My second play as well as all of my movies: Gun Hill Road, Night Catches Us, Blue Caprice and Mother of George were all passion projects. They were made because the story and the art was amazing.
But that doesn't necessarily translate into a paycheck and its important to know that before you spend hours writing. As a new writer, your focus should be work that will put you on the map...You should be paid to write from the very beginning. You can learn while you write, but writing for free is what keeps you trapped in needing someone's approval in order to write.
That's the focus of my work as a coach right now. Because I believe black folks and women (the two groups I'm a part of and the two groups who have confused activism with complaining) need to create their own institutions and the only way to do that is start making work that will generate income. In a capitalist society, you can't work from a place of power and stability in a capitalistic society without that. If you don't want to work in a capitalist society: you can leave or you can change your life's mission from being a writer to changing the system. Pick your battles, otherwise, you accomplish nothing.
How do you create work that generates income?
1. By first finding your audience and creating a relationship with them
2. Finding out what they're interested in learning? Or what stories they want to hear more of?
3. Then creating story (with your own unique sensibility) that give your audience what they've been yearning for.
You create good will as well as loyalty from your audience when you create great work that sheds new light on problems and issues that have been plaguing them. People keep coming back for more when you speak to the things that are most important to them.
Black folks (and women) have been doing passion art, passion politics, passion complaining since slavery ended, it's time for something new. We now have enough black power players in the industry as well as the power of the internet to create our own shit. Now is not the time to rest on processes that exist only for the artist to work out their personal stuff, but to make story that combines the artist's personal politics along with a story that will reach huge amounts of people which translates into money and the power to do whatever the fuck you want down the road.
Recently a brilliant student sent me avant guard (meaning non traditional, non linear, playing with form) work inspired black women intellectuals writing in that form. Love Andrienne, Love Audrey, Love Susan (if you're in the know, you know exactly who I'm talking about and if you don't, then that's my point. If you've never heard of these people, then they're making work that ....elevated, it reaches only a few people: upper middle class intellectuals in liberal arts institutions.
So how do you create change when the only people who can relate to your work are folks with an upper middle class, liberal arts educations? It's preaching to a small choir which is why I left academia and the non-profit world. I want to stop worrying about being tenured, getting the grant and my writing being dependent on that. I want little black girls to be able to pick up my work, digest it and it and for it to have an immediate impact on their lives now (not once they're in college). I want to stop relying on white people to tell my stories and sustain my living while I do it. We're not moving forward if ultimately our work relies on corp structures whose foundation is historically white folks to sustain and tell our stories. That's simply a glorified version of slavery. Will all of my work be independent. No, I'll write for folks whose politics are similar to my own whether it's a theatre or a foundation. I'm currently writing a play and being supported by white institutions. But guess what? This play is about social justice for black people and has a huge audience of Black and white folks....So it's totally inline with my vision. And it has huge appeal, so it has a chance of making enough money to at least pay me for my work. But more importantly, it will reach the masses and create powerful change that will live beyond me.
So, in short, it's is totally okay, to work on your passion projects on your own. I can't begin to tell you how you'd like to play with form and create something new. I can't help you with that...that's your journey. What I can help you with is learning what Shonda learned: the structure of a well-made story that will have such a far reach, that it will give you the power to write anything in the future and get paid for it. And in order to do that, you must learn to write the way the game is currently being played (with your own voice/interests guiding the writing), then build on that with business strategy and make it better and sexier than what is currently in the marketplace.
I can teach you to write story that builds audience. That builds audience by virtue of the fact that the story is feeding your audience what they so desperately need. Once you provide them with that, you create an emotional bond that will keep them coming back for more.
And that in short is what all institutions in a capitalist country are built upon: creating a project that fulfills a deeply felt need in a lot of people. There's power in that. There's power in being able to change the conversation...There's power in institution building...
That is what I can teach you to do...xxox
April Yvette Thompson is a Tony-winning producer, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer in search of beauty, truth, love & flights of serendipitous grace.