It’s impossible for me to overstate how important Baltimore is to me spiritually (yes, I used that word), historically, and creatively… but I gave it a good shot in this blog post for the first-ever Baltimore incarnation of the One-Minute Play Festival.
When I was a young poet, studying in what I now realize was an exceptionally rigorous writing program at Northwestern University, my professors tasked my fellow students and I with getting to know a small number of poets as well as we possibly could. Throughout the first semester, we read every poem ever written by Philip Larkin, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, and a handful of others. We also read their biographies; we read criticism about their work; we wrote essays about their work; we listened to live recordings of the poets reading their own poems; we read their work aloud ourselves; and (most importantly) we even tried to imitate their styles. Our professors were demanding.
Studying their work so deeply was like being submerged in a pool of water: once I was under and opened my eyes, everywhere I looked, they were all I saw. An aged woman with a walker conjured Larkin’s “The Old Fools”; a piece of broiled salmon inspired a recitation of Bishop’s “The Fish.” It was a heady and vital experience. The world seemed to be infused with more significance than I’d ever known it to have. I felt as if my fellow students and I were walking around seeing things other people just couldn’t see… you know, in the smug way young people do. (I was barely 20 at the time.) I went on do to the same sort of thing with dozens of other poets (and novelists and essayists) throughout the remainder of my undergraduate and graduate education. It was the only way I knew how to learn. For the most part, it gave me great pleasure. I have relationships with certain writers that continue to mean a great deal to me, and I’m very grateful for that fact.
Did any of this make me a better writer? Time and reflection have taught me, I’m sorry to say, that very little of it made any difference whatsoever. What my education made me, more than anything, was a better reader. This is nothing to sneeze at, believe me, but it wasn’t (to resort to a crude commercial metaphor) what I paid for. I paid — or, rather, set out — to find my own voice, not to be drowned in the voices of others. In fact, that’s really all I’ve been doing since I left graduate school a few decades ago: finding, re-finding, tuning, and re-discovering what I sound like when I’m not under water.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a related question that’s been put to me in several different ways over the last couple of years: what kind of “voice” do the playwrights in DC have? In several instances, the assumption — or is it the hope? — is that we’re all very political in our subject matter, but the fact is, we write about everything. (Very few of the people who live here, after all, are actually in politics.) In any event, my response is always the same: should we have a unified voice? Should the city’s playwrights all be writing in a particular style or genre? Should our work be characterized in some recognizable way? Why or why not? And I never get a satisfactory answer from anyone.
In considering that question, I’ve been thinking about ancient pottery: you know, the stuff anthropologists love to dig up. (My graduate professor Allen Grossman once said that the only surviving anthropological relics still used for their intended purposes were poems. You can’t expect an old Roman ewer to still hold water, after all.) Specifically, I’m thinking about Native American pottery, which during the year-and-a-half I lived in Boulder I used to admire now and then. Although to the un-tutored eye — as mine was at first — much of it looks quite similar, there are distinct markings that make it possible to identify with certain which tribes painted which pieces. There was, in fact, an Ancient Pueblo (for example) “voice” in pottery that was distinct in important ways. So why shouldn’t there be a DC voice in playwriting?
The obvious response: things are different now. The Ancient Pueblo people lived in relative isolation. Their art was made of the stuff of their culture — symbols, images, vocabulary, ideas — because they only had their culture (and other nearby cultures) to work with. and they learned how to make art from people they knew: specifically, by watching and learning how to make art they were already familiar with. There were modifications, of course, from generation to generation, but unless something radically significant happened to influence the culture, the art remained largely the same… and distinct from every other culture’s art.
We, on the other hand, live as citizens of the world. We make art inspired by 17th century Japanese historical figures and political conflict in the Kentucky state legislature and epidemiology, from ideas and images and vocabulary that originate all over the world. And we learn not from our neighbors and peers, not from within our own culture, but from the artists and art to which we’re commonly exposed… most of which comes from a few major urban centers around the country.
In the same way that all the corn we eat in America now comes from a small number of genetic strains owned by a small number of huge agribusinesses, we now experience theater made largely by artists from a small number of graduate programs who live in a small number of huge cities. We now make plays with one national “voice,” or perhaps (though I can’t distinguish them myself) a small number of voices. We have lost, or may be at least losing, our artistic biodiversity.
