I’m still carrying with me the intense amount of joy that I received from the staged reading of Books & Bridges. Joe Bishara, Sami Cline, and the cast were exceptional to work with. The cast was simply “on” that final performance. It helped that we had a large audience in that little room and that the audience was completely invested in the play. The mood of this performance felt “lighter” than the first performance. The audience carried it to a different emotional core that was still true to the heart of the play, but lifted it. I don’t want to say that it was funnier per se, but I guess light-hearted-er? Buoyant. Maybe that’s the better word. It was buoyant. And I couldn’t be happier.
I had the chance to talk to Jeremy Sony for the second time “IRL” (I don’t really say IRL. I feel dirty having written IRL…). We had just a moment to chat about upcoming projects that we both have. He has a commission coming up for the city of Grove City, OH. I also got to talk to David Tull (who is currently in Leaving the Atocha Station being done by Available Light Theatre. I’m going this weekend!) and his wife Kate Tull who both went to the University of Iowa! David also taught at my undergrad Coe College. So, they had some idea on where the city of “Red Cedar, Iowa” was influenced by. (I still think I might develop a book of the “Red Cedar Plays.” 2 take place there now. Well, 3 if you count Solamente Una Vez, but I don’t think the city is ever named…) Anyway, I’m meeting with Kate to talk about where Books & Bridges could go and talk about my latest drafts of Woman Studies. It’ll be great to meet with a dramaturg. I miss dramaturgs. I miss other playwrights, too. Jeremy’s now in Columbus, so we can meet up and another friend of mine wants to start up a playwriting group. I say anything that will keep momentum going.
Speaking of momentum, I’m going to tell a seemingly unrelated little story that is now helping my focus as I move forward to my next writing projects. In 2011, at the day job, we had this thing called the “Cardio Challenge.” It was a two month long commitment towards our health and fitness (Our company is big into health and fitness). When you signed up, you chose a certain level based on the number of miles you would walk/run during the Cardio Challenge. I chose 75 miles, the Bronze Level. (Spoiler Alert: I reached the Silver Level) During your runs (or walks), you would use a Nike app for your phone and it would track your miles. It was all about miles. I did really well with it; woke up in the morning, ran a mile, walked on every break, walked in the evening at home. But somewhere around the middle of the challenge, I felt burnt out. It wasn’t fun anymore. I dreaded putting on the running shoes. I was annoyed at walking outside. I took a few days off from running, which, of course, made it that much harder to get into it. I ran and ran and ran and did feel a great sense of accomplishment when I received my lovely custom T-shirt emblazoned with my number of miles I had run, but the discipline of running a mile each day wasn’t something that carried over after the challenge ended. It was over, so I was finished.
This year, the Cardio Challenge returned after a 3 year hiatus. The rules were completely different this year. First off, we were on teams instead of on our own, so there was some nice support built in. Second, we were using a completely different app that tracked the calories we burned each day instead of miles. The rules were simple: if you burn your current weight in calories in a single day, you get a point. If you get 40 points, you win the Bronze level. Now, at first, I was running a mile each day; I even started a week early to get myself in the habit again. However, after day 3 of the challenge, I got burnt out with running. It happened so quickly that it surprised me. Then, I remembered that it wasn’t about running miles; it was about burning calories. So, I dusted off my Nintendo Wii and started (Wii) boxing, playing (Wii) tennis, and playing (Wii) baseball. I did sword fighting and Hula Hooped my heart out. I had fun. Running the miles wasn’t fun anymore, so it was a chore to do it, but I could play 45 minutes of boxing and break a great sweat and be ready to do it again the next day because it was FUN. I lost more weight this year than last time, and I’m going to lose more now that my calorie burning has continued past the challenge’s end.
What does this have to do with playwriting? I used to think that playwriting was about pages written. I wasn’t writing unless I was getting pages written. If I didn’t get words on the page, I wasn’t successful that day. What worth did I have as a writer if I wasn’t “writing” daily? There’s something to be said for the discipline of writing each day, but there’s also something that’s highly unsatisfying about the grueling nature of forcing myself to slog through getting pages written. It’s also stressful and just plain not fun. I don’t have fun when I’m grinding my gears, forcing pages out that I may or may not be ready to write. I’d much rather concentrate on burning calories. What can I do today that will advance my projects, but, more importantly, keep my momentum going towards my further development as a playwright? Writing, yes. But also reading a friend’s play, going to see a play, talking about my projects with someone, blogging(?), drawing (which I love and miss doing), making wonderful lists of the projects to help remind me of the “big picture” and future goals, and so on. Yes, there will be a time when pages will have to be written, but just because I have a day where pages aren’t written doesn’t mean I’m not “writing.” I promise to burn calories as a playwright every day as I move forward with my next projects: a play steeped in Greek mythology for Columbus School for Girls, a childrens’ play about a pirate named Cheesybeard, and a rewrite of my adaptation of Molière's Learned Ladies. Those are the next things near the top of the list. I will capitalize on the momentum gained from Books & Bridges and have a good time doing it. Yes, I will work hard, but I’m going to make damn sure I have a damn good time while doing it.
