For about 30 years now—ever since my bar mitzvah, I like to joke—I’ve been calling myself a writer.
When I was a kid, I used to tell anyone who asked that when I grew up, I was going to be a novelist… largely because that seemed like the most serious and impressive way to be a writer. But I wrote poems when I was young, not novels. I sat in my basement, alone, pounding on a typewriter, and shared what I wrote with the one or two people (including, I’m happy to say, my mother) who I thought might like them.
I enjoyed it well enough to eventually major in poetry at Northwestern and get a master’s degree in the same thing from Johns Hopkins. After I graduated, I spent a few years both teaching and writing poetry… but eventually I got tired of hammering on granite (metaphorically) to expose exactly the right word for the right line, over and over again. Given how much alone-time it required, the solitary nature of the genre eventually got to me. The paltry and ill-informed nature of the audience wasn’t exactly a thrill, either. So I quit.
But I didn’t quit being a writer. That’s always been who I am, and I expect it always will be. Instead, I started exploring other genres: journalism and criticism for starters, then creative non-fiction and (predictably) screenwriting. Eventually, and perhaps even inevitably, I tried to become the novelist I once wanted to be, but I didn’t (yet?) have what it took to produce something quite that massive.
It was only when I stumbled into playwriting that I found myself, finally, at home. My voice, my mind, my imagination: they just seemed to be suited to the genre. Moreover, it felt like I finally had a way to make being an artist less lonesome. I mean… it’s not that I don’t like having time by myself in my study. I love it, actually, and (now that I have a two year-old) I don’t get enough of it. But creativity without collaborators feels incomplete to me. I didn’t always know that about myself—sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing till you have it—but it’s always been true.
For about a decade, the sort of collaboration one typically gets from being a playwright—sitting at an audition table, discussing your script with a director, workshopping with a dramaturg, etc.—was enough. I was happy to do the bulk of the writing at home by myself, then bring a solid (though never perfect) script to the table as my contribution to the collective effort. In fact, I was more than happy: I was deeply satisfied.
In fact, I still am. I love that way of working. But a few years ago, I became aware that it wasn’t the ONLY way of making theater, and a few years after that I started to experiment a little with ensemble-generated work… and now I find myself an active ensemble member devising one of the most exciting theatrical experiences I’ve ever been a part of, and I honestly can’t believe I haven’t been working in this mode all along, too.
In some ways, the transition to working in a new way has felt completely natural to me. A few of the things that I typically do on my laptop, by myself, simply get done by other people instead. Difficult conversations I used to have solely in my head, I now have with collaborators. Instead of trying to hold down two visions and think through their implications, I now do this weird magic trick (it feels like) where somebody else takes on one of those visions for me, and we wrestle through them together.
Of course, I’m not actually making that happen. It just happens organically, almost as if my own mind has been distributed across a dozen different brains… then enhanced by the proximity of so much vital imagination. All the blind alleys I go down when I’m writing? We still go down them collectively. Somehow, though, it seems less painful to me, or (to be accurate) more fun. The stakes are lower; I can explore something potentially-stupid-but-possibly-brilliant with more gusto, because I know I’ve got others both to explore with me AND pull me back from the ledge if I go too far.
In other ways, the transition to devising has been… well, not hard, but WEIRD. A lot of what we do in the room looks oddly like arguing. Not flat-out screaming, mind you, but intense disagreement. A few things make that easier for me than it might otherwise be. Chief among them is the fact that, well, I’m (culturally) Jewish, and my people? A lot what we call conversation looks like shouting to non-Jews. I learned when I was a wee lad not to confuse volume or overlapping sentences with animosity or vitriol. In fact… the tenor of the room in which we work feels VERY familiar to me. Even, believe it or not, comforting. But I had to get accustomed to the fact that devising a theater piece could actually resemble a Passover seder and still be effective. Believe me, though: it can.
The other thing that turned out to be a (small) challenge was the way others in the room seemed to perceive me. (I should note that this part *might* just all be in my head.) Before I joined the ensemble, there was no one in the group who considered herself or himself, in the main, a playwright. (At least not that I’m aware of.) There were actors, performers, directors, designers, musicians, improvisers… pretty much everything you might imagine, but not a playwright.
And yet… plays certainly got written, for years, prior to my arrival on the scene, so it seemed to me they must all be playwrights, in truth, whether they used that label or not. (And frankly, who cares what people call themselves?) So it’s not like they needed me, really. When I first joined the group, I felt this odd (and only occasional) discomfort in the room: almost as if the other ensemble members wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to act all superior, like “There’s a real playwright in the group now, people, so stand back.” The truth is, though… nothing like that ever crossed my mind (or entered my heart) for even half a second. (And, like I said, it may not have occurred to my fellow ensemble members, either.) I really just wanted to fit in, more than anything, and learn from new collaborators, and contribute even some small thing of value.
And I believe I’m not being too proud or too wrong by saying that I did actually do that. But for the record… what my collaborators contributed to the enterprise was much more important and extensive. And everything I gave to the effort was returned to me ten-fold, not only creatively (the whole experience shook me up in a rather energizing way) but personally. Throughout the whole devising, rehearsal, and production process, I felt closer and more connected to my collaborators than I have during any other project in my recent past. And not in some “we all bonded, we were like family” sort of way, either, because this was like real family, complete with arguments, honesty, compromise, tough love, generosity, blood, in-jokes, and (at the end of the day) commitment.
It was a thing to be cherished, this whole experience. It has made me feel like I can finally fully consider myself a devising artist as well as a playwright. And it’s not something I can turn back from, either. This is now a part of me. This is something I plan to keep doing, for as long as I make art. I hope to keep doing it with dog & pony, and I may be looking for other ensembles to join as well. Yes, I’ll still keep writing plays the way I used to—which I almost just called “the old-fashioned way”—but I don’t have to hole up by myself any more if I don’t feel like it. I’ve devised a way out of my basement, so to speak, and I don’t even really need a typewriter any more. It feels great.