On rejection

Don’t ask me why I’m willing to speak openly about having “Pigeons,” a one-act play I wrote, get rejected. Actually, it’s been rejected three times — by Second Stage Theatre, Walnut Street Theatre (Philadelphia) and the American Theatre of Actors. If you have a perverse sense of self, along with issues of ego dissolution, as I’m sure I do, you would think I’d take some pains to hide my failure. I certainly shouldn’t treat this rejection trifecta as occasion to boast.

Boasting I am certainly not. But, for some uncharacteristic reason, I am taking sort of an anthropological interest in the rejection of this specific play. The first two rejections — by Second Stage and Walnut Street — came fast and definitively. Sorry, nope, this doesn’t work for us. I was grateful, I think, that my unsolicited ten-page excerpt was read, reviewed and dispatched within a couple of weeks after my submission. At least somebody is opening envelopes and returning self-addressed postcards. Maybe they are answerable to a higher corporate authority at year’s end just as I, a communications factotum at IBM, am.

My rejection by the American Theatre of Actors is really what got me to feeling not so bad about myself. Because my rejection there was partly self-induced.

James Jennings, the likeable, accessible director of this theater, told me that he gave “Pigeons” a high grade. At least when I called him to get his opinion about the play, he was able to remember that it is a long one-act with two characters, a male Puerto Rican courier and a white female graduate student. She’s actually Jewish, which, I believe is a critical feature in the story and ought not to be overlooked. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Mr. Jennings took issue with the ending. After a fairly long, entertaining joust between Henry and Sally on a New York City subway platform, Henry loses his cool. He threatens, mostly in a paper-tiger sort of way, to throw Sally onto the tracks. The two have built up some meaningful psychological capital by the time this happens, but Sally’s response is to flee the scene. Mr. Jennings felt that this ending was not satisfactorily theatrical. I do not dispute that he may be right.

But in the play, I am aiming more for a psychologically true ending, not necessarily a more “satisfying” one where, say, Henry and Sally, decide to go out dancing together, or manage within 45 minutes to overcome a myriad of cultural obstacles and declare their love in facile off-off-Broadway style. “Pigeons” is a story about the temptation individuals from different backgrounds and different mindsets have for each other. You could even say that it’s a story about the attraction and repulsion between the character who represents a world with no limits and the character who represents a world with lots of them. The compulsion to mix it all up is real, but any true reconciliation between adversaries simply isn’t.

To wit: Ask Bin Laden if he can compromise with the Great Satan over some of his most dearly felt convictions. Ask Hamas if, for the sake of peace, it will begrudge Israel its small corner of the earth. Ask devout secularists if they can tip their hat once in a while to God just so they can reach some common ground with evangelicals. Cheesh, ask the Sunnis and Shiites, whose philosophies nobody in the Western world can makes heads or tails out of, if they can just get along.

And so “Pigeons” must end with Sally running up the steps and back onto the street — running from the subterranean world of possibility to a world up on the street bounded on all sides by fear, prejudice, education, tradition — by civilization as we know it.

This isn’t to say that the characters are unchanged by having met each other. Henry, in fact, is moved to his core by this girl he has chided and desired for a mere moment in time. Who hasn’t had a stray experience he (or she) cannot forget — that hasn’t changed him more than all the religious, social and class training poured into him from the second he’s born?

Mr. Jennings graciously offered to reconsider “Pigeons,” perhaps even mounting a production, if I reworked the ending. Now, I’m as eager as the next aspiring playwright to have her work performed. But if I changed the ending to allow for some “possibility of connection” between these two characters, I’d have to admit that everything that came before — all of the conversation about being Puerto Rican or Jewish, about being an unskilled worker or an intellectual, about having an unstable home life or doting parents — all of that could be overcome by the simple good will of two young people. Such an ending makes me squirm. It doesn’t work for me.

So — the wait goes on. Maybe somebody in an American theater will understand what I’m trying to get at in “Pigeons.” It’s a play about desire and curiosity, feeling and intellect. It’s a play in which these contrarieties must look upon each other with longing, and, sadly, resentment.

Sometimes our most wished-for ambitions are, well, sort of theatrical, but they are simply not attainable in the world as we know it.

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1 Comment »

  1. Haixun Wang said

    You know, I always hoped that I can write you in Chinese.

    The new entry on your blog is very nice, but I am not sure if I can express myself.

    First, on rejections. I submit quite a few papers to academia conferences every year. The acceptance rate of these conferences is somewhere between 10% and 20%. So most submissions are rejected. When I was in graduate school, I would be quite upset about the rejections. Not now. I was having dinner with a professor several months ago. It was right after a major conference announced their accepted paper list. We were talking about the criteria of paper selection, and we thought they were quite absurd (because they were inconsistency, as the conference had a large program committee). Then he asked if I would be upset if my papers got rejected by some conferences. I said no, unless the conference was going to be in an exotic place.

    One thing I learned very early from the submission/rejection/recycling game is that, in order to be free of the agony of being rejected, just ensure you have enough papers in the pipeline. For 10% and 20% acceptance rate, if I have 5-10 papers in the queue, some will get accepted.

    But after a few years, I learned something else. It’s not just about getting accepted, or having a long publication list. It should be really about science, shouldn’t it? Since when it becomes a game of chasing the number of publications?

    That’s how I felt when you said you rejected Mr. Jennings’ suggestion on rewriting the ending. In literature I have a bitter taste — just like I enjoy the bitterness of dark chocolate. I enjoy tragedies more than comedies, and I don’t weep for misfortunes that can be explained away by unlucky coincidences. Understanding that life is an unavoidable tragedy may not enable us to live a better life, but maybe, a more truthful life.

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