I have a friend who as a human, I adore her. I think she’s amazing. As a playwright, we bump heads. She wrote a play about a community she’d never so much as visited and depended only on online research. Since the community was not too far of a drive, I suggested she go there and talk to the community there. She said, “Playwrights should be allowed to use their imagination. We’re world-builders. Take that from us and what does that leave?”
And I remember how quickly that stunned me. Because, yes, I believe playwrights build worlds. Yes, I believe we can tell lies about realism and we can alter the physical world as we see fit to best tell a story.
But if we’re specifically writing a play about a certain community, doesn’t that kind of introduce new rules? Isn’t that a different game?
Barrington Stage Company commissioned me to write a brand new play last summer. They said I could write about whatever I wanted. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to write about. When I visited Barrington, I was kind of struck by the community there, specifically the lower income and homeless community. I think when people think of the Berkshires they think of great wealth (I imagined a Gilmore Girls type town). So to have my perceptions immediately challenged was wild.
And I knew I had to write about it.
The first version of the play took place in a church. It was based on this tight knit family, including a not so great police officer. There were these amazingly poetic monologues. A lot of gorgeous Catholic imagery. And was a very, very typical Rachel Lynett play. It had all my usual tricks. Mostly women. A smart ass younger woman too smart for her own good. Queer representation. A wise matriarch. The usual.
The company read the play and asked me to come back to make sure that the play truly represents Pittsfield.
I flew back to Pittsfield thinking okay I’m just going to learn the names of the shelters and maybe street names but overall I’m keeping the play as is.
The morning after I got there I went to First United Methodist Church. They host a breakfast on certain mornings for the housing insecure and lower income families. At the church, I met an officer and the woman who prepared the meal for this community. I noticed no one seemed uncomfortable that the officer was there. In fact, they all knew him, were friends with him. He was a part of this community.
I asked him how he got involved and I swear everything he said are the kinds of things I think every officer in the country right now should be saying. He talked about how upset he was by the police shootings and riots, how he thought about quitting, and how he needed to do something. He wanted to be sure his uniform didn’t represent fear. So he put himself out there. He got to know this part of his community (and others). He knows birthdays, he gives rides to shelters, etc.
Listening to him literally brought me to tears. In a really great way. It was a healing moment for me.
The woman hosting it talked about how she can’t remember when she wasn’t involved. How she’d make the meals for days a hot meal was served. Which meant sometimes making food for up to 100 people (as a volunteer). As I was sitting next to her, she was making a grocery list. Not for herself but for what she was going to make for this community.
I don’t know to explain what happened to me in that church but something changed. Something happened. The Catholic in me wants to believe I was touched by grace. The spiritualist in me believes there was a transference of energy. A sudden call to action.
And that call to action was to write about this community in a genuine way.
It was almost like something had taken me over. I was on autopilot. I started writing the play at 12 pm and finished at 8 pm. I had subconsciously realized that this community deserves a play that’s truly about them. That reflects them. And if it ever gets produced whether in Pittsfield or somewhere else, it’s got to tell the truth. These people, this community deserves to be heard.
Was it hard to put away my monologues and my Catholic imagery? Yes! of course. But I think as playwrights, it’s also up to us to decide what’s more important: our ego or the truth.
We can tell these grandiose stories. We can add all of this magic and fantasy and metaphor but if at the end of the day the community we’re writing it for doesn’t recognize it, then who was it actually for?
I’ve learned I want to be the kind of playwright who writes about communities. And I define communities loosely. Sometimes I mean an actual city. But some times I mean
And I want people to see these slices of incredibly messy life and be able to say I told the truth. Not just for my integrity sake but for the sake of the people I’m representing.
At the end of the day, I can’t say I’m writing towards social change if I can’t check my own privilege and my own ego.
If I can’t call myself out, how can I challenge anyone else?