It’s Leo season. #GLOWUP. Am I feeling the glow-up? Um….
Well. I spent Friday night on the kitchen floor drinking from a bottle of wine and eating Skittles for dinner while I cried about how everything is trash and miserable and how I’m wasting away my potential and how I’m 30 now and I should be much closer to…
You get it.
By October 1, I need to write three plays. Two of them, I’m truly just starting from scratch. The third one I need to deeply edit but I’m at odds with the feedback I got so I’m trying to process that first. I think I have a very different vision of what that play is than the theatre company I’m writing it for and that’s causing a bit of a kerfuffle.
As for the other two plays, I just really, really need to write them. I need to carve out two different weekends and just tell myself “Okay bish. This is what you’re doing.”
Instead, though, I’ve been working on a Panic!at the Disco x Taylor Swift musical that will never see the light of day because (1) there’s no way I’d get the rights and (2) it’s messy and personal in a way I’m not interested in sharing (so no you can’t read it).
Even now, I should be working on those plays and not writing a blog post. But I’ve had a really hard week. The world has had a really hard week. So instead, I’m going to write 3 thoughts on playwriting. And I’m sure this will evolve. Maybe one day, when I’m 45 and still haven’t had more than 3 productions and still working in company management, I’ll have a whole lot more thoughts.
But for now…
I don’t trust the “rules” of playwriting.
I’m incredibly suspicious of anyone who claims to have the magic formula to playwriting. Even when I teach beginning playwriting or a playwright workshop now, I tell my students this is just the gateway. It’s just a way to start. Ultimately, every playwright makes their own rules, whether they realize or not. Or rather, every smart playwright makes their own rules.
Don’t want to start “as late as possible” in the story? Then don’t. I don’t. I usually start after the story is over. I like to think of my plays as an afterbirth, the messiness after END OF PLAY.
Don’t like that something “has to happen”? Cool. Nothing has to happen. Write incredibly compelling characters. There are characters who I would love to just watch talk for hours. Sometimes all that needs to happen is an emotional connection between the humans on stage and the humans watching them.
All this to say, write the play you want. Write it the way you want. And if someone says “you can’t do that” then say thanks, move on, and work with someone who’s vibrating on the same frequency as you are.
I don’t give a f*ck if a play is good. Don’t write what’s good. Write something that’s true.
One of my biggest…I don’t want to call it a pet peeve but we’ll say frustrations, especially with younger writers, especially with younger writers who are women, is when they ask “What if it’s not good?” And then they stop writing. They get in the way of themselves because all their lives they’re been told they have to fit this impossible standard of good, of perfect. This obsession with what’s clever, what’s unqiue, what’s showy is what’s killing playwriting.
I’ve read a lot of plays that are “good.” And by the end of them, I just think “okay cool. You understand form” or “Okay great. You know how to play with spectacle” and then I never think about that play again. Those plays have no heartbeat. They have no residue. They’re showing off the writer’s skill and that’s it. And that’s not what I came to theatre for.
Frankly, I don’t think that’s what most of us die-hards came to theatre for.
The plays I found myself drawn to, the plays I’m compelled to write are plays that reveal something true. Sometimes it’s a collective gathering to celebrate a truth and celebrate what it truly means to be alive, good or bad (for colored girls by Ntozake Shange, Sonnets for an Old Century by Jose Rivera, Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield). Sometimes it’s a darker truth, a “we need to be better” or “we need to remember what we’ve done” (literally anything by Lynn Nottage, Venus by Suzan Lori Parks, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You by Churchill).
As writers, we need to focus on “Am I telling the truth?” Not “Is it good? Will someone like it?” Because here’s the thing, just because someone likes it, that still doesn’t make it good. Because good isn’t actually measurable. “Good” is an excuse you give yourself to not write. It’s writer’s denial dressed up as writer’s block.
Who gives a f*ck if it’s good? Tell me something deeply true about the world. Show me something.
Theatre is for white, able-bodied people. We cannot truly change that until we dismantle the tools of oppression theatre holds up.
Bet you weren’t expecting that one. Those exact two sentences are what got me fired.
