A few days to SLAM. I’m already getting nervous.
I wrote another version of this post for the SLAM blog, but wanted to expand on it here. I love SLAM, and hate it, and am terrified by it, and wouldn’t miss it for anything. Here’s how it works.
SLAM is this event sponsored by Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake, my favorite company in the world. It’s a 24 hour theatre experience. On Friday, two weeks from now, I’ll drive to Salt Lake and meet with the Plan B
torturer in chief artistic director, Jerry Rapier. We’ll get a title, see the set, be handed the names and headshots/resumes of 3-5 actors. Our task; to write a 10-minute play that night, overnight, and deliver it the next morning. The actors and directors will then rehearse all day, and they’ll perform the play, off-book, Saturday night. Here’s a link for info and tickets. If you’re in SLC this weekend, come see it! You’ll be blown away, I promise.
That means that on Saturday, May 4, an audience will see a play in full production that did not exist twenty-four hours earlier. My task, after delivering the script, will be to catch up on my sleep, then come back to the theater and writhe in my seat. Watching the plays is terrifying. The playwrights are all friends, and we’ve talked about it, how we all say the same prayer, sitting there in the theater. “Please let mine not suck the worst.”
I live in Provo. When I write for SLAM, I drive to Salt Lake, get my info, and then drive back to Provo to write. That forty-five minute drive is immensely important. I like driving, and I use that time to think about the play. Usually, by the time I make it home, I’ve got at least an idea to work with, and sometimes, I have the whole play mapped out in my head; at least a rough draft of it. Of course, over the course of the night, I’ll usually put the play through two or three more drafts, (length is a real challenge–my first draft is always too long), but generally, the drive south is crucial.
My first year, I had no idea what to expect. My title was The Butcher, the Beggar and the Bed-time Buddy, and driving home, the only thing I could come up with was this: three actors to work with; three possible characters in the title. So I came up with a ‘butcher,’ an elderly wealthy rancher; a daughter who kept ‘begging’ him for money for her siblings; and a ‘bed-time buddy,’ his mistress. The play had monologues, was very repetitive—I was told it was a memorization nightmare. Tony Larimer, a wonderful older actor, had the line “fill your lungs!” referring to the stench of a feedlot, a smell he likes, because it’s money in his pocket. In performance, I had the strong impression I was hearing that line a lot, more times than what I’d written. Tony told me later, he used ‘fill your lungs’ as filler, to give himself time to remember what he was supposed to say next. He patted me on the arm and said “that line was my default mode, dear boy!” One of the great memories.
Anyway, the play turned out okay:I was eventually able to expand it to full-length, with a new title: Miasma, which Plan B later produced.
The next year, my title was Spoiled Cheese. Driving home, I thought, ‘well, what would spoil cheese? The end of the world! That’d be tough on cheese!’ That led to a post-apocalyptic scenario, with an Adam and Eve, now ejected from the Garden (Central Park), ruefully remembering various cheeses they recall having eaten. In performance, I thought it was intriguing but incoherent. Re-reading it today, it’s still intriguing but incoherent. Not a great play, but also not terrible; my actors were good enough to make it watchable.
We sometimes draw SLAM titles from a hat, so I have no one to blame but myself for another food related title the next year: Blood Pudding. With a cast of three women. two younger, one older. Hmmm. Driving home, I wondered it might be intriguing to explore the aftermath of a robbery. I thought of three employees at a restaurant, locked in the meat locker; two tough girls, blase and cynical, and their older, ineffectual manager. The girls have been robbed many times before, and are mostly concerned that they’ll get paid for this one—one of them, turns out, used to date the robber. One of my actors was Colleen Lewis, a wonderful actor, but a thin, stylish, lovely young woman, hardly anyone’s idea of a mean, ornery tough chick. But she played the role beautifully.
I finally got away from food-related titles when I drew Behind the Blue Door the following year. Driving home, I wondered if I could do something Iraq-war related, perhaps something metaphorical. I vaguely remembered that a lot of homes in Iraq had blue doors. Safely home, on the internet, I learned that blue is considered good luck: blue=sky=paradise. The set looked like it would support something fantasy-related, and so I ended up writing a knight in shining armor, his fair maiden, and Jesper the Self-Loathing Jester. That was one thing that came to me driving home, that character name. One of my actors, Jason Tatom, is an old friend, and I will never forget the big grin on his face when I told him he would be playing Jesper the Self-Loathing Jester.
The play then shifted back and forth from fantasy to nightmare—knights and dragons, to Iraq, and then back again. Every time the knight killed the dragon, three more dragons took its place–the central conundrum of the War on Terror. Daisy Blake and Paul Mulder were terrific, as was Jason, who, as Jesper, also got to tell a number of exceptionally tasteless jokes I found on a website that night. No-arms-no-legs jokes? IEDs? Works. Blue Door remains one of my favorite SLAM pieces.
The next season, a major SLAM change—we went from three actors to five. I liked it, personally—liked the opportunity to tell more complex stories. I’m sure it was also easier on the actors; memorization is always a challenge. Anyway, my title was Burning Desire, and we had a set to work with that I also found provocative; really mysterious and gothic. I had a great cast too, Jayne Luke, who I’ve always admired from afar but had never worked with, plus Jay Perry, Tracie Merrill, Nancy McAffee and Nick O’Donnell. Driving home, I thought maybe I could start with Jayne dying, her family waiting for her on the other side. I started there, and Tracie played the same woman forty years earlier, in the pivotal moment of her life, when she rejected and kicked out her son, played by Jay Perry. Jay and his father, now dead, wait in an anteroom of the afterlife, a kind of waiting area with vending machines–Jay wonders if he should have gotten a Danish to greet his Mom with. Nancy, meanwhile, played an Angel of Death. We were able to move back and forth in time, in a story about regret and loss and forgiveness. I’ve been working on expanding it–I like the play a lot.
I then got sick, had to take a year off. When I came back, we were back to three actors, and the playwrights had been thrown another curve—we all got the same title. Alt Control Delete. I had been reading Moby Duck, a book about bath toys that washed off a cargo ship and were floating all over the world. I thought of environmentalism, about the possibility of going Alt Control Delete and basically starting over with our poor beleaguered planet. I liked everything about the play that resulted except the ending, which just sort of fizzled out. But Christie Summerhays was magnificent, playing an arctic environmentalist dealing with the destruction of an ecosystem.
The next year, we got the biggest curveball yet: no title at all. I would have thought that this would be freeing, but it turned out to be anything but. Drove me crazy, not having a direction. But the set—just some benches—gave me something to work with, and, on my drive, I finally thought it might be fun to just do a comedy, set it in a DMV. Called it Gaming the DMV. I liked the play, but afterwards, I realized it wasn’t as funny as it could have been. Opening night, I kept thinking up jokes I wished I could have thought of in time to put in the play. My cast saved me, though, with Jason Tatom, Kalyn West and Claire Wilson, a teenaged actress who was astonishingly funny and great.
So, we’re doing it again. Couple weeks, back on the bicycle, climb on the horse again, back in the cockpit. The creative folks have promised us lots of curveballs this time. I have no idea what that’s going to be about. I keep telling myself that I really love SLAM. And I do. It’s terrifying, exhilarating, uncomfortable, exciting. It gets my adrenaline flowing like nothing else. Theatre without a safety net. Fill your lungs! Please let mine not suck the worst.