Friday, January 21, 2011

Why I Write for the Theater

At BU, every one of my writing professors inevitably ask why we/I want to write plays. What's our passion? When were we first "touched" by the theater? What's our earliest memory of the theater?

I've been a playwright for two years, one month, and nine days. I can actually count the time. I was laid off from my last gig on December 11, 2008, working on car accounts at a large ad agency. Talk about a low point in your career. On December 12 I put my feet up on the coffee table with a laptop in my lap and started writing my first play, Red Dog, one that had been rattling around in my head for a few years, about broken hearts, adultery, dogs, writing, whiskey, guns, and redemption--all of my favorite topics. I finished that play five months later in May, and kept writing plays. That I am an actor and I've also read countless plays helped me in the writing. I understood what happens on stage, what actors need, what's possible and what's not.

But I wasn't drawn to the theater the way some are. At least, not on the surface. I've heard so many stories about people who were putting on plays for their parents when they were five or eight or ten, dressing up in their mother's clothes and performing for their relatives. And these are the guys, and I'm only being slightly facetious when I write that. The theater is an inevitable destination for many people. It's a safe haven for so many intelligent, creative people.

But the question, like the subject matter of an essay or play, kept eating at me, because I, unlike so many others, didn't seem to have a clear line, an epiphany on the road to Damascus. Or was there?

I tell this story often to anyone who wonders why I write. I always knew deep down that I wanted to be a writer. I was the kid, from little on, whose essay was read aloud in the class by the teacher as an example of good writing (and if she didn't read it I'd get mad and work so my next one was read.) I guess hearing someone in authority read aloud my words to an audience was the thing I needed to get from childhood to the next phase of life.

Do I have to connect the dots? Not everyone lives his or her life in a straight line. Writing for the theater is no different than being eight years old and handing your essay over to a reader and feeling that jolt of acknowledgment that what you have to say matters. And to take it one step further, that you matter.

The first time I heard one of my plays read aloud I was scared and nervous. For some reason I felt more vulnerable and confessional than I've ever felt before in my life, even though, as you can see from this blog, I'm not averse to baring my soul. And you know what?--as much as I'd like to say it was a terrific, life-affirming experience, it wasn't. The production was horrible, one of the actresses simply was bad, miscast, whatever, and one other actress flubbed her lines. I also had been asked to tailor the play for the festival, in other words, change my play. I never should have done that.

But the second time I saw one of my plays performed, Oh my. Playwriting is a collaborative endeavor. Only songwriters and composers (well, screenwriters, but they're second cousins to playwrights) create with the knowledge that their work is going to be handed off to someone else, or a bunch of someone elses. When I sat in the audience and saw the production of Love on the Rocks at the Provincetown Theater, I actually had a moment where forgot it was my play. I didn't remember writing it, and I didn't have any affiliation to the words or the work. I was stunned. And hooked.

I've always been one to follow my nose. Writing to acting to playwriting. It makes perfect sense to me, and if I wasn't dressing up in my mother's clothes, I was playing with my sister's dolls at a much later age than most boys my age. Does that count?


Jen Pierce said...

Forgetting that you wrote it. That's really an awesome moment--its what makes playwriting the worst and best, because that moment occurs so rarely. The rest of the time it's excruciating.

I only just recently started handing my plays off. I mean, like this month. It's terrifying. I've always written things that I wanted to direct (including being 8 and in my mother's living room). When directors have asked for my scripts to pitch to companies, stupidly, vainly, I always refused.

But still it reminded me of this one moment in rehearsal of a play, in Pittsburgh. The play had gone through several iterations in NY when I lived and worked there--so though I changed it with each iteration, including that one, I was intimately familiar with the text.

First time blocking a scene in partial costume because the designer was trying bits on.

There is a scene where three nurses come to wash and groom a catatonic man in a hospital. As they are washing him, with a sponge and a clear bowl of water, that made a lush water fall sound each time it was dipped and wrung out, these three women in white are moving about tenderly, cleaning, brushing, caressing the body of this man with eyes wide, vacant, silent, sightless, and even a bit of spittle glistening at the corner of his mouth.

And the women are singing "Frere Jacques." I had chills and I wept.

During notes, I said to the three women--to whomever that idea belonged, thank you--that was the most eerie, gorgeous, moving thing I have ever seen in any performance of this play. It made the moment transcendent. And so seemingly odd? Why Frere Jacques--it works, but why that? Is it because they are praying that their tender care will wake him?

They said: "It was you. It's in the stage directions. The three women sing Frere Jacques in round."

Sure enough. It did say that. I have no memory of writing it. Nor did I see it while making blocking notes or in read-thrus.

Juan Carlos Pinedo said...


I do speak Spanish very well, because it is my first language. I moved to this country 19 years ago, and one of the reason if you ask me? The English language. I wanted to learn it, and to make it part of me.

I read your note, and Jen Pierce's comment, and I was, somehow, in heaven. It is, for example, the storytelling you both provided that caught me into this 5 minutes of pure heaven. Learning why you write for the theater, learning a little more who you are, and teaching me how to write delightfully. As I heard Maya Angelou said once when she was asked to do business with Hallmark, it was a challenge for her to write in one sentence the meaning of a whole book or a poem, but it was delicious to do it, because she forced to work her language.

In Spanish we use that word to describe how good the meal was, and it perfectly fit the experience I just had by reading your note, and Jean Pierce's comment. It was delicious to have my eyes taste the words you put on your notes.

Thank you both.

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