Lately, a lot of theatres have been re-addressing the way they have been approaching the art form. Dominique Morisseau wrote Playwright’s Rules of Engagement and now (thankfully) theatres are re-thinking their shushing policy, how someone is allowed to express themselves, etc.
And I think that’s great. Yes, we should allow different kinds of engagement.
But also, can we talk about the way theatrical design isn’t inclusive? How when it comes to lighting design, different skin tones needs to be considered when different races are on stage? And complaining that it’s harder is ignoring the fact that it’s harder because people of color were never supposed to be on stage to begin with and that’s not acceptable. How color theory hasn’t always been inclusive.
How sometimes, conflict-driven plays take away the opportunity to get to know another community. If I want to stage a community that’s never been on stage before, maybe it’s okay that nothing happens because the point of the play is to introduce the audience to a community and not to create trauma porn.
Think about it. Aristotelian structure makes sense when you (the audience) already identify with the people on stage. So, since you’re all on the same page about what it means to be alive, the basic connector, there needs to be a conflict, a problem. Because that’s what propels the story forward: the understanding that you’re starting at a common place with the people on stage, “This is a recognizable life” (stasis) and then go on a journey with them based on that common understanding (rising action) and then can empathetically engage with the presentation of the big bad problem (climax) and then together you can breathe it out and go “Look at what we just went through together” (the resolution).
But what happens when you don’t start a common place? What happens when you present a community that differs from your audience? And what happens to the audience members who don’t understand that stasis?
They stop coming back. Because the stasis they saw on stage isn’t theirs. So they can’t go on that journey because they were never welcome to join. They were never asked to join. It was just assumed that they would even though the world presented before them is completely unrecognizable.
That’s my beef with conflict-driven plays. With Aristotelian structure. It assumes everyone has the same stasis and we don’t. And theatre can never be inclusive until we acknowledge that.
Bonus Thought: Writing is hard. Let’s stop letting people convince us it’s easy.
The fastest I’ve ever written a play is 8 hours. The longest it’s taken me to write a play is a week. Plays kind of just fall out of me.
When I say that, I mean the actual writing part. The hitting the keyboard part. I’m not including the angst, the staring out the window at work, the really weird dreams, the times I’ve pulled over while driving because the fight in my head was getting too distracting…
I am just including the actual writing time.
Frankly, I find that impressive. That I can just drop a play in a day. And to be honest, since I like to procrastinate, it’s come in handy. There have been at least three times now when a company asked me for a play that wasn’t done and I was able to finish it overnight.
But, what I don’t share and should is what happens after. When I’m done writing a play, I have this very exhausted-excitement. I’m literally shaking and usually sweating. It’s a very physical experience for me. And despite being wired, it’s a nervous energy that isn’t productive. I can’t even read a play I’ve written until at least two days after I’ve written it.
It takes a lot out of me. It sounds dramatic but once I’m done writing a play that fast, my limbs hurt. My head hurts. It takes me a while to think and speak clearly (poor Josh has experienced this and he thinks it’s the weirdest thing).
Also, I’m completely at the demand of inspiration. I write so quickly because until something outside of my body happens (and what that something is, I don’t know) that tells me “It’s time to write,” I can’t write. Nothing I write makes sense. It’s forced and it’s not true.
I need to be inspired.
And that’s just my process. There are so many others and each one of them needs to be appreciated, not just the final product.
My last boss didn’t appreciate “soft skills.” The ones that are about deep empathy, understanding, etc. He only appreciated things he could see, tangibles. Set construction, money from grants, etc. He couldn’t appreciate proper season planning, overarching themes, truly inclusive programming…
Let’s not be that way. Just because you don’t see the war playwrights have to go through to create a play, that doesn’t mean it’s just something they did on the way to brunch. Just a cute little story they thought of while walking the dog.
And for my writer friends, don’t be so hard on yourself. Writing isn’t easy. It’s a reckoning. And it takes time. You have to be in the right frame of mind. And you have to be mentally strong enough to take it all on. It’s okay if that strength takes a little extra time to be gathered. It’s okay to take years and not days.
You’re brilliant. All of you. Whether you’re actively creating something or not has nothing to do with that brilliance. It’s inherent.
Own it, love it, know it.