Last night, I went to a staged reading of a new play by my friend Elaine Jarvik, sponsored by The Best Professional Theatre Company in Utah, also known as Plan B. And as it happens, I started a new play yesterday. And a friend and I spent some time texting back and forth about producing another play of mine that just got read. And so I thought I’d tie those things together. I know: a playwright talking about ‘process,’ shoot me now. But maybe it’s a little interesting to someone, maybe.
The reading last night was awesome. Elaine’s play isn’t finished, but it’s a terrific premise, and the conversation was invigorating. Jerry Rapier, the artistic director of Plan B, arranges these readings on a monthly basis. I come, along with Julie Jensen and Matt Bennett and Jenifer Nii and Elaine and Debora Threedy. What’s great about this group is that it’s basically ego-less.
I don’t mean that playwrights aren’t egomaniacal and self-obsessed and narcissistic; of course we are. At least I am. I mean that in that setting, we don’t any of us have anything to prove. We’ve all seen each others’ work, we’ve all been dazzled and amazed at plays we desperately wish we were good enough to have written. We’ve also all participated in Plan B’s annual SLAM event, 24-hour theatre, where we get to write a play overnight, and see it in production twenty-four hours after having been given a title to base it on. It’s a completely terrifying experience, and also humility-inducing; we all sit there in the theater watching the scripts’ performances, saying the same quiet prayer: “Please let mine not suck the most.”
So at last night’s staged reading, there was nothing show-offy about the conversation afterwards. We all focused on the same task: helping Elaine’s play improve. I didn’t sense for a second that any of us had any other agenda. I sat there, and Julie would say something terrifically helpful, and then Matt would, and that would spark a thought for me, and all of it was play-focused. We like Elaine, we admire her talent (I envy her gift for comedy), and we all want her play to be as good as it can be. I don’t feel like I have Elaine’s permission to tell you what the play is about or what the premise is, but let me tell you, it’s going to be a corker.
Knowing I was going to this reading, I sat home yesterday, and opened a new file, and started another play. Sometimes I wish I were a novelist. I’ve written one novel, and most of a second, and I have to say, it just doesn’t flow for me. It’s agonizing. Writing is always a solitary thing–just you and the computer, naked and alone– but I’m not naturally a solitary person. I feel like I’m a pretty social person, honestly. That is, I think, why I’m a theatre guy. You may write alone, but the creative process has another crucial step–stage production, where you interact with directors and actors and designers and stage-managers and all. It’s especially great when you have a long-term relationship with all those people–working with Plan B feels to me very much like ‘hanging out with friends.’ It’s task-centric, but it’s also interactive.
My last play was about macro-economics. The one I started yesterday is about something quite possibly even more boring: the Investiture Controversy of 1078. I don’t know why I do this. I used to write these deeply personal plays about people and their problems–now I seem drawn to 11th century papal politics. I don’t think it’s because I’ve lost my humanity. Probably I have, but it happened really slowly and gradually, and I didn’t catch on ’til I was too late.
No, what attracts me to the Investiture Controversy is the same thing that attracted me to Keynes and Hayek–the primary cause aspect to it. The disagreement between Emperor Henry IV (Holy Roman Emperor), and Pope Gregory VII was about, essentially, sex. Henry claimed the power to name and promote clergy, and some of the people he picked weren’t very good people. The Pope wanted celibates. This was really the start of mandated celibacy in Catholicism, and I think it lies at the root of the sexual abuse scandal today. Henry, meanwhile, was sort of edging towards the idea of government providing a social safety net–rudimentary as that would have been in 1078. The other nice thing is, it’s a nice, limited cast–Henry, Gregory, the Marchioness Matilda of Canossa (the great meeting took place just outside her castle–she was Michelangelo’s great great great great grandma), and also Hugh of Cluny, a monk who everyone respected, who agreed to mediate the whole thing. So, four characters, all of them interesting. I ended up with 9 pages on it yesterday. Hugh’s fun to write–have to be careful he doesn’t take over the play. Anyway, it was a real thing, and super interesting. Wanna see a picture? See what I mean; Matilda’s kinda cute; freakishly big hand, but I like her bangs; gives her a hippie-chick vibe. Is that a headband? Kirsten Dunst in the movie, am I right?
Some playwrights do all kinds of pre-planning before they start a draft. One friend writes a detailed treatment, for example. I just absolutely can’t work that way. I don’t know the people yet: how can I predict what they’re going to want to do? I have to get them talking to me, and the only way that happens is if I write dialogue. Of course, I end up throwing a lot of it out, but that’s okay, it’s sort of fun. First drafts are horrible, of course, because we’re just getting acquainted. It’s the awkward cocktail party stage of writing, where everyone’s being polite and you don’t know a soul. Takes a few weeks before they start letting their hair down–then it all goes much better.
And then a friend of mine contacted me, and wants to produce my play Mess of Pottage, which got read last week. And February, for some reason, seems to be ‘terrific plays I’m desperate to see’ month. Mel Larson’s Little Happy Secrets at the Echo. Matt Bennett’s Eric(a) at Plan B. Great stuff. So that’ll be fun. Anyway, that’s playwriting–a lot of down time, which you spend reading and writing and hoping, and then every once in awhile, good things happen.