And to be clear: that’s bad for a lot of reasons. My particular favorite: a mono-culture (either agricultural or artistic) is vulnerable. If a new pest or blight emerges to which the one predominant strain of a crop is vulnerable, we all starve. What then might happen to the American theater, then, if it’s threatened by a similar pest or blight? Or has it already? Has the accessibility and quality and ubiquity of television and film, for example, turned theater into a “gourmet” entertainment that only a few well-heeled diners can afford to consume? (Pick one: yes or almost but not quite yet.) Because the next step from there, let’s be clear, is extreme, irreversible irrelevance.
(Oh, and by the way? Making theater more like film and television isn’t a nifty way to survive, though it does seem to be what so many of us have been trying. In fact, you know what it is? It’s proof of the genetic superiority of the new strain of entertainment. The theater has become one of those rare moths that survives merely by imitating a poisonous and more genetically-successful butterfly in its markings so as to avoid detection and mostly go unnoticed. Yes: the evolutionary road to obscurity.)
The other less obvious side effect of a mono-culture is the lack of genetic — or, in this case, artistic — diversity. When we lived in a world with thousands and thousands and thousands of slightly (or even greatly) different strains of corn, there was an infinite amount of information and possibility and potential contained in all those genetic codes: new life forms awaiting only a few mutations to arrive in our evolutionary future just when we need them. The more diversity we have in our art form, meanwhile, gives us an infinite number of ways in which we can create and use theater to respond to the moments in which we will live. We need to keep as wide an array of imaginative possibility alive in our culture as we can.
So how do we do that? I’m honestly not sure that I know how we get from here to there (though I’m going to suggest a few ideas below), but I think I do know what there looks like. I’m pretty sure that in a healthy theatrical ecosystem, one that doesn’t suffer from the weaknesses of a mono-culture, at least 33% of the plays on our stages every season will be — to use the term I first heard employed in theatrical parlance by Theater J – completely locally grown. That is to say: drafted, developed, directed, designed, dramaturged, and done by people who live and work within a reasonable distance — let’s say 100 miles, since that’s the locavore standard — of the audience members who are going to engage with it.
And maybe 33% isn’t enough. Should it be 50%? I don’t know. But one-third is a start. Right now in DC — a theatrical community that’s considered fairly healthy, nationwide — we’re at about half that level. (My rough calculation is 15%.) New York, Chicago, and likely LA are almost certainly higher than that, but the rest of the country? Is St. Louis — just to pick a city at random — even close? What about Mankato, MN, or Decorah, IA? What about places even smaller than that? I’m not making a claim here, mind you; I’m making a guess. But my guess is the numbers don’t look good.
But let me make one more qualification about the environmental cure for our mono-culture problem. See, I don’t think it’s enough that the plays we put on our stages be made by people who live in our communities. I think they need to be made for the people in our communities, too, if we’re really going to get anywhere. Locally grown has to mean more than “grown by local farmers,” in other words. It has to mean “grown with an awareness of local conditions,” too. What does that mean, exactly? It means, I think, that we really have to know the nature of the soil in which we’re planting stories. The weather patterns, the state of the water table, and so on. Less metaphorically, it means that we need to write plays that wrestle with the everyday concerns and the specific interests and particular longings of our audiences. We need to understand our neighbors — to be among them, to be members of our communities — in order to give them what they need. (Which is not the same as what they want. We all want doughnuts; we do not need doughnuts.) We need to start writing for the family next door, not for a nameless artistic director in Manhattan.
If we did that — if we really did wholeheartedly embrace locally grown theater nationwide — I think we might actually start to develop distinct voices, city by city and perhaps region by region. Whether we want to admit it or not, whether we’re aware of it or not, we are influenced (as artists) by the art we experience ourselves. If more of the plays we experienced, day in and day out, were locally grown, we’d create work in conversation with our fellow artists… and if that conversation was tuned to a local audience, especially if the members of that audience were invited to join in on that conversation, and our work began to respond to that response… you can see where I’m going, I think. Our work would evolve the way the finches on Galapagos — isolated from mainland finches — began to evolve: independently. And soon enough, that voice would emerge.
