I began writing the play formerly known as Leak (TPFKAL) and currently known as Not There Anymore a couple years ago. I started by bridging together two short plays I’d written over the course of the 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge. 31 Plays in 31 Days is a challenge to write one play each day for the month of August. I’ve done it twice and it’s proven a great time to simply brainstorm little stories, meet some new characters, and sometimes deal with things happening in my life that I normally don’t allow into my plays.
The two plays I chose were: Cathedral and Express. You can read them here. Cathedral was about a woman artist, acting as an assistant to a famous artist on a church mural, asking for assurance that he would tell everyone that she actually had influence on the work, that she wasn’t just an “assistant.” This particular idea remains in Not There Anymore, but the scene as it was written is nowhere to be found in the current draft of the play. Rachel, my main character, is an artist working as an assistant to a more-seasoned artist: Simone. I changed the gender and race of the male famous artist character and came up with something richer than what Cathedral brought to the play.
Express, on the other hand, is very much the heart of Not There Anymore. At least that's how I felt while I was constructing the story of the play. In Express, a young woman stays with her good friend who has just had a baby. There’s no telling how long they’ll be together, but things feel somewhat desperate, as if the two of them desperately need each other in order to survive. This became the main plot of Not There Anymore: Rachel staying with her friend Amber who is about to give birth.
Rachel is a street artist, toying around with graffiti and wanting to make her mark. Amber is pregnant and dealing with the upcoming death of her partner, Emma. In writing the play, I followed my old ways of writing every possible scene that came to mind, letting new characters arrive on the scene and letting plot points develop as I wrote. Then, I took all these scenes together, saw what I had, and then crafted the play as a sort of collage. I saw where the holes in the plot or in the character development were and would add more scenes or specificity accordingly.
The time between deciding that the short play “Express” was the heart of the play and actually writing full scenes for what would become Not There Anymore was about a year. Even knowing what the play was “about,” couldn’t help me find my way in. I would try and think about plot or scenes that came to mind and made lots of notes, but didn’t write any proper scenes. It wasn’t coming together. All these strings and threads wouldn’t connect. But I kept hold of Express, that was my touchstone.
When I finally was able to get scenes together and had enough of an outline to keep moving forward, I began to get stuck at the act break for the story. I never set out and delineate “I’m writing a two-act play” or “I’m writing a 90-minute play without intermission,” but this play felt like there was need for breathing room at some point. A commercial break or some time for the audience to feel time passing, to think about the ramifications of what’s just happened and allow me to move the story forward a bit further without being too jarring. I was having a problem: the place that naturally felt like an act break was causing me trouble when picking up the story later. How much later? I was playing with lots of ways to keep scenes I’d written and follow the new thread of the story, but they didn’t fit anymore. Something new was tugging at me: the 15 year time jump. If I ended the first act at the point that felt natural and then jumped 15 years, I’d have to lose a lot of scenes. One scene in particular was "Express"... I’d have to lose the heart of the play.
So, I did it. I cut that scene (and many others) and started act 2 from scratch, a new character entering the story: Monica, the now 15-year-old daughter of Amber. The dynamic between Monica and Rachel was more than I had expected, and I loved it. I enjoyed writing their scenes and felt as though I’d made the right decision to cut everything I had, even though part of me was looking at the 30-40 pages of material that was cut, hoping I could find some way to bring at least some of it back! I tried and tried, but it stayed cut. There was no way to bring anything back.
At this point, I started having an issue with the ending of the play. I didn’t know how to end it. Plot-wise, I’d gotten the story to a nice end, but thematically, the play felt unfinished. It didn’t feel complete. I kept battling with adding another scene to the end, but nothing was satisfying both the plot and the theme. I spent a day thinking and worrying about it. Then, the idea came to me: “Express. Bring it back and make it the end scene.” I read through "Express" and knew that I couldn’t simply tack it onto the end, especially since the plot had changed a lot since I first considered it part of the play. I found the ideas to keep, essentially the beginning and ending and wrote a lot of new material for it. The scene I considered the be the heart of the play, that I later had to cut, has now become the ending of the play, and I’m glad it’s there.
What scenes could you not let go of in your work? What’s your process? What are you struggling with?
Keep working and, as always, be excellent to each other.
After years of battling, I’ve finally finished the first [full] draft of my play Leak. It’s about two friends who become a very makeshift family. There’s much more to it, but that turned out to be the main thrust of the story. The play began it’s life with two ideas sitting together: street art and the criminal internet release of stolen celebrity photos. Some called it a “leak,” but those photos weren’t leaked, they were stolen. It was a crime. There was something about those two things that had some kind of resonance in my memory, so much so that I called the play Leak from the get go.
Now, with a full draft of the play written, I know for a fact that the title doesn’t fit anymore. There is no “leak.” I jettisoned the idea of stolen celebrity photos or stolen personal photos long ago. I wrote last time about what happened when I sent some of my work to my friend Laura who is exceptionally good at sniffing out theme. That’s her gift. The play is thematically about technology, art, and family. And it shouldn’t be called Leak anymore. (Finding out a title doesn't fit after I finish a draft is a common occurrence for me...)
