In 2001, I spent my final semester in college in New York City. I had an internship at PS122 and was working on an independent study with writer Joe Gilford. I had written a play called The Drowning Dance, which I considered to be the apex of my playwriting prowess at the time. It took place in an insane asylum and a lot of crazy shit went down. I think the penultimate scene actually had a character on a cross. Metaphors, right? I was writing about big ideas (death, psychosis, love), but the play was awful. In my meeting with Joe he said, “Scrap it.” To hear that about what was my “best” play was absolutely devastating. Joe called me out, telling me that the whole thing felt false and flat and that I wasn’t writing from my experience. It wasn’t real.
He had me begin again, writing “what I knew” and I came up with a play about a bad breakup called The Georgia Play, which now I realized should’ve been called Steamroller… No one will read that play. It was an exercise. It wasn’t what I call my first play. Neither is The Drowning Dance. My first play is called Dialogues with Lars.
While working on The Georgia Play, I had this image of Jesus Christ hanging out in a diner, wearing a trench coat. In the first act of the play, he was a man, but in the second, he was a woman. Why? It was an alternate reality! What happened if God/Jesus had given everyone what they had wanted in the first act? I called it Dialogues from the Diner.
Later that year, I scrapped that play, realizing that I was doing it again: writing something false, an idea with no heart, no piece of me in it. Then I had a dream that pushed the play into something new:
Phillip Cross, a man whose best friend has moved away to the south to open a bookstore. To make matters worse, Phillip also loses his girlfriend. In a pit of desperation, loneliness, and abandonment, Phillip decides to start frequenting a small diner, where he could be isolated, yet not alone. One day, a woman, looking kind of disheveled and wearing a long trench-coat that is much too big for her (inspired by Act 2 female Jesus), enters and sets an armful of T-Shirts down in front of Phillip. I later called her Lars. The woman hands out the T-Shirts seemingly for free, except for a “price” she placed on them, such as “be better to people,” “travel more,” “look around.”
Towards the end of the play, Phillip learns that his best friend has died. Overcome with grief, Phillip rushes to the scene. There he runs into his ex-girlfriend and they strike up a conversation. In the end, Phillip and his girlfriend are giving away T-Shirts and books at the same “discount prices” that Lars offered. Phillip begins to cry and says, “I just hope they don’t just take the shirts and books and everything… And then forget to pay the price.”
I called the play Dialogues with Lars.
The current plot of Dialogues with Lars doesn’t follow this original idea, but I kept some pieces, such as Phillip going through a breakup, going to a diner, and meeting Lars. Lars still had her pile of T-shirts with strange prices on them. But it still rang false until Joe Gilford’s spirit whispered in my ear saying, “Write what you know.” So, I made Phillip a playwright who wrote an awful play that took place in an insane asylum. I decided to not pull any punches and really put myself out there. I felt exposed, but it needed to be written.
I loved the play so much and felt so strongly about it that I self-produced the play in 2003, throwing together a cast and crew and rehearsing after my job at a credit union. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had. I love the play. I love the characters. Walt Disney had Mickey Mouse, and I have Lars. She’s a representation of my will to write, to be creative, to be bold, to be truthful, to have heart. A few years ago, I revisited the play as a way to jumpstart my writing again. I had been struggling with my confidence as a playwright and ran to Lars. I jumped into the play, adapting moments, strengthening the weaknesses, and used what I'd learned about playwriting in the 8-10 years since I first wrote Lars to really take a look at the play and see what was there and what wasn’t.
Last year, while doing some virtual housekeeping on my computer, I came across Lars again. I realized that Lars wasn’t going anywhere; she’d been sitting, collecting virtual dust. Lars deserved better. So, I decided I’d self-publish Dialogues with Lars, putting her out there into the world. She’s out there on iBooks and Kindle right now! I know there’s little chance that Lars will get produced because of being published, but she’s out there, open to anyone who wants to spend some time with her.
Have any of you taken a close look at your first play lately? I think it’s important to move forward by looking back. What I mean is, at times you can't see your trajectory as an artist. You can’t see yourself moving forward or can’t see where to go next. This sometimes gives the illusion that I haven’t even moved, that I’m stuck or haven’t developed. Revisiting Lars reminded me of just how far I’ve come and, more importantly, just how far I can go.
Keep working, my theatre friends. Keep moving forward and be excellent to each other.