Friday, July 12, 2013

Health Nuts, Tennessee Williams, and the Evolution of an Idea

One of my favorite parts about being a playwright has been watching ideas evolve into what they will ultimately become.  In my weekly grad school workshops, I watched my fellow writers experiment with different approaches to addressing a particular concept or experience until they found the ideal form.  I remember one of my classmates poured months of research into a play about slavery that he hoped to use as his thesis, and when it was rejected ended up reshaping that historical info into a thrilling pilot about the abolitionist movement.   Last year I went to go see José Rivera's play Massacre at Rattlestick, and while the play didn't completely and totally "work" I enjoyed being able to recognize patterns and themes from his other plays that made up so much of the language of my undergraduate career.  A month later, I went to see a reading of his play The Hours are Feminine, a play of a completely different tone from Massacre, and yet again I noted a connective thread.

The original sign
from my grandparents' health food store
Even more interesting are instances when a playwright isn't just addressing similar subjects or using revisiting common themes, but literally retelling the same story.  Case in point:  before Tennessee Williams wrote The Night of the Iguana as a play in 1961, he first penned it as a short story in 1948.  Both versions of the story have the same setting, a hotel in Mexico, and both feature an emotionally troubled female painter named Ms. Jelkes who identifies with a captive iguana.  But while the version has the painter traveling with her ailing grandfather and centers around her bond with a tormented ex-preacher, the short story version hews closely to Williams' own experiences, and Ms. Jelkes gets sexually and emotionally entangled with two homosexual American writers.  

I was thinking about Williams in particular a month ago when I was going through papers to take back to Ohio.  In a binder full of creative writing from undergrad, I came across the first thing I ever wrote that would become Health Nuts, a one-act play that is going up this evening at The Brick.  It's handwritten on notebook paper and conveys the inner monologue of an Ohio health food store proprietor in the 1960s who is shattered when she discovers a Hershey Bar in her husband's coat pocket.  

The idea was based on jokes my mom and I used to make if my grandmother--who did open a health food store with my grandpa in Ohio in the middle of the 20th century--ever caught my grandpa Max sneaking chocolate.  

An excerpt from the original story
The class ended, and I left the short story unfinished.  The idea, however, stayed with me, and when it came time for screenwriting class, I thought I would have a go at it and called the story Health Nuts.  This time I expanded the world, adding anecdotes from my vegan childhood--for instance, my mom embarrassing me by coming into my elementary school and lecturing me on the evils of chocolate--but the treatment, at least, followed the same general structure.  

From the treatment

When I tried writing the script, I toyed with the idea of having the wife be the one sneaking chocolate.  
But I eventually struggled pulling the idea together and put it aside.

The screenplay

Then, in my last semester of grad school, I found myself scrambling to come up with a ten-minute play for Midnight Special, the semi-monthly reading series produced by the Rutgers playwriting program.  With about ten hours before go-time, I decided to revisit this idea I struggled with for an entire semester in screenwriting class two years earlier.  I distilled Health Nuts the screenplay into a ten-minute dispute where a wife confronts her husband in their health food store after finding a Hershey Bar in his coat pocket. And it played like gangbusters.  In further revisions I would add a third character and details of the world back in from the screenplay, but this idea that began in the basement of Bradley Hall in 2008 has finally found its true form.  And it's about to debut before a paying audience tonight. The journey seems to have come to an end.

The one-act version
Of course, someone recently suggested it might be really funny as a web series...To be continued!

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