Of course, complete Galapagos-level isolation isn’t what anyone’s asking for, nor would it be healthy. (If a population is too small, you end up with inbreeding… and then you get deformities. Or you just die out.) That’s why I peg the ideal percentage of locally grown plays at less than 100%. We need our gene pool — or, rather, our “meme pool” — to be regularly infused with new material. Again, speaking less metaphorically, we need outsiders’ perspectives about the rest of the world: heck, even on our own little corner of the ecosystem. We need to think bigger, broader thoughts; we need to look outside ourselves; we need to encounter and wrestle with and eventually embrace the other. We can’t, in short, make all our own theater ourselves.
In fact, let’s return for a second to the 100-mile distance that helps define the “local” part of “locally grown.” Agriculturally, the distance has to do with shipping; the farther a rutabaga has to travel, for example, the greater the negative implications for the environment. Theatrically, however, the implication might be that artists from neighboring cities and regions might easily collaborate with one another, but influences from far afield would be minimized somewhat. So we wouldn’t be putting up walls around each region: we’d be establishing what the biologists call semi-permeable membranes between them in order to regulate what gets in and what gets out. In effect, if we embraced a locally grown cultural development approach, the American theatrical ecosystem would become less of a top-down hierarchical structure controlled by centralized authorities and more of a distributed network of peers. Just like, oh, everything else that’s succeeding in the world at the moment. (See Steven Johnson, Future Perfect.)
So… okay… nuts-and-bolts time. How do we make this happen? How do we drain the water out of the pool, let individual regions develop distinct voices, make plays that are less like television and film, and save the theatrical ecosystem from a dramatic loss of biodiversity? To be honest, I don’t have a comprehensive plan to offer. It feels daunting, in fact, in the same way that saving the planet from climate change feels daunting: too many variables to change, too many moving pieces. At the same time, the stakes seem so terribly high that to do nothing feels tremendously irresponsible…
So rather than try to elucidate a comprehensive plan, I’m going to start thinking and writing about various ideas here on this blog. For now, though, I want to assert one thing: we need to embrace a more locally-grown approach. We need less theater on our stages that’s been pre-approved by a visit to NY. We need to be cultivating artists in our own cities and regions. We need to tune our creativity to our local audiences: to make our work relevant to our immediate friends and neighbors. (Specificity like that is the MOST likely way we’re going to differ from — and thus capture audiences from — television and film.) Above all else, we need to stop studying and emulating the artists and artwork that have been pre-selected for us by the current top-down system. Choose your own inspirations; find your own voice. The future of our art form might depend on it.
Not long ago, in a post intended to “reassure” readers that I hadn’t disappeared, I mentioned offhandedly that I was interested in instituting guest posts on my blog. I didn’t think anyone would notice, honestly. (I figured I’d have to actively solicit contributions from friends, though I secretly hoped I’d get an immediate influx of smart people making proposals.) But my friend Hannah Hessel did notice, in fact. She asked me almost immediately to elaborate. What did I see, she asked, as my blog’s purpose? And I instantly knew that I wouldn’t be able to answer her very easily.
When I first started this blog, I was coming out of a bit of a hiatus: a period of a few years in which I hadn’t kept a blog of any kind. (I’d kept one for five years or so before then.) I set out in my first post to do nothing more than establish my personal brand in the social space. I wanted the world to know, better than it already did, who I am… and really, since writing is discovery, I probably (subconsciously) wanted to find out who I was, too. And it’s been terrific. I have learned a lot, and I think the world has, too. At least… I hope so.
But I’m getting bored. I feel like most of what I write here is just too tame. Reasoned arguments for things, self-promotion, blah, blah, blah. I just can’t be bothered to muster the energy (and the time out of my family/writing life) to keep going at the same pace. This being the new year, and me being all resolved-and-stuff to do a few things differently, I decided to just… slow down a bit and wait for inspiration. So that’s why you’ve seen me writing less frequently.
Look: life is short. I got me about, oh, 55 more years if I’m reading the genetic and future-of-medicine tea leaves correctly, or as few as 20 years if I’m not, or thirty-six minutes if a meteor I don’t know about happens to be on its way to my head. That ain’t much. And lately, I feel like I’ve been doing too much scattering seeds in the wind: throwing tiny ideas here and there in the hope that they find the right soil and water and sunshine to bloom. It’s not very satisfying. So instead I’m planning to start saving up those seeds, choosing the ones I really care about the most, then carefully planting and tending them until whatever they spawn seems to be strong enough to survive on its own.