I’ve tried to find a name that encapsulates at least two of those three themes, something to do with robots or cyborgs, but then it sounds like the play is futuristic or something. And it’s not. Part of it takes place in the near future (2021) after a 15-year time jump. I’ve asked myself how art and family intersect, especially with street art or graffiti, but couldn’t find a title. I combed through the play for a line or image that spoke to the core of the play, but couldn’t. The closest I’ve come to a new title is “Wheatpaste.” It does speak to the play thematically, especially the family that’s created in the play, but it sounds a little dumb. I’m not ready to change the filenames in my computer to “Wheatpaste” just yet... God, each time I write it, it sounds worse and worse. But it’s probably the one image that speaks strongly to the play.
The play is also about permanence: permanence of art and permanence of family. Wheatpaste is impermanent, yet strong. The outside world can peel away at it, leaving very little left. You can’t protect it. You choose wheatpaste because it’s fast, it’s easy, and you don’t want something permanent. It says EVERYTHING about the play. Maybe it just sounds dumb because I’ve lived with this thing called “Leak” for so long that it’s hard to hear it called something else. Playwright Sherry Kramer once told us that good titles are “Pointers” towards the “Perception Shift” or the reversals and changes that happens in the play. Wheatpaste certainly does that.
In other news, I’ve started work on a musical inspired by the character of Irene Adler from Sherlock Holmes. I’m bashing out an outline and have come up with a working title. I’m thinking of calling it “Leak.”
I had an influx of time to work on my play, Leak, last week in which I was able to realize two things:
1. The play’s title doesn’t fit anymore
2. I may have to rewrite 80-90% of what I’ve written so far
Here’s what happened...
Every December 15th and may 15th for the past 15 years, I’ve been trading works in progress with my friend, Laura. It keeps us working on something new. On December 15th, I sent her the 30-ish pages I’d written for Leak at the time. Early in January, I sent her the now 50-some pages I’d written for Leak. I received Laura’s thoughts about the play just in time for my extended time away from the day job (5 days in a row!), so I could get to work.
Sending a play to Laura is necessary for me because she’s great at seeing themes that are running through the play, especially themes that I didn’t realize that I’d been working with. When I write a play, I have an idea about the characters and the plot, so I go into writing a scene for the play knowing where in the plot that scene takes place, but still have quite a few unknowns. While I write, things that have been on my mind and muddying up my subconscious interact with my characters and make their ways onto the page. I may not know exactly what’s in my mind about the play until someone else reads the play and tells me, “I see you’re really writing about [blank].”
So, what is Leak about? Or, rather, what is “the play formerly known as Leak” about? According to Laura: technology, art, and family. I had no idea technology was such a large theme in the play, nor did I notice too much about family. Laura said she was interested in how these themes would come together, so now that I know what themes are are in the play, I can figure that out!
What happened this past week? I spent my time cleaning up the play and creating all the connective tissue between the scenes. I completely restructured the play from the way that it had been structured when sent to Laura. I had about 60-ish pages now and felt that I had only hit the mid-point of the play. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I went to my Writer Emergency Pack and drew some cards. If you haven’t checked out these cards (developed by screenwriter, John August), you must. They are a great way to look at what you’re working on from a different angle. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense, it can be helpful. One of the cards chosen was the “Morgan Freeman” card that essentially asks, “what would your story be like with an omniscient narrator?” Who would the narrator be? Would the narrator be someone from the story? In my mind, it suddenly rose to the surface that the narrator would be Monica. One problem: Monica is a fetus at this point in the play. If she’s the narrator, that means she’s speaking from the future...
My brain started stretching and bending, trying to unravel this new wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey dramaturgical idea I’d just started to consider, and I asked myself, “Can there be a time jump?” How much of a time jump? “Long enough to make Monica older.” How old? “Fifteen?”
I’m not sure why I came up with 15 and not 30 or 40 or 10, but it was semi-decided. I texted Laura about doing a 15-year time jump. “Back and forth or straight jump? Either could be cool.” Straight jump. “Jump in!” I texted my friend and co-host of Writers Get Animated, Mackenzie Worrall about it and his response was: “TRY IT.”
I’ve spent the last three days thinking about this time jump and worrying about what the world would look like in 15 years. Would the play go into science fiction territory? The world of the play doesn’t quite lend itself to that, but what technology would exist in the future? Mackenzie listened to my worrying and today said, “What if the play starts in 2006 or 2007? Then, the jump won’t be so far ahead of us now.” But I make references to technology now that are crucial to character development! If I change that, I’d have to completely rewrite 80-90% of the play! Oh well...
I’m in the midst of figuring out what this time jump might mean for what I had planned for the characters and exactly what impact it will have on what I’ve already written. I’ve never done something like this in one of my plays, so it’s frightening, but I’m excited about it.
What crazy ideas have you had about your plays lately, my fellow theatre-makers? Did you go for it?
Have fun with your work and, as always, be excellent to each other.
P.S. - Have you caught an episode of Writers Get Animated yet?