Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras is becoming more and more real as the days go by. Each time I finalize a drawing, I get more and more excited. Auditions for the stage play at CATCO is Kids are next weekend. It’s crazy! You can get audition details here.
This is a completely different experience for me. I started working on the play so long ago that it’s like a new surprise. I haven’t looked at the script for the play in months; I’ve kept my nose in the book version. I’m looking forward to remembering what’s in the play. I remember it being funny.
The thing I’m most afraid of is: will Jack laugh? Will my son, the one I wrote the play for, the kid who is the inspiration and reason for writing this play and this book, enjoy the play? Will he have a good time? Or will he be bored? Will he quote it? Will he pretend to be the characters? Will he sing the songs? Will he care? Oy, the fear is strong. I don’t care if anyone else laughs, if that kid of mine doesn’t, I’m doomed.
On a much, much lighter note, I’m narrowing in on a publication date for the book! It’s going to be in mid-January! I hope to announce the actual date soon!
Keep creating and, as always, be excellent to each other.
I’m going to begin with a personal story, one that has been eating at me for 13 years. It has frustrated, angered, and saddened me and has been given much too much power over me. It’s not as sordid as it sounds, but it’s intensely personal to me.
In the spring of 2001, I was finishing up my BA in Theatre by spending a semester in NYC, tooling around the city, having an internship at PS 122, and devouring as many plays, concerts, and museums as possible. It was one of the most defining experiences of my life.
I had also applied to the directing MFA program at Columbia University and was fortunate enough to have an audition, supervised by the great Anne Bogart. I had the great fortune to throw up into a trash can in front of her after cramming a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth. That's not the story, but it's a fun detail... There were around 20 of us that were called in to audition and we all went around the circle, telling people our backgrounds or what "defined our experiences," how we defined ourselves, and told a vision from our futures. When it came to me, I said that my ethnic background was Mexican-American (I wasn't using the term "Latino" at the time, mostly said "Chicano."), but said that I didn't want to be defined by that. I wanted my work to stand for itself. I said that my experience was defined by Disney and Jesus Christ Superstar. I said that a moment from my future was to be brushing my teeth and having my future son run in saying "Daddy, cartoons are on!" and my future self rushing out to join him.
A few other people gave their answers and then came Ricky. His name might not be Ricky, but I remember it being Ricky... Anyway, he begins by saying, "I'm Mexican-American, Chicano," and then he turned and gave me the dirtiest look I've ever, seriously ever have received and said, "And I do define myself by it." He gave a story about his grandmother working as a migrant worker and went on and on, getting choked up, and everyone in the room, nodding along with looks of understanding at him and looks of derision at me. I wanted to say, "Dude, my grandma was a migrant worker, too, but that wasn't my experience. That's what I meant." But I couldn't interrupt, I was totally blindsided, but it didn't stop there.
Later on that day we were divided up into groups of three and would each create a little vignette in three parts. When we watched Ricky's, he had two people, one walked over to the other and said, "Hi, I'm White." The other person said, "I'm White, but I don't call myself White." All throughout he looked at me with a look that said, "Gotcha, shithead." Ouch. I bubbled with anger and it completely threw off my groove. I couldn't confront him; I was too busy trying to be a good director, I couldn't waste my time trying to argue and defend my answers to an innocuous question about self-definition and my personal answer. Why was he personally attacking me in this process in front of all these strangers? I'll never know. But it's eaten at me for years because he defined himself one way and looked down on me for not defining myself the same way.
Now, let's get to what this has to do with playwriting. I don't usually write autobiographical plays. Yes, as Julia says in Books & Bridges, "There [are] elements" of life that find their way into the DNA of my plays, but I'm not revisiting specific moments of my life. I have written one autobiographical play, (interestingly enough during my semester in NYC) which was about a hellish week in Atlanta, Georgia in which my girlfriend dumped me. Yay. I wrote that play because 1. I needed to and 2. Because the playwright who was mentoring me demanded "write what you know." No one has ever read that play and no one will. It wasn't meant to be read or performed. And I haven't revisited another specific moment in my life to write a play about... until last night.
This 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge has been exhausting and somewhere in my day, Ricky and the episode at Columbia kept flashing in my mind. I didn't want to write a play about it. It was too upsetting and I didn't want to be exposed. Also, I have found that, in my experience, when people revisit their personal histories, they often revise their personal histories, too. They usually use the autobiographical play to win a fight they previously lost, to get the last laugh, or to, as experienced by Sam Beckett (Quantum Leap, not the playwright), "put right what once went wrong." And that always seemed wrong to me. One playwright said (I wish I could remember who), "Just because it happened to you, doesn't mean it's interesting."