Metaphor officially stretched too thin, I know. Bear with me?
So… what are the things I care about? What do I really want to be doing with this blog? What, to answer Hannah’s question, is the blog’s highest purpose?
For my answer to that question, I am taking inspiration from noted science writer and editor (and founder of Edge.org) John Brockman. Specifically, from one of the Edge.com books he edited: What Is Your Dangerous Idea? When I read that collection of essays a few years ago, I was floored by the intellectual derring-do: so many brilliant writers willing to consider, in public, ideas that would frustrate people, confound them, make them angry, break categories in their brains, confuse them, cause great consternation, inspire terrific arguments, and generally shake things up. (Note that I haven’t included “offend people” in the previous list; offense may have happened, but it wasn’t Brockman’s goal.) It was unforgettably inspiring.
It was also rather science-heavy, as Edge.com publications almost always are. (I’m looking forward to reading Culture, which I expect won’t be.) Which made me wonder: what would the same thing look like for the arts? What are the ideas that would have similar effects on arts practitioners? And what would a collection of those ideas happen to look like? How could I turn my blog into more of an ongoing agent-provocateur?
Some will say, of course, that I’ve done that already — and from time to time, I agree, I have. But what if that goal were the singular purpose of this blog? I will still need a place to share ongoing news about my productions, speaking engagements, etc., but those can be tagged and categorized as such. The main content can — and, I might as well just say it now, will — be focused on upsetting intellectual apple carts and imagining new modes and forms and possibilities and, well, trying to say that thing, whatever it might be, that maybe lots of people are already thinking but nobody’s willing to say.
Which brings me back to Hannah. (Thanks, Hannah, by the way, for bringing this to a head!) The thing is: it doesn’t really have to be just me doing this. It isn’t on the Edge.org — it’s a huge assortment of thinkers and writers and idea-people. Hell, I don’t even have that many dangerous ideas! Okay, maybe I do have a few, but… YOU, the people who read this blog, have many more than I do. Your collective dangerousness makes mine look puny. And few of you, I believe, have outlets in which to express your more radical notions. So… let me extend a hand.
If you want to help challenge, reinvigorate, question, re-imagine, or dare the status quo; if you have a genuinely dangerous idea (or even a sort of risky one), and you think you can write about it, email me. I’m open to anything theatrical or performative, but I’m particularly interested in ideas that are either national (or international) in scope and ideas that are DC-centric. I won’t accept every proposal that’s sent my way, but I won’t be censoring anything for being “too dangerous” or — and this is important — for whether I agree with it. I promise to copy edit as lightly as possible, and nothing will be published without your permission; you’ll also HAVE to agree to put your name to whatever you write: no anonymity here. (Conversations and comments, however, will be civil.) Sadly, I can’t pay you anything… but I promise not to make anything myself from anything you write, either. This blog ain’t for commerce, it’s for contemplation.
So… who’s going to be first?
This is going to be a quick rant.
Lately I’ve been noticing various new play practitioners saying things like “I wish we could go back to when we had such-and-such” or “Things were better when we did this-and-that.” I have some sympathy for this sorts of feelings — change is hard, change means loss, loss is difficult to deal with — but enough is enough.
Our job to invent and reinvent and make new. We are, by our nature, bringers of change. We’ve got to be good at accepting it, especially if we’re going to ask others to be good at it, too. So when systems are transforming around us — everything from the way plays are selected by theaters to the way people behave when they sit in their theater seats — we really ought to try to at least tolerate those transformations, or better yet understand them. (You don’t even need to like them, though that does help.)
Tradition and the status quo? I believe they’re our enemies, especially when they get particularly rigid (and absolutely when they become deified). So please… don’t hang on too tightly. It doesn’t become you.
I just want to let those of you who keep visiting the blog know that I *am* in fact working on new material: I’m just trying to take a different approach this year. Instead of writing on a schedule, I’m trying to live more in the moment, working on blog posts as the ideas arise and hitting the “publish” button when I think it makes sense to enter the conversation.
In other words, this is me being free. Living a less-structured life.
