This is the fiftieth (count ’em: 5-0!) in Entropy’s small press interview series, and we’re celebrating with an expansive interview from Plays Inverse Press, which includes an excerpt from Meg Whiteford’s upcoming book, The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies. Also keep an eye out this Friday for a feature including all fifty of the presses we’ve interviewed in the series—and if you want to catch up on the interviews you’ve missed, visit the ever-growing Small Press Database here.
Interview with Tyler Crumrine, Editor
How did Plays Inverse start?
I work in new play theatre, and a big part of the job is reading everything you can get your hands on. It’s in your, and your theatre’s, best interest to have a working vocabulary of the new shows being produced at any given time, and because theatre’s so limited by geography, you often wind up reading a lot more plays than actually seeing them. As I was reading, though, I kept finding myself frustrated by two things:
First, a lot of play scripts aren’t published that well. They’re printed on cheap paper, text is crammed together to save on pages, and they rarely get any kind of cover art. And unless a play gets SIGNIFICANT critical acclaim, it’s rare you’ll find anything nicer. Because by and large, dramatic presses aren’t publishing books, they’re publishing instruction manuals. And they’re not making money off of readers; they’re making money off of performance royalties. And it makes sense for the business model, but as someone who loves both physical books and dramatic lit, it hurt to see so many texts not getting the attention they deserved.
Secondly, I kept reading the same play over and over. Not the same text, but the same stories and structures. Because, again, play publishing is a royalties game, and the weirder, harder-to-produce shows are much less likely to get performed in colleges or theatres across America. Usually a show has to travel for it to catch a publisher’s attention, period. So if there’s some kickass, low-budget experimental show happening in a storefront somewhere, there’s a very small chance of you reading or seeing it unless you happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Around the same time, I was falling in love with small press poetry and really wanted to see more of that kind of experimentation and immediacy in plays. A number of folks were dabbling in publishing plays already—53rd State, Ugly Duckling, Lazy Fascist, and Noemi Press to name a few (and they all do a great job)—but I wanted more. Both for myself and for authors.
Eventually Jordan Harrison, one of the editors of Play: A Journal of Plays (if you love drama, seriously check out Play), sat me down and said, “Well, if you don’t like it, you should do something about it.”
So I reached out to a handful of publishers whose work I really respected—Adam Robinson at Publishing Genius, Mike Young at Magic Helicopter, and Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio—to ask whether they thought there was room for a small press play publishing outfit, and if so, how to even get it off the ground. With their encouragement and guidance, and a whole lot of research and prep, eventually the press was born.
As far as the name, it came from a phone mistakenly autocorrecting “plays in verse” to “plays inverse.” It just happened to capture exactly what the press was going for. To flip conventional play publishing on its head, while paying special attention to new styles and contemporary verse.
Tell us a bit about Plays Inverse. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I’ve got this beautiful copy of Archibald MacLeish’s play JB that was published by Houghton Mifflin back in 1956. It’s one of their Sentry Editions, and they bill it as intended “for a life on the shelf as well as in the hand.” I try to hold Plays Inverse to the same standard, publishing plays that read well (regardless of production records) in editions that respect and celebrate the text.
And a lot of my influences/inspiration comes directly from the small press community. More than live theatre sometimes. It’s hard to stay on top of everything, especially when there’s so much out there, but I feel lucky to be part of a time when small press publishing is even possible. So often I’ll read a poem or a short story and think, “Damn, this could be a GREAT monologue,” and have to gush about it on Twitter or send an email. There are a lot of folks writing daring, innovative stuff that’s RIGHT on the cusp of drama, and hopefully Plays Inverse can help them to take the next step if they want to.
I’ve also been super intrigued by the idea of impossible theatre lately. Plays that take advantage of a stage’s 3rd dimension (even in a reader’s imagination) but would be prohibitively difficult or expensive to actually perform. I strongly believe in dramatic literature as a unique and worthwhile reading experience, and when it comes down to it, those are the plays least likely to be experienced otherwise.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We’ve got three books out so far. Joshua Young’s THE HOLY GHOST PEOPLE is modern play in verse that’s one part mystery, one part sci-fi, and one part religious discourse. A cult arrives in a small town, and neither science nor faith is quite enough to explain them away. Justin Limoli’s Bloodletting in Minor Scales: A Canvas in Arms is much more serious. It’s an abstract biographical piece about Justin’s mother’s failed suicide and the anger, sadness, and confusion of trying to love someone after an attempted loss. Third, C Dylan Bassett’s The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theatre is a queer text on bodies, sexuality, and the ill-fitting roles society casts us in. It’s our least “play” play—made up of a series of prose poems rather than a concrete script—but each “scene” operates as a prompt for devised/improvised theatre as well as being a part of a larger whole. We printed it both as a book and as a limited edition deck of cards to allow remixing/shuffling.
We also just announced our fourth play: The Shapes We Make With Our Bodies by Meg Whiteford. It’s a maximalist, feminist spectacle, and I couldn’t be more excited to publish it. It’s not as verse heavy as our other plays, but it’s poetic and funny as hell. I mean, just read this excerpt listing the play’s settings:
ACT I, SCENE I
This should be performed as an immersive play. Set at a real pool. But all the elements should be slightly elevated. The filter a bit too loud, the water a bit too blue, the weather just a bit too perfect.
