Saturday, February 19, 2011


So one reason the blog has been a little more quiet lately is Tracy and I are daily attending the rehearsals of two one-act plays we wrote. Hers is about a girl who wants to be a mime, and mine is about a cruel, sometimes violent interview process. We've been working on them off and on for about a year -- two semesters ago, we wrote the plays under the supervision of Mark Medoff in his playwriting class. At the end of that semester there were readings of all the one-act plays by genuine, actual actors in an actual theater, which process involved many rewrites. Later, Mark asked Tracy and I and two others if we would like to present our plays, fully produced, in a year's time. We said yes.

The resulting schedule is hectic -- one month from yesterday is the deadline for turning in our finalized theses, and in my case I would like to have it in a week early so that the committee has time to read my little monster -- but the process is exciting. I wanted to take some time out -- because it's early and I haven't got the energy to do anything else just yet -- to reflect on the process of collaborating with four human beings directly and some several dozen indirectly on the creation and staging of a play.

I've yearned desperately for a collaborator for years, of course -- I suspect many writers who are not hopelessly introverted often do. What I have always wanted first and foremost is to make a comic. I wanted an artist to work with on the comic because I am not a great artist and also because I'm a neurotic artist; I am given to destroying my own work. But I also wanted to cede some control over the creation of a story. The part of me that destroys my art is not that different from the part of me, the part which I've suppressed, which judges my prose. It is identical to the part that judges (and often destroys, or relegates to hidden folders) my poetry. It is partly a function of inexperience. As I gain facility in a kind of work, I learn to quiet the part of me that judges the work too harshly, because gradually my increasing mastery allows me to make something that is not merely a function of my personality and failings and so on. Something that exists outside myself.

However, even as mastery increases, this judgmental part of me continues to tear at the work, to abuse it -- it's still talking, I'm just listening less often. It makes me very anxious at times. And it makes me very lonely. It is isolating. It tells me that I am alone, that no one can understand this writing, that no one would like it if they understood. This is, after all, how I see myself. And so to the extent that my art is inevitably a function of me at some level, I am doomed to hate it. Collaboration is a way to get out of that place.

We wrote the plays, as I say, in Mark Medoff's class. The way Mark teaches his classes is very interesting, and we had already taken his screenwriting course, so we knew that it worked and that we should have faith in it. You begin the semester by bringing in two one-sentence pitches for a script. He tells you, after some discussion with you and with the class, which one you're going to do. This immediately takes the work out of your hands, to some extent, and objectifies it, makes it something outside you. For the rest of the class, you bring new pages in weekly -- say five, whatever you can do -- and revise your old pages according to the discussion from the last week. Sometimes Mark will out and out tell you what to do about a particular problem, up to and including providing new directions for the plot. So, occasionally, will the other writers in the class. The class also reads the new pages aloud so that the writer can hear it, which means that every time you hear dialog that seems false or long or slack you are revising it, even as the "cast" goes on reading.

This sounds potentially dictatorial but it isn't. For one thing, Mark will more or less tell you exactly what to do, but he knows that often you won't do it. He's a writer too, and probably more of a control-freak than the average member of our notoriously controlling tribe. He also isn't trying to push you toward a particular aesthetic, generally; what he wants is to make the script readable and the play watchable. What you do to fit those criteria will reflect who you are and what you love. And, really, Mark is a pro: I tried, whenever possible, to do what he said, because his expertise is real.

Having people intervene in something while you're writing it is probably many writers' idea of hell, and certainly I couldn't always work that way, but it was often wonderfully liberating. The question becomes less "what do I want?" and more "how can this work?" Which is, generally, a more productive question, and one that leads to less savage self-criticism. Because, again, it isn't about you. The play I wrote in that class has little in common with what I would have written on my own, but it's also much better. I think that ultimately the process is a little too collaborative to produce the sort of singular works of beauty I want to make, but internalizing that process, making it a part of your way of thinking, seems very valuable to me. And certainly I want to continue bringing others into my writing -- only, in general, I want to do it a little later, once I've figured out a little better what I'm doing.

Now that we're producing the play fully, I find myself revising. Not as much as I expected -- the first time we did a public reading, the prep led to many jokes being added, many new beats, many subtractions and alterations -- but still, plenty. I rewrote the second scene, the actors hated the rewrite, I combined it with the original second scene, they loved that version. We make periodic tweaks to the lines -- last night I probably made them crazy when I realized it should be "intra-office affairs" and not "inter-office affairs," and sometimes reorder them, reassign them, or sneak in additional jokes and plot details suggested by the actors, the director. I don't love all of the additions equally, but generally speaking if they ask to amend the text I agree to it, keeping a separate file for this version of the play, from which I will later pull my favorite revisions, which will be added to the original script. Am I planning to have the play performed elsewhere? Probably not, ultimately -- I see it as very much the confluence of this community, these personalities, and if I were to take it somewhere else I'm not sure it would survive the change of atmosphere. But I still go through this process of revision-by-performance, hoping to learn, to internalize, for my next play. The other night someone suggested an idea for a novel I've been carrying with me for years might work better as a play, and I think he was right. I'm looking forward to trying it out.

The most exciting changes come in the performances themselves, of course. The actors and director have added many physical bits, many particular readings, which alter the text not at all or very slightly, and so do not require my "permission." (Of course I would honestly prefer never to be asked permission: I like to watch them do what they will with the play.) There's a bit where I describe a character as doing hand-puppets -- all I meant was that he would make his hands talk to each other as if they were puppets. This part now involves his actually using puppets. He sinks back behind his desk and uses it as a stage as they talk to each other. He also spends a lot of time climbing up on the desk -- the one abuse of his environment I never considered in the writing of a script that derives much of its energy from the way its antagonist gradually destroys the stage.

There came a point early on where the actress playing the ostensible hero asked me about my intent for a part of one scene. I told her honestly that I didn't know what my intent was or could have been: the play was written such that the decisions weren't really made in that way. How wonderful, to escape the tyranny of one's own intent. 

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