This is also, I might add, me in the process of adjusting to a new family schedule, which requires me to wake up and care for my dear son in the early morning… a responsibility that precludes late-night blogging. (I am always most productive in the quiet wee-smalls.) I do not, however, protest — I just need time to adapt.
In any event, here’s a taste of what I’m working on:
- A meditation on the fourth wall (and why it’s eroding)
- My annual analysis of the books I read in the previous year, with a look at diversity
- A post about an upcoming production of ABSTRACT NUDE in New York
- A comparison between SLEEP NO MORE and A KILLING GAME (co-written with one of my collaborators, Genna Davidson)
- A radical assertion about objectivity and art
- Some new thoughts about world premieres
I also want to note that in 2013, I’m hoping to institute guest posts on my blog, particularly from DC theater artists. I want to use this platform I’ve created to help others have a voice as well. So if you have even a small idea you’d like to consider sharing, please do let me know. I’d love to hear it!
Until the next post: thanks for your patience.
I love New Year’s Eve. My wife and I spend it together very humbly every year: I pick a new recipe for a new (and often difficult) pot of soup, and I cook for us; she bakes something lovely for dessert; and together we choose a new great film we haven’t seen. We put our son to be, ladle some soup into some bowls, and settle in, looking up just in time, usually, to note the turning of the year. I figure it’s a good thing for a writer to end the year by being told a new story. It reminds me of the simple excitement that helped make me a writer in the first place.
There isn’t anyone in the world I’d rather go through a transition like that with than my wife. That’s, of course, part of why I married her! Of course, I also look forward to the few years (and I know they’ll be few) during which our son will be both old enough to spend the evening with us AND actually interested in doing it. It’ll just be terrific in a different way, I’m sure. In any event, whoever you spend your New Year’s Eve with, and however you spend it, I hope it means as much to you as mine means to me.
I’ll be back next year with new stuff. See you then!
I’m on a winter break. I’m in Minnesota, with family, resting and celebrating and re-charging and, if the past five years are any indication, having a grand old time.
You don’t need me anyway. You’re off having your own fun. As you should be!
See you next year…
With the permission of the Dramatists Guild, I am re-publishing my regional reports here on my blog after they’ve been published in print and released to members. My thinking is that (in some cases, at least) the columns I write will interest other theater practitioners and non-Guild members as well.
Who says playwrights have become too alienated from theaters? Okay, well… everyone, and loudly, for a long time now, and for good reason. But in DC during the last year or so, things have begun to change.
The crown jewel in this regard, of late, has been Theater J, which created a program called Locally Grown: Community-Supported Art from Our Own Garden. In its first year, the program commissioned, developed, and supported new plays from five local playwrights. (Full disclosure: I was one of them.) At the same time, Theater J’s main stage season also included a play by a sixth: The Religion Thing, by former DC Dramatist Guild rep Renee Calarco. There were panel discussions about the state of the DC-area playwright, receptions to honor us, and (most importantly) the sense that we were free to consider Theater J our home.
The program is in its second year now, and it’s continuing to offer real and valuable artistic opportunities for a new crop of playwrights. In addition, a play by one of the first year’s playwrights—The Hampton Years by Jacqueline Lawton—is part of the upcoming Theater J season. And if that weren’t enough, the theater’s also producing Andy and the Shadows, a play by locally-grown playwright (and Theater J artistic director) Ari Roth. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
During the same time frame, furthermore, a few other local companies began bringing playwrights more clearly into their folds as well. Woolly Mammoth, for example, added non-resident playwright Robert O’Hara to its company of actors and designers, in addition to programming area playwright Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird in the theater’s current season. Likewise, Round House Theatre will be staging Young Robin Hood by DC’s Jon Klein this season, too. And this is only to name two examples.
Of more significance, though—at least in my opinion—was the addition of DC-based playwright Stephen Spotswood to not one, but two ensembles hosted by local companies, one larger and more established (Forum Theatre) and one smaller and just getting off the ground (Pinky Swear). A production, after all, establishes a somewhat transient (if real) connection between theater and playwright; ensemble membership means a great deal more, at least ideally. Again, this is only one example; I can think of a good handful of others. These are relationships that seem destined to be very fruitful.
