The Real World, Theater Edition: Final Girl

Barbara Jwanouskos, determined to survive the night.

So, you know that ole trope in horror movies where there’s one final young woman who has to confront the killer and tell the story? Lately, what with all the playwright deadlines and opportunities, I’ve been feeling like that person – well, that is, I’m actually not sure if I’m the Final Girl or, maybe more likely, perhaps I’m the Penultimate Girl. What a way to go! You’re in the last 15 to 20 minutes of the film and then bam. Axe. In your brain. Awh, man!

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There was a great article I read recently about one playwright’s attempt to analyze all the rejection letters he had received over the years. By including a stamped postcard to the theaters he submitted his work to asking them to complete a postcard-sized survey and send it back, he found that:

“The likelihood that your unsolicited script will be rejected or totally ignored by a theater is 99.57 percent. That means no production, no showcase, no staged readings. Zip.”

-“How The World’s Most Frequently Rejected Playwright Survives” by Donald Drake

Granted, from a scientific perspective, there are a couple things with his methodology for data gleaning that are bit problematic, but even using this informal way of tracking play submissions, how dismal is that? It’s probably comparable to your odds of surviving a serial killer in a horror movie if you’ve had sex somewhere else in the film.

Like many other writers and artists of all kinds, I spend most of my days sending stuff off, crossing my fingers, and hearing, “No”. It can be a daunting task to continually pick yourself back up after each rejection, and if I could figure out a way to be a productive person without facing rejection or humiliation, I would choose that path. Unfortunately, with the odds ever not in my favor, I actually end up buying into the whole competitive spirit that maybe, just maybe this time, it’s gonna happen. Maybe it’s the drive for artistic survival?

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I will say that once it has been determined that I’ve received an opportunity, an award, or been accepted somehow by someone else, there’s a whole big element of my personality that finds that success hard to deal with and wants to discount the work I put in to do it. When I don’t get something it’s “But I worked so hard!” and when I do get something, it’s “WTF?! I guess I must have been lucky!” This is actually a whole phenomenon apparently, called “Impostor Syndrome”.

Impostor Syndrome basically says that you’re may be a highly successful/high achieving person, but you’re feelings around your achievements don’t match – that there’s an element of low self-esteem that makes you question whether you are “worthy” or “deserving” of receiving such accolades. I encountered this recently when I learned that I was accepted into Just Theater’s New Play Lab for 2014-2015. I saw the posts going up on people’s walls about a rejection and was able to put two and two together that there must have been some crossover with the news I had just received. I mean this is a local theater company I greatly respect who has produced playwrights that I look up to and want to emulate like Anne Washburn, Rob Handel, Erin Bregman, and Glen Berger to name just a few. Why would they want to work with me? And immediately the only reason I could justify it is that I must be good at proposal-writing (not playwriting) since I’ve made a career for myself in that.

It’s so not nearly like this because I would never want to diminish the suffering of another person who has gone through such trauma, but I think of the guilt survivors of horrible events feel that they alone are left standing. I look around at my playwriting buddies and feel a little guilty that I’ve been fortunate to be given an opportunity. But then this amazing thing happened that made me think, “Yes, this is what a community of artists is all about!” I got so many personal messages from people that were genuinely happy that I had been chosen for this role. I did that thing where you post your accomplishment on facebook and twitter, but those messages I received meant a lot. It was if it was saying, it’s okay to have a moment of success every so often.

If you’re gonna be the Final Girl, you might as well try and honor the people who didn’t make it this time around. Because more often we’re the Penultimate Girls and Boys. We’re close, but no cigar. We’re way off the mark. We’re the rejects. And we’re a community where both individual success and failure is completely okay, because as a group we’re still moving things forward.

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Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright who was recently welcomed to the Just Theater 2014-15 New Play Lab. She is a graduate of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University under Rob Handel’s direction. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

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3 comments on “The Real World, Theater Edition: Final Girl

  1. sftheaterpub says:

    Stuart here: I have always suffered from Imposter Syndrome. Sondheim beautifully nails the internal dialogue of people who have imposter syndrome in INTO THE WOODS.

    • bjwany says:

      YESSSSSSS!!!! And, you know, if Sondheim can write about Impostor Syndrome-type feelings enough to create the above, maybe we’re not alone in this world!! Sometimes I’m like, “The only thing worse than losing is winning.” Then, I’m like, “Shut up.”

  2. […] “Higher Education” to “The Real World, Theater Edition,” got accepted into Just Theater’s New Play Lab, and discovered quite the talent for interviewing local theater-makers about how they develop new […]

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