I really didn't want to write about Ricky, but I did. I didn't have the time to fight it before my deadline of midnight to finish the play. I hated writing it. But I challenged myself. I wasn't going to give myself the best lines, the zingers, the witty lines that playwrights who write these autobiographical plays often do. I wasn't going to give myself an advantage. I wasn't going to assume that I would win the argument. I was going to give Ricky his due. I was going to speak from his experience (a made up one based on what I remember and sprinkled, ironically, with experience from my family's personal history), and would make his argument as strong as mine. I was going to see things through his eyes, but was also going to give myself my chance to express what I wished I had expressed at the time. There are a great deal of therapeutic, cathartic "fucks" that fly in my dialogue, but the play I created speaks to a few issues that I think are important to talk about.
One is the label of "Latino playwright." Do I want to be labeled as a "Latino Playwright?" Does it make people judge my work differently if I am labeled as a "Latino playwright?" If I want to be simply known as a "playwright," does that make me a bad Latino? Ricky would think so. I would think that it's akin to a woman wanting to be known as a "playwright" and not placed into the category of "woman playwright" as if "White, male" is implied by the word "playwright." Isn't that equality to not be labeled or categorized as "other?" If anything, can't I be an "American playwright?" It's bad enough to be "emerging," must I be labeled further?
This is something that I've been struggling with, and I think I've found the answer, or, rather, my answer. You can read it in the play "Walls." I never wanted this play to be read, but because I've vowed to put all of my plays written for the 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge on my website, it's out there.
After last night's, I've lost my mind. I'm emotionally spent. So, today's play is about a giraffe in a necktie and a warthog in a bowtie. It's on the website, too. It's called "Second Hand."
Enjoy them both.
And please, I beg you, my fellow theatre-makers, however you define yourselves, however you choose to label yourselves, be excellent to each other.
We recently had auditions for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges at CATCO. One of the scenes we had chosen as a side was a scene that included all 3 characters in a climactic argument. Julia, Dane, Betsy all in full force. It seemed like one of the best scenes to get an idea of character dynamics, but then I realized something… During the first run of the scene, I noticed that Julia had no more lines after the first third of the scene! It felt like a mistake at first, but it turned out to be exactly what was needed. It helped us see and not just hear Julia.
Not only were there no lines for Julia, there were no stage directions in the scene. AT ALL. I don’t write too many stage directions in my plays. I want them to be minimal and necessary. I want them to show behavior and not interpretation. I try to allow for collaboration with the actors and director. If I don’t open the play to them, how can it really be a collaboration? I’ve seen a lot of playwrights try to direct the play through their stage directions, putting in every possible thing to make sure their “ original vision” is crystal clear. I used to think that way; I used to write that way. I used to put parentheticals for tons of lines, insisting an interpretation on an actor.
That’s not to say that I don’t use parenthetical descriptions of line intentions, but they have to be necessary. Sometimes it’s not clear if a line is said by the character as a joke or is supposed to be sarcastic (Because it's so hard to tell if someone's being sarcastic in written text). The distinction between something being said seriously or sarcastically can change the meaning of a single line and could alter the course of a play entirely. There is one line in Books & Bridges in particular that I had to make sure the actors and director knew it was said as a joke or else it had the possibility that they and audience could make the wrong assumptions.
Back to the auditions. There were 3 actresses we were considering for the role of Julia and, honestly, we could have cast any of them and had a great Julia. With Julia having no lines and with no stage directions to dictate action, each actor had to make specific choices. What is Julia doing? How is she interacting with each character? Each choice she makes in movement, stage position creates a new interpretation of her relationships with the other characters.
One actress continually stood between Dane and Betsy, trying to get Dane to stop talking. Another stood behind Dane, staring down Betsy. Another removed herself from the situation almost entirely. These were not the sole choices each actress made; all three continually tried new things based on who their Danes or Betsys were and what choices Dane and Betsy made. It proved to me that the actors have such power and can reveal parts of characters that I hadn’t considered. This was the first time I had heard this particular scene out loud, and it continually shifted in meaning each time a different trio stepped onstage. When one actress turned on Dane and put her hand up to shut him up, the wheels in my head started spinning. Is Julia turning on Dane? What does it mean that she’s siding with Betsy in this moment? When the actress stood behind Dane, it shifted the play entirely. When Julia stepped away from the fight and sat on the edge of the stage, completely distant and removed from Dane and Betsy as their fight continued, there was a massive light that switched on. All three felt right. As Sam Mendes said, "There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.”
I was so impressed with all the performances and with all the choices the 3 Julia’s made. I’m glad that I had given them the space to make choices and find new moments each and every time they went through the scene. Now, I have to revisit my new play in progress (Woman Studies) and make sure I’ve given the same space for the actors to inhabit.
How about you? What do your stage directions sound/look like? Do they come from character decisions? Are they necessary? Are they essential? Do they show behavior? Do they give clues or do they solve the mysteries?
As always, have fun, fellow theatre-makers. Be excellent to each other.