The most recent addition to the playwrights-in-theaters revolution (if that’s not too strong a word) has come from the theater that got the whole thing started, really. Arena Stage made a big national splash a few years ago when it actually but a handful of playwrights—including DC resident Karen Zacarias—on staff, giving them salaries and benefits and treating them like dignified professionals. The theater’s newest development is the Playwrights Arena: a bi-monthly writers group composed of DC playwrights who’ll be sharing work-in-progress with each other and with Arena Stage’s staff. As of the writing of this column, those playwrights had yet to be identified… but it sounds like a good professional development opportunity for whoever they are.
By my (very rough) count, the sum total of the opportunities I’ve just listed (and their kin around the city) mean that roughly 10% of the playwrights in DC now have locally-based creative homes of one kind or another. That may not sound like much, but it’s a huge increase from where we were a year ago. And there’s still more space to be occupied here, too: a wide variety of theaters large and small that have yet to bring a playwright in house. (We make great roommates, trust me!) With any luck, this is the beginning of a trend… and the end of playwrights’ alienation from theaters. See me again in another year for an update.
I’ve really had a pretty amazing year by any measure.
I wanted to take one blog post to take a look at that year: in part, of course, to do a little bit of simple horn-tooting, but also to ask myself a question: did I do too much? Or try to do too much?
So here’s the list. Here’s what I did this year, divided into categories:
- My play REALS had a successful run at Theater Alliance.
- REALS was also read by Anthem Theatre in New York.
- I completed a commission, HOT & COLD, for Theater J; we workshopped the play for a week, then did a reading.
- I took my play THE BUTCHER to the Great Plains Theatre Conference.
- THE BUTCHER was also read by Theater J, with whom I’m continuing to develop the play.
- I joined Dog & Pony DC as a member of the KILLING GAME ensemble.
- I performed (for the first time on a DC stage) as a member of the KILLING GAME ensemble.
- I made a film, EVOLUTION, for Forum Theatre (with Gabriel Walsh).
- I wrote a monologue, ANTHEM, for Centerstage’s 50th annivesary My America project.
- I began a new collaboration (on a project tentatively called LIES) with banished? productions.
- I completed a commission — a short podcast play — for the National New Play Network.
- My plays ABSTRACT NUDE and CRACKED were published by Original Works Publishing.
- CRACKED was read in DC by The Disreputables.
Blogging and Talks
- I wrote 90+ blog posts here, some of which got significant national attention, a few of which spurred what I hope were productive conversations.
- I wrote a few blog posts for 2amtheatre, HowlRound, and TheatreFace.
- I wrote four columns for The Dramatist.
- I spoke at TEDxWDC: “The Arts as a Show of Strength.”
- I was invited to speak at American University and Montgomery College.
- I convened panel discussions at Theater J (on the state of the local playwright) and at the Capitol Fringe Festival.
- I joined panel discussions at Centerstage and George Washington University.
- I served as a respondent for the ATHE conference.
Related Theater Projects
- I joined the Board of Governors of the Helen Hayes Awards.
- I became the DC representative to the Dramatists Guild.
- As Guild-rep, I co-hosted (with Baltimore Guild rep Rich Espey) a playwrights rally at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival.
- I consulted for the National New Play Network on a significant (but not yet announced) project.
- I co-produced (with PD Michnewicz) an evening of newly-commissioned monologues by DC playwrights at the Intersections Festival.
- I co-produced a DC playwrights slam at the Kennedy Center, also as part of the Page-to-Stage Festival.
- I continued to co-moderate the DC-Area Playwrights group.
- I co-curated an artistic speed-dating event for playwrights at Theater J.
- I created @IFollowPWs, the most comprehensive aggregation of playwrights on Twitter.
- I completed an in-depth analysis of playwright demographics for the upcoming 2012-13 DC theater season.
- I traveled to Louisville to cover the Humana Festival for Stage Directions.
So… what do you think? Too much? (I should add that there’s probably more I’m not remembering…) I’m feeling as if it is. I’m feeling as if next year, I ought to cut this list in half. To focus on doing fewer, but bigger things.
I’d appreciate some advice here. Really. It’s been an exhausting year. I probably can’t keep up this pace again. Or shouldn’t. I don’t know.
I’ve held off on publishing this blog post until the secret of my “cameo” appearances (alongside my wife) in Dog & Pony’s production of A KILLING GAME was out. I’m really glad, finally, to get a few things off my chest.