ACT I, SCENE II: A Therapeutic Relationship
Well, we probably can’t safely be in a real cavern so maybe a cavernous space so that all the voices echo and reverb. Like a church! Yeah, a church.
ACT I, SCENE III
This should be easy, laying outside. It should be on a hill. That seems like the most comfortable way to lay down and look up. The women should build themselves into a frenzy. Tearing hair, gnashing teeth, clawing the ground, picking up their skirts and dancing in circles. In fact, there should a ton of dancing throughout the entire play. As though the characters can’t stop moving their bodies. All the while saying their lines inaudibly, increasing in volume and blurring over one another, cutting each other off. Let’s hear what this sounds like and then we can always change it later.
ACT I, SCENE IV
The stage is now molten lava.
ACT II, SCENE I
These women just love lazing about so here we see them at a spa. I think it’d be hard to produce at a real spa, so instead, let’s cover the entire floor of whatever space we’re in with jade and make it super hot and steamy. It’ll smell clean and charcoal-like. You can come and lay down next to them, too, if you like.
ACT II, SCENE II
In a kitchen. Nothing special. I do want round-shaped cereal though.
ACT II, SCENE III
This should be a dark and secretive space. You have to brush past vines to find a door to a magical witchy room. The smell of incense should be overwhelming. Let’s burn a ton of sage during this scene.
Interlude: A Hocus Interrogation
Darkened stage. How will rocks perform? They are puppets, my dears.
ACT III, SCENE I
Courtroom. But I feel like it should be a fake courtroom. Maybe set back on the lawn or in the church or at the pool. It should be aware of itself as a courtroom. In fact, maybe this whole thing should be fake.
ACT III, SCENE II
In the background, HONEY’s silhouette moves along a cliff’s edge.
If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will. It’ll be out Fall 2015, and preorders will be available soon.
As far as the future, I’m excited to see more work that challenges what a play CAN be, as well as more female, non-binary, and non-white authors. The theatre world can be as bad (if not worse) about diversity as the publishing scene, and I want authors to know their work is desired and valued. And that in the meantime, I’ll be continuing to scout and solicit manuscripts from underrepresented voices to try and make up for any submission imbalances.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I think The Leslie Scalapino Award For Innovative Women Performance Writers is about as exciting as you can get. Check it out here, and if you haven’t read Joyelle McSweeney’s 2013 winner Dead Youth, or, The Leaks yet, get on that. Like, now. Go. It’s available from Litmus Press here, and they’ll be publishing the 2014 winner, NON-SEQUITUR by Khadijah Queen, Fall 2015.
And if I can take a second to talk about theatre, I get extremely excited about folks like The Killroys. They’re a group of female playwrights and producers dedicated to gender parity in the theatre, asking theatre leaders across the country to recommend plays written by women and trans* authors with one or no productions (readings not included). Plays with 4 or more recommendations are eligible, and the top 7% are curated into a list with a rights contact information attached. There’s a serious gender equality problem in the theatre, and the first step toward becoming a more conscious producer or audience member is to become aware of what’s out there. The list may not be comprehensive, but it’s a great start. You can read more here.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Plays Inverse?
One of the nice things about running an extremely niche press is that I typically don’t get overwhelmed with submissions. There are heavy months and there are light months, and there are some folks that just straight up send poetry without reading our mission statement, but I don’t receive NEARLY as many submissions as, say, a poetry press or a fiction press or—god forbid—one that publishes both. I’m able to read everything within a decent time frame and usually add a bit of a personal response with the eventual decision. I’d love to start receiving enough submissions that I need to think more seriously about fees or reading periods, but priority one right now is making folks feel welcome. If the occasion comes, I’ll reconsider, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed free and open year round, just with a longer response time.
If someone were thinking of starting a press though, my first advice would be to keep your scope small, specific, and necessary. There are other presses with more experience and resources publishing excellent poetry and literary fiction. You can always support them. But if starting a press dedicated to LGBTQ travel memoirs, or female penned 33⅓-style movie criticism, or African American science fiction will help voices be heard—and you have resources and expertise that puts you in a unique position to help serve those authors—by all means go for it. Please. And if any of those presses exist already, hell yeah. Let me know so I can buy books from them.
As far as the numbers game, I tend to keep the small in small press. A few presses I admired closed right around the time I was getting started, and I really took their words of warning in the aftermath to heart. And by far the biggest caution was not to spread yourself too thin. I tend to order a couple hundred books at a time, keep a close eye on stock, and make sure I maintain a separate standing fund equal to the initial printing costs of each book for whenever stock drops below a certain amount. When they do, I order a couple hundred more.
When it comes to performance rights & royalties, it all depends on the wishes of the author. The important thing is that Plays Inverse continues to be sustained through book sales, not performances, so that we can continue to publish plays as literature without worrying about the trappings of production.
I dunno. money’s weird, and there’s a lot of different ways to do things. And if you’re in small press publishing, you probably don’t need to make money to be happy. You may not even care about losing it. But if you run out of it, it’s going to hurt your authors most. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s always best to play it safe.