that comes in. A play from Caryl Churchill might be in that day’s mail.”
The Court produced Churchill six months later.
I sat outside the theatre after that meeting and could not believe my luck. That night I realized I had not asked him about dealing with writer’s agents and he recommended I talk to Sebastian Born at the National Theatre. And it happened all over again. I felt I was in over my head but that afternoon at the National I was given a master’s class in how to run a literary office. I also met Scott Rudin because he was there for the opening of a play he produced.
Whereas Campbell was a self-described gregarious motorcycle rider, Born was a bookish, soft-spoken wit.
Here are some of my notes from my National tea time:
“The activity of a theatre is putting on plays. Other programming, including education and fundraising, are secondary.”
“Don’t let your intellect dictate choice. Does it move you? Not, is it interesting?”
“Don’t be an administrative person. You must have a trusting relationship with the Artistic Director.”
“Respond to plays. Never say it is brilliant.”
“American plays are about family. European plays are global and political and about public life.”
Both of these conversations and the professional passion for plays those two men feel will stay with me as I move forward with my third go as an Artistic Director. The play’s the thing. Dead stop.
Side note: After we met, Sebastian Born asked me for my cup sleeve marked with the National Theatre logo. He said he could cash it in for a discount on tea. Even at the National folks are trying to make ends meet.
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