Almost immediately after I agreed to appear in the scene, which (as an ensemble member) I adapted from the original Ionesco play, I started feeling low-level but quite real performance anxiety. This may perhaps not be surprising, given that I’m a person who generally spends much more time in front of a laptop than in front of an audience… but the fact of the matter is that I speak in front of people all the time. I give creative talks, I sit on panels, I make all kinds of presentations. And I really like it all, too. I mean… sure, I get nervous, but I practice as much as I need to, and as soon as I get out on stage, the adrenalin kicks in and I’m fine.
But this is acting. It’s different. It’s much, much harder. How do I know? Because this isn’t actually my first time doing it. About twenty years ago I played Lennox in a production of MACBETH at the Cockpit-in-Court Summer Theatre, then followed that up with a turn as Governor Bellingham in Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of A SCARLET LETTER at the Fells Point Corner Theatre. Both of those runs were incredibly demanding to me, emotionally and physically. Doing them gave me tremendous appreciation for the immense skill required of an actor… and helped me figure out that while I liked it, I just wasn’t ever going to act full-time. Better to let professionals handle most of the dirty work.
Most, that is, but not all. In a lot of ways, the role I’m playing here is exactly the sort of thing I’m quite happy to do. It’s a very limited number of performances and rehearsals, and a very short turn on stage, and a scene (this is perhaps most important) that I actually wrote. Plus, the stakes are lower in LOTS of ways. As an un-billed cameo, my performance seems likely to come as a modestly pleasant surprise to people, rather than anything to which any expectations are attached. In addition, no one is expecting me to do anything more than competent work, really. The nature of the ensemble means that everyone’s doing a little bit of something they’re only moderately used to doing. Good enough, in this case, was more than good enough.
Having said all of that: I thought it might be worth sharing a bit of my thought process as I move through rehearsal: just to see how an ill-equipped playwright thinks about the challenge of acting. So what follows is a diary (in dated bullet points) of the entire experience.
- 10/15 — First rehearsal is now 25 days away. Still haven’t started learning lines, which seems like an odd thing, since I actually wrote the lines. Somehow, knowing and memorizing seem to be different things. I wonder how long most actors take to get off book for a three-and-a-half page scene?
- 10/16 — Great conversation on Twitter about how to memorize lines. I’m tempted to follow the advice of a few people and record the scene with my wife, then go on long walks listening to the recording and reciting along with it.
- 10/25 — Ran lines with Maura. Boy, she’s putting me to shame.
- 10/30 — Realized that when we were asked for our availability, Maura and I accidentally offered… well, I won’t say which nights exactly, but some prime real estate during the run. Entirely because those were the nights we thought we could get babysitters. I suppose if you’re taking a risk, better to take it big and in front of many people as possible.
- 10/31 — Ran lines with Maura. Somehow, though we haven’t worked on the scene in six days, she’s gotten better! How does she do that? I made her promise to run lines with me and work on the scene every night until we get in front of people… which is now only eight days away.
- 11/1 — Ran lines with Maura. It’s really an incredible brain-melt to analyze lines *you* wrote to figure out how to make them manifest. I actually asked Maura, three or four times, “What does this line mean?” Felt a little bit insane.
- 11/3 — Ran lines in the car with Maura while Porter babbled happily to himself in the back seat. You can rehearse everywhere! This is fun.
- 11/4 — Almost by accident, ran the scene with Rachel Grossman tonight at rehearsal, neither of us off book. Actually, to be clear… I held the script (on my iPad) in my hands, even though I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have needed it. (Or not much.) It’s a strange comfort, yet it also ruins the quality of one’s work. It’s almost like using a noose as a lifeline.
- 11/9 — Ran lines with Maura several times over the past few days. Still feels really inert and awkward. She’s being very patient with me, though, and encouraging. I married well.
- 11/10, morning — Maura and I popped down to Source for our first actual rehearsal with Colin (Bills, our terrific director). Boy, did that feel miserable. The space was oddly-shaped, which meant I didn’t feel right about exploring it physically, and every move I made just seemed to feel… false. I think it all felt worse to me — much worse — than it did to Maura and Colin, though. During the drive home, however, Maura and I ran the lines again once — after she gave me a crash course in one or two things I wasn’t getting — and it felt REALLY good.