Thank you to Joe, Sami, Erin, Andrew, and Nikki for burning so many wonderful calories with me.
And to you, my fellow theatre-makers, burn those calories and don't forget to have fun.
As always, be excellent to each other.
This past Sunday was the first performance of Books & Bridges. I was sick to my stomach the whole day, running to the bathroom almost every hour, trying desperately to be calm. It was the first time in 6 years that one of my full-length plays had been heard/seen by an audience. I saw all the “flaws” in the piece and wondered if they (the audience) would tear it apart. There are two specific places in the play where my delicate, fleshy underbelly is exposed and vulnerable and they are both in the final moments of the play: a monologue and the ending. Once I stood in front of the audience, introducing myself and the play and said a couple of jokes, I fell into a trance-like acceptance of the situation and finally felt myself relax. Until those vulnerable moments showed up… But somewhere in there, I relaxed, too.
In the past, I had issues watching my plays when they were performed. I would listen, close my eyes, put my head down. I used to say that I was “riding the audience” and listening for how they were experiencing the play. I now think that I was, to put it bluntly, bullshitting myself. I think I was scared of watching what was happening on stage because I wasn’t confident about the play. In the reading of Books & Bridges, I didn’t take my eyes off of Erin, Nikki, and Andrew as they moved around the playing space. I almost, ALMOST, looked down when Erin started the monologue, but I looked up, and forced myself to watch and experience it with the audience. I felt myself try to look down again about 3 more times, but each time I said to myself, “What the hell are you doing? Watch them work! Watch them play! Watch them be amazing!” And they were. I’m not just saying that because they might read this blog post. I mean it. They were awesome. They found new moments, new energy, new connections, and they made me smile, laugh, and made my heart warm with pride for their work, Joe’s work, and, yes, my work.
A couple of audience members took to Facebook and wrote tiny comments about the play on the “Event” page. One said: “Wonderful play, terrific story and dialogue and exceptional performances by Erin, Andrew and Nikki! This one is a MUST-see!” A “MUST-see.” That hit me. That hit me hard. At least one person felt strongly that people should see the play. “How does that make you feel?” my wife asked me. “I’m not sure,” I answered.
After the reading there was an Q & A session, which always makes me a little nervous. One person asked me about the “theme” of the play. I stumbled, but did pretty well. I should’ve expected that question, but didn’t prepare answers. I probably should’ve, like a practice debate… Another person asked, “What feeling do you want people to feel at the end?” Umm… I want them to be entertained, I said. I want them to feel… Something. Maybe hope. Maybe sadness. I stumbled really hard on that one. I hadn’t ever thought about what I wanted people to “feel” at the end of the play. My concern was that the ending spoke to the beginning of the play and was the ending that the play called for, that the play was leading to. The audience’s feelings weren’t ever on my radar. I figured they would laugh at the jokes and just hoped they would feel “something.” I wasn’t very articulate with that answer, but I’m prepared for it in case it comes up again.
After the Q & A, the gentleman who asked me about how I wanted people to feel came up to me and gave me what amounted to a mini-lecture about what a play is meant to do: it can move along a spectrum from making people feel introspective to making people feel outward (I forget the exact phrase he used, but the example he gave was people hating World War II). He said that my play was mostly introspective. Yes, I said. And then he started speaking about my characters and how they relate to the audience and how the audience relates to them and told me that two of my characters were unrelatable. “Okay. Sure. Thank you for your comments.” I was very friendly and didn’t argue or speak. I let his comments wash over me without judgement (it was damn hard to not address his comments in the moment, but I didn’t want to get into deconstructing my characters or the play, beat by beat to prove points because that’s just silly and I shouldn’t have to). I wondered if what he said had any merit or if what he experienced spoke to something that might be missing from the play. What I decided (I’m still thinking about it) was that I disagreed with one of his assessments of a character and that another of his comments might speak to something that is missing. But mostly, I disagree.
