I am a playwright, which comes with its own particular set of cocktail party grenades like “Have I seen anything you’ve written?” (to which the answer is always “Likely not, and when was the last time you went to the theatre anyways?” at which point the person walks away) or “Have I read anything you’ve written?” (the vagaries of getting a play published aside, when was the last time you picked up a play at your local library or bookstore to read?) or possibly the worst “Do you ever write for television?” (the subtext being either “because theatre doesn’t matter” or “because then I may have something to say and wouldn’t have to struggle through this awkward conversation”, I can never tell which). Add to that the fact that I write primarily for children and so no, you probably haven’t heard of me, or seen my plays, or read my plays, and now you’re stuck holding a cheap glass of wine in a plastic cup and an over-cooked wiener on a stick and with an “I don’t know what to say next” look on your face hoping I’ll change the subject to something more familiar like the latest pop musician or the local sports team.
So here are some better questions to ask, and they can apply to most artists, if not most jobs in general. Since the point of small talk is either to get to know the other person better to develop a social relationship or for networking purposes (meaning figuring out if the other person has a skill set that is at all useful to you, or if you are at all useful to them), these questions will get me talking about what I do so you can decide whether you need me (socially or professionally) or not.
How do you create your plays? This is a reworking of the question “What is your artistic process?” which most people (unless they are also artists) wouldn’t think to ask, but this is where the meat of both my interests (if we are socializing) or skill set (if we are networking) can be discovered. Plays are funny things that can involve a lot of people, and be influenced and affected by those people, and turn into something incredible (or disastrous) that is totally different from the original intent. It is much more collaborative than writing prose and poetry, which can be both magical and exciting and incredibly frustrating. There are also a million ways to do it, so if you ask every theatre artist you meet, you’ll likely get a different answer every time. This is the question that will get you the most interesting, and often most hilarious stories.
What do you find difficult about play creation? Again, this is a great all purpose question to get people talking about the things that drive them crazy about their profession.. And you never know, you may learn something about making art or the Canadian theatre scene you didn’t know before.
What brings you joy about play creation? The antithesis to the last question. Some people will ask “Why do you write?” and the answer is very short and obvious: I have to. Writing is a compulsion. I’m one of those writers who wake up in the middle of the night with characters either talking to me or to each other and I have no choice but to listen to them until they’ve all said their peace. But what brings someone joy about what they do can reveal a lot about who they are as a person, and that’s the point of small talk right? Right.
Now eat your wiener before it congeals.