Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On My Own Terms: Finishing the Play

Last night on a Suburban Transit bus between New Brunswick and New York City, I finished my first full-length draft in three years.

And it felt amazing.

As many of you know, the period since I finished my MFA has been pretty touch and go.  Having gone into my masters directly from undergrad, I had spent nearly twenty years of education relying on advisors and mentors to guide me along every step.  But after losing out on a major grant opportunity that would have helped me bridge that transition between educational and professional theatre, for the first time I felt completely out to sea.

And while that rejection (and the similar ones that followed) stung, it also forced me to find my own reasons for wanting to pursue a career in this crazy field.  Because it is crazy--it's absolutely insane.  There's no money--even if you "make it" there's no money.  It's absurdly competitive.  And the kinds of emotional places one sometimes has to inhabit in order to make "truthful" art can make it difficult to act like a functional human.  I wondered if I was even pursuing this for the right reasons--did I really think I had what it took for a career in the arts or was I just trying to prove something to people in Ohio like my dad that used to tell me that theatre is "an avocation, not a vocation"?  And if that's all I was doing, did I even deserve the kind of opportunities I wanted?

And yet I couldn't stop wanting them.  Even though I got pangs of jealousy, I still went to see my friends' self-produced shows and readings.  I still followed Facebook debates that dealt with issues on the craft.  The shitty feelings of inadequacy were outweighed by a intense desire not to be left out (which I also felt was a wrong reason to want to be there).  And I still had these stories--these intense ideas and stories that would overrun my subconscious and never seemed to come out as anything but a jumbled mess.

Then a couple of things happened.

First, I was accepted into the Mission to (dit)Mars Propulsion Lab, an Emerging Writers group for Queens-based playwrights.  This was the first such group that had accepted me, and it felt validating to be considered a peer among writers who had been part of The Public Theatre Emerging Writers Group and Ensemble Studio Theatre's Youngblood.  Still, there was anxiety that I wouldn't be up to the challenge, that they would give me these great notes and I might be too stubborn to take them.  My anxiety was relieved, however,  when Don Nguyen introduced us to the Liz Lerman Critical Response process, a system that empowers the playwright to decide the kind of feedback she needs.  For the first time, I actually had the right to stop the discussion after positive feedback.  Because they assumed I knew what was best for my process and my play. Emboldened, I allowed myself to move forward with this script that had been paralyzing me for almost a year.

The second thing was I started teaching a playwriting workshop at the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools Performing Arts program.  Now, I've been teaching English for four years and have developed a degree of ease and comfort in the classroom.  But teaching theatre has always been a terrifying monster, bringing up my own insecurities about my artistic attitude and  abilities.  If I hated theatre games and barely got any speaking roles in high school or college, what could I possibly impart of value? But, buoyed by my new Mission to (dit)Mars community, I dove in.  Many people suggested I check out Playwrights Teach Playwriting, a collection of essays by famous playwrights about the craft.  What was really inspiring was seeing how all of these different writers had wildly different philosophies, and it made me realize that there isn't just one perfect way to do this.  What really mattered is whatever exercises and methods I used, I needed to feel comfortable with them.

What both of these experiences did was give me the confidence to start thinking of myself as a professional artist--not a student, not an intern.  When I got the opportunity to present some of my play at the New Light Theatre Project Darkroom Series in November, I emailed a slew of directors I would have considered out of my league months earlier.  My director ended up being a friend from grad school whose work always intimidated the hell out of me, and he assembled a group of actors whose bravery and commitment were truly humbling.

But after a great performance in November, I still had a play without an ending.  Right before the new year, I sent my director the rest of the play.  He gave me some feedback and homework, and suddenly I was back in the terror that I wouldn't be able to step it up, that I would blow this opportunity.  And because the subjects in this play are so emotionally and sexually loaded it was important for me to not only find any ending, but an ending that not only was true to my own integrity but also respected the integrity of the characters.

It was a similar frustration and paralysis I had experienced my first year of grad school, when I was struggling to finish a one-act about a woman who discovers the guy she has been dating is developmentally disabled.  The ending I chose for it for me felt like a kind of protest, taking a stand against the kinds of tropes that motivated me to write the play.

When I returned from a family vacation, I set down to answer some of the questions my director had asked me.  Putting my money where my mouth was, used some of the exercises I had given my playwriting students.  I wrote down a set of questions and asked my protagonist, interview-style.  Having learned a lot more about her, I set about writing a scene--just as an experiment.  Just for me. Giving myself as low stakes as possible (I find tricking myself into thinking it doesn't matter is the only way I can finish anything), I knocked out a tiny scene.  My director and writing group liked it.

But I still didn't have a climax.  I'd been avoiding the climax like the plague, because I knew I would have to go to some extremely uncomfortable places.  And there's always a fear that even in safe creative spaces, you'll go too far and make people uncomfortable in all of the wrong ways.  So it was almost a relief when my computer had to go to the hospital for a couple of weeks late last month.  And while I enjoyed being able to concentrate on teaching work and immerse myself in The Hunger Games, my jealousy at some of my friends' successes started to get the better of me.  While my busted Macbook had given me an excuse to not bring anything into the Propulsion Lab two weeks ago, this time I knew I needed to step it up.  So I promised to bring in pages to Monday's meeting.  I had been making a lot of progress on my grading and felt confident I could knock out something no problem.

Then Sunday and I found myself mentally exhausted from two morning shifts at Trader Joe's and a mountain of busy work before folder review the next morning.  Then classes were over and I still didn't have anything.  The fears of dealing with the issues in this scene were still terrifying to me.  But once I got on the bus, another fear took over: the fear that I would let my group down.  I was afraid if I kept making excuses--and as a talker, I'm pretty good at it--I'd talk myself out of finishing anything.

So instead of crashing like a bum like usually do, I took out my Macbook and pounded out a three-page scene.  It wasn't great, I admitted to myself--not nearly as dangerous or provocative as it needed to be. It was just an exercise, a placeholder.  Something to get out of my system.

Then the elation.  It was finished--or at least the holes had been plugged up.  When I gave it to my writing group, I did my best to minimize the amount of disclaimers. And then they liked it--while I felt on many levels I was taking the easy way out of dealing with the characters' conflict, my group members picked up on another level of danger I was touching on.

Though the draft is technically finished, there is of course work to be done.  But knowing I have the tools to solve my own creative challenges makes me feel more confident in myself as a collaborator, an artist and a human being. 

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