- 11/10, evening — Maura and I did the scene at Arena Stage in front of a “test” audience of, oh, 85 or so. (That’s part of the dog & pony process; the company is devoted to audience integration, so working with real people during development is critical. We still don’t open for 2.5 more weeks…) IT FELT SPECTACULAR. That’s not to say that it WAS any good, mind you… but a few others seemed to think we kicked butt, too. And the most amazing thing to me: I didn’t really feel nervous. I waited for my queue, walked out, started performing, and something about being in the room with all of those people… it just felt right.
- 11/11 — Note from Colin telling us how much he enjoyed what we did and talking about what we’ll work on during our next rehearsal. So excited to make this thing even better. Because I know it CAN be better.
- 11/17 — Our first “real” rehearsal, in the space. We ran the scene in chunks, working individual moments, and ran it all the way through a few times, too… while Porter played in the next room with our fellow ensemble-mates. I felt… cautiously okay. Enough that the huge break we’re about to take feels like it isn’t the worst thing in the entire world.
- 11/21 — We ran lines while baking pies and making sausage stuffing for Thanksgiving… then realized, given the fact that family was coming, that we might not have another chance to run them until we open. Yikes!
- 11/26 — And just like that, it’s time for the invited dress rehearsal… though the way audience engagement works, we’ve really been in front of several audiences by now already. My excitement is palpable nonetheless… as are my nerves. It’s not that I’m anxious about performing, or not only that; I’m also quite worried about Maura, who is wrestling with a pretty bad flu/fever. At this point, I don’t even know if she’ll be able to go on.
- 11/26 (later) — Holy cow, we did it! Maura rallied late in the afternoon, and we drove down to the theater, and we just pushed through. She was a superstar! I, however, was… so-so. (Or was I? I keep hearing a great many positive reactions. How in the heck do actors *ever* get objective assessments of their work?) I was distracted by the fact that the performance was being photographed (by my friend Colin Hovde) — the speed of his rapid-fire shutter, I think, made me pick up the pace — and by a bit of the first-time jitters. The bottom line: I think I did fine, but I could have done (and will do) much better the next time around… which, happily, is soon!
- 11/28 — Wow, that was different. We slowed the whole pace down immensely for the first ticketed performance, and it felt… well, it was a bit harder to stay connected. We might have to throttle forward a bit in places on Saturday… which, in fact, we were instructed to do when we got notes. Speaking of which.. notes! For some reason, it felt like the easiest criticism I’ve ever received; my ego handled it very well. Though I may have been helped somewhat by the fact that my cast-mate Jessica Lefkow had just whispered to me that she’d overheard a man in the audience saying how much my performance meant to him. Now… let me tell you something: I never expected to achieve anything like that, period. I would have been perfectly happy to just not fuck up. The fact that even one person was moved? I’ll seriously carry that with me for a long time.
- 12/1 — I think… maybe… we nailed it. I’m not sure, and I’m *very* reluctant to toot my own horn here, and (truth be told) it felt *really* awkward while we were doing it… but the reactions we got from others afterward, even over the next couple of days, suggested that perhaps, maybe, possibly… we nailed it. I really don’t know what to do with myself now. I’m glad it wasn’t our last performance (don’t ask for spoilers about when we might be performing again, because I’m not about to offer them) — because I want to try to see whether it happened to be a fluke — but I almost wish it was, so I could go out on what seems like a high note. And I can’t wait to do it again….
So… I think I’ll probably have a bit more to say about this subject in the future. I think I’m in the process of completely reinventing my own understanding of what acting really requires, and how to write FOR ACTORS, and what being an actor working on a new play might be like… but I’m going to wait to think about those things more before I try to pontificate publicly. I think it’s very clear: I have a lot to learn.
I’ll close, then, by saying thank you to Colin and Rachel for the opportunity, which I hope I’ve repaid with my most earnest effort and at least a yeoman’s job… and also by offering a virtual round of applause for the more seasoned performers I shared the stage with: Jon Reynolds, Jessica Lefkow, J. Argyl Plath, Sean Ellis, Genna Davidson, Yasmin Tuazon, and Maura Suilebhan, plus a few other cameo performers whose presence in the cast I won’t spoil. You all have my deepest — and now far more well-informed — admiration.