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.
I thought I'd be writing about the finale to Breaking Bad in this post because I found it to be completely inevitable and wonderfully satisfying. It was as perfect as it could be. The word "catharsis" bounces around in my brain when I think of it. It was satisfying. That's all I have to say about it in this particular post.
Instead, this post is about the parts of me that aren't about playwriting and stretching muscles that either haven't been stretched in a long time, or stretching boundaries into new territory.
I attended a tiny Liberal Arts college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Coe College. It had a student body of about 1,200, which was roughly the size of my high school. It suited me well in size. The focus of a Liberal Arts education is having development in many different areas and subjects; we were meant to be well-rounded. Even thought I was a Directing major, I found myself learning Greek, physics, a class on white-tailed deer populations in Iowa (don't ask), concert choir, 2-D art, Russian Art and Culture in the 40's, Spanish poetry, and more. I was stretched, my mind was stretched, my experiences were stretched. I was concentrated on directing, but not completely.
When I attended the University of Iowa's Playwrights Workshop, I found myself concentrating on playwriting. Only playwriting. It was more akin to a conservatory for music or dance experience, where 9/10 of the experience is focused on your particular concentration. Apart from a few directing experiences peppered in there or an Anthropology class on the Latin@ diaspora, I was a playwright.
After I graduated, I found myself still in the mindset that I was a playwright. And that's it. That was my definition. Even when I directed a couple of operas for Project Opera of Manhattan, I didn't define myself as a "Theatre Artist," I was a playwright who was directing an opera. I'm still battling with this definition of myself. I don't know how other theatre artists define themselves. Is a theatre career closer to a Liberal Arts experience where we have a concentration, such as playwriting, but the understanding is that we are all floaters, moving from one position to another. Are the boundaries more fluid? Or, are we bound to one aspect of theatre and expected to stay there in those boundaries?
I'm in the midst of setting aside my playwright self for a bit while I let my first draft of my most recent play simmer in the back of my mind. I'm playing in the sandbox of other parts of myself. For example, I love drawing. I love cartoons. In fact, I visited California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) with the prospect of becoming a Disney animator. I still wonder if that should have been my path, but "What If" is a sad, unhelpful game to play. BUT! I'm making a pact with myself to draw everyday. Here's a drawing I did yesterday. Be kind; I'm out of practice. Which is the point. What parts of yourself are you stretching lately? What part of yourself has been forgotten for too long?