In the summer of 1986, I took a three-month literary internship at Playwrights Horizons.
I was surprised to get it, because the interview had started so disastrously. Playwrights Horizons is in what was then a rough section of Manhattan, and had a security door that you had to buzz to get in. For some reason, I couldn’t get manage the door. Buzz. Garbled intercom instructions. Me doing something wrong. More buzzing. More garbled words. More incompetence. The intercom voice got frustrated and increasingly mean.
Once I managed it, I found myself in a plain hall leading to a stairway. My entrance had been so fundamentally stupid that I did not wish to claim it. I realized that I could leave, wait five minutes, and try again.
That was how I learned about security cameras.
The entire episode—inside and out—Mr. Magoo and (much worse) Craven Skulker —was being fed to a monitor mounted in the lobby where it was being watched by the receptionist and by a roomful of mesmerized actors who were waiting to audition.
“We could see you,” said the receptionist intern flatly.
The internship consisted of reading plays, and rejecting them.
Three to five scripts arrived every day and landed in one of two piles. The larger pile was for me and my fellow interns. The smaller-but-not-small pile was for scripts that hinted at merit: a familiar name, an interesting resume’, a trusted recommendation.
My initial fear, that I’d miss something great, didn’t last through the first day. There’s a lot of bad playwriting in the world and my dispiriting realization was that some of that bad playwriting was mine. I’d be reading through a script thinking, “terrible, terrible, terrible” and then invariably there would come a moment when I’d think, “oh, I tried something like that last night.”
Cover letters revealed that literary interns at other theatres were sending plays to me, and vice versa. We rejected each other and, in turn, were rejected.
It was an awful summer, ferociously hot. I was teaching in Brooklyn at the time, and would go to the theatre after work. The subway cars were mostly not air-conditioned and every single person riding in those cars was sweaty and depressed.
I was a crappy intern. Once, I entered the office to find the Artistic Director and the Operations Manager shouting at each other. Many of the letters stamped by the new stamping wetting machine were being returned. Apparently the managing director had been the one in favor of the machine.
As I passed by the angry men, I felt the electric shock you get when you realize you’ve made a bad mistake. I had recently lugged a huge batch of letters to the post office. And I had forgotten to put on stamps on them, any stamps, with or without a machine.
The recently banished Craven Skulker returned, took my hand, and quietly pulled me to the next room.
But it wasn’t just mistakes that made me a bad intern. I realized without realizing it that I wanted to be a playwright, not a literary manager. I didn’t take home scripts. I never got around to figuring out the new-fangled Microsoft Word forms. Sometimes the benefit of being an intern is that you find out what you don’t want to do.
There was some way to extend the internship, a small promotion. But at the end of the three months the literary manager, Tim Sanford, gently told me that he wasn’t ready to offer me that. So the internship ended.
Most of the plays I’ve written have been one-acts, but ten years ago I attempted an ambitious full-length called Sunday Night. It was a fantasy: the protagonist gets snatched into another world and has to get back. I got in over my head; writing it was a four-year slog.
When it was finished, I sent it to Playwrights Horizons. Tim Sanford, who is now the Artistic Director, read it and wrote me a rejection himself. It was short, but it used the phrase “expository weight.” I knew instantly that that was eighty percent of what was wrong with the play. Essentially, what it meant was that I’d spent so much time figuring out the fantasy world, that I’d left too much explanation of it on the page.
The conventional wisdom about internships is that they pay off in the long term. My fantasies of how this would work were not subtle; someone I worked with would become powerful and hire me.
Instead, what happened is this: twenty years after working at Playwrights Horizons, I hopped from the huge pile to the smaller-but-still- huge pile. The rejection came not from a skittish intern but from the artistic director, and included in it was advice so good that it made me a better playwright.
That short, excellent rejection letter wasn’t anything I could have foreseen when I walked into the lobby for the interview only to find a dozen actors embarrassed for me, suddenly a little too interested in their sides. It wasn’t what I expected during those depressed, sweaty subway rides. But it was worth every moment of that internship.