Anyway, I exposed my fleshy underbelly last Sunday, I was vulnerable, but I emerged unscathed. I am so satisfied with the experience and can’t wait for next Sunday to do it all again! But, then again, I don’t want next Sunday to come because then this experience will be over. The return to the day job and the “normal” day to day looms on the following Monday. I need this experience to carry me until the next one. I hope that the relationships made during this process continue.
My fellow theatre-makers, I hope that you’re being energized by your work, whether it is in front of an audience or still baking in the back of your minds. Be excellent to each other.
PS- I’ll post some video highlights of the play to this site soon!
This week was the first week of rehearsals for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges. As you can see from the photo above, it's very staged, which makes me insanely happy.
I'm going to start this post with a (seemingly) unrelated story. In college, I asked this girl out to dinner and to see a production of Little Shop of Horrors (Which I had great issues with. They added 3 men that interacted with the 3 women chorus. STUPID!). Anyway, the girl I asked out was pretty cool, so to make the date not seem like a date to help her say "yes," I said that my friend Miriam and I were going to see the show. Okay, here's the important part of the story: I tend to ramble. At dinner, I found myself spouting an unending stream of nervous chatter. My friend Miriam bet me that I couldn't stop talking for fifteen minutes. I took the bet and spoke not a single word for 25 minutes! (However, I did pretend to cut my throat with a butter knife and smear sweet and sour sauce on my neck as blood. BUT I didn't say a word.) At the 25 minute mark, Miriam said, "I suppose the time is almost up." I shouted, "I've been able to talk for 10 minutes!" I won.
What does this have to do with rehearsals? I made the promise to myself, and to Joe, my director, that I would be a silent observer in the rehearsal room. This is not because I didn't want to participate or be a collaborator; I didn't want to be a crutch or the keeper of all the answers. I wanted to actors to puzzle things out, such as the timelines that defined their relationships. When did Dane and Julia meet? Did they date? If so, how long did they date? How long has it been since they've seen each other? What was the last time they saw each other before the play begins? I had the answers, but I wasn't telling. I wanted to leave room for Joe and Erin and Andrew to make their choices, which would define the ways they would play the scene.
Collaboration in a rehearsal room, especially being a playwright is an interesting beast. In a lot of ways my role as collaborator became less active. I wrote the play, the script is "locked" for the readings (no changes!), and now it's Joe and the actors who get to wrestle and wrangle and wriggle their way into the play that I've provided. Collaboration is not about a lot of cooks in the kitchen; it's about everyone having a role, a perspective, and space to add. For example, Erin's portrayal of Julia is based on the script, her aesthetics as an actor, the ways that Nikki and Andrew make their decisions about their characters, and Joe's understanding about Julia that he brings to the table.
I want their ideas to have full reign, which is why I don't give the actors notes or thoughts; if I have an idea, it goes through Joe. I haven't had any thoughts I've had to bring up, but I know that Joe would be open to it. During the rehearsals, the only time I talk to the actors is during breaks or to include a joke with a hashtag. We're starting to have those inside jokes that evolve from a group of theatre people being in the same room for too long. #theatrenerds #octothorpe #hashtagsarefun #IGuessYouHadtoBeThere
I've take lots and lots of notes during rehearsal as I notice tiny moments here and there that I might want to investigate when I return to the play after the process. There are moments to expand or reword or use a scalpel to trim a slight bit of fat, but I'm very happy with the play. I'm happy that after a couple of years of toying with the play in the privacy of my office at home, at a Starbucks, or in the lunchroom of my day job, I get to be in a room with collaborators and my characters. I've heard my characters speak in new ways. I love watching Joe work and his respect and enjoyment of my play. I'm going to miss his long, flowing locks as we move into the next week of rehearsals (he had to get a well-planned haircut for the various weddings of which he is a part). I'm enjoying every single moment in rehearsals. My friend and wonderful photographer Elise Falk of Falktography took some pics at rehearsal this past Friday and in them I look bored and tired, when in fact, I am the complete opposite: energized and riveted. I've bounced and skipped my way through my day job the past week. I'm on vacation this week, so I'll bounce and skip (mostly metaphorically) through the chores and new play work that I've promised to do. A week from today will be the first reading, then another on the 15th. I'm using this momentum and joy to keep myself going through the upcoming play submission season. I want more.
For all my fellow theatre-makers who are currently in rehearsals, enjoy and be excellent to each other.