- Sometimes the storefront is a church gymnasium. Or a church basement. Or the upstairs of an old funeral home. So check the climate control situation before agreeing to the production. Is there heat in winter? AC in summer? If not, have a good long think about immersive theatre and how it should or should not relate to your play.
- Pay attention to every actor’s every question, even if they’re not directed at you. Even if they’re only mumbled. It’s not your job, but track them with the director and stage manager and whoever else, to make sure everything gets answered.
- It is your job.
- It is your job, but it might not be your place. You are the first emissary from the magic place where your play came from, but only the first. The play only arrives fully in this world after many people give it their talents, time, good will, and hard work.
- The most important thing is the people. When you’re lucky with cast and crew, you’re beyond blessed.
- Whenever possible, think long term.
- Don’t let long-term thinking blind you to what’s happening in the room right now.
- Assume everyone is at least as sensitive as you are. Choose your words and your timing carefully.
- Bring treats.
- Write any program notes a few weeks in advance, so you have time to change them if something bizarre happens right at the end.
Yesterday started rough. Lots of anger and frustration over a writing deadline with none of the joy or appetite for the challenge. Tried various things to shake it, starting with actually doing the writing (sometimes I forget that part), but also yard work, reading, walking, sleeping. Sleeping felt dangerously good.
I got up to go to a friend’s show, and my stormcloud of dark thoughts traveled along. I blame it for making me miss the Damen stop on the Brown Line. Silently raging, I got off at Montrose and walked back to Damen to wait for the next bus.
The show took me out of myself with a beautiful performance of a hard story. Three gifted performers telling one woman’s story of forgiveness through words, Butoh, and sound telling, which was a remarkable sort of emotional Foley art.
But the magic of the piece drifted away while I waited through the talkback. I decided I couldn’t wait for a ride from my friend, so I checked Uber. I’m always scared of Uber because what if I get a weirdo? But travelling under a cloud of despair has its perks: who cares if something goes horribly wrong. I was looking at how the closest one was four minutes away, my finger hovering above the Request button, when I walked outside the theatre and saw some people I knew. Conversation seemed impossible so I hit the button.
Four minutes later Carl in his Ford Escape showed up. I asked his thoughts on the Ford Escape (see How The Volkswagen Scandal Has Changed Me), and he kept me entertained all the way home. He talked mostly about his two girls, Jordan and I didn’t catch the other one’s name, one fearless and the other “scared of everything.”
The fearless one eats anything and travels everywhere. She was walking at six-and-a-half months, born May 22 and carrying her own presents upstairs by Christmas Day to play with them in her room as Carl napped. He’s been divorced 16 years now and lives back in the city, on the South Side while his girls are in Bucktown. The scared one is living with the fearless one at the moment.
“They’re always asking me to do silly things,” he said. “‘Come over and make us grilled-cheese sandwiches!’ I was always making grilled-cheese sandwiches when they were kids.” Last Thursday he went to Buckdown and did just that but he went a little fancier. It was always tomato soup he made to go with the sandwiches but this time, “Lobster bisque.”
Lobster bisque. He said it twice, relishing the memory or maybe just the sound of the words.
He waited until I was inside before he drove away. I slept for ten hours and woke up excited to write again. It was a nice ride.
The honeymoon period after finishing the first draft of a brand new play is one of the finest rewards of writing. It’s a delicious breakfast-in-bed-on-the-balcony champagne-and-chocolate-strawberries first-scene-of-Barefoot-in-the-Park-the-movie-version mashup wall of euphoria.
This period is flush with all kinds of wonder. First there’s the wonder of sudden weightlessness. “I’m done, I’m done!” is all I need say, and the tightness lifts from my shoulders, just as it did when I pushed away from my desk after typing “End play.”
It actually takes a few tries, every few hours, at saying “I’m done!” before it feels true. Each time, I re-investigate the feeling of not having this thing to write. I examine the new spaciousness between my ears, and give myself permission to feel giddy. “I’m done!”
Then there’s the wonder of leisure. I can go to a play or go have a drink or do whatever I want without seeing the unfinished script waiting, lurking, threatening to disappear if the head and tail don’t get sewn on soon.
During this time, the play is perfect. No one has said “I don’t get it” or “I like where it’s going” or “Have you read such-and-such? You should, it’s very similar.” No one’s said they want to know more about x or less about y, or smiled in a manner that says this is exactly the kind of play I tend to write. As if it’s any easier to write the kind of play a person tends to write than any other kind.
In these first few days, I physically feel the wonder of something brand new existing in the world. I imagine other parts of the invisible world shifting to make room. The world didn’t ask for this. If asked, it might say the last thing it needed was another new play. We bring the world our offerings, these detailed instructions for performance that are somewhere between blueprint and poetry, for reasons I’m still not clear on.
The fact that I’m even thinking about this means it’s time to pack my things, maybe take one selfie on the balcony, and check out of the luxury hotel. I might have stolen a washcloth, so I need to walk quickly in case the maids notice something’s amiss and call down to the front desk, but they wouldn’t do that would they? Would they? For one washcloth? Okay fine it was a hand towel but whatever. What kind of cheapshit hotel is this where they’re like counting washcloths? No way am I leaving the four stars. It’s a slight relief: The honeymoon is over.
So by this point, you have a completed, polished script that is quite possibly the most brilliant thing ever. Awesome! Or maybe it’s sort-of okay. Yay! Or perhaps it’s just some dialog strewn like dead logs across a trail in a forest no one owns, so why pay a log picker-upper to come in and clean up? Why not just leave them to soften and decay with the passing seasons, composting back into the weather and enriching it with their dormant barky-ness? It’s time to send out your work!
First, search the web for the many, many contests and festivals that feature new work by living playwrights. Remember that term: new work. It’s something you should start saying instead of a play. It sounds more important, like you’re working on a cure for something, doesn’t it?
Many contests and festivals charge a small fee. Don’t begrudge this. It costs a lot to get everything processed and reviewed and responded to. Even if the readers are volunteers, those other people who do stuff like advertise the contest usually have to be paid.
Insider tip: As a volunteer reader myself, I try to read my minimum number of submissions at the last minute, perhaps at the end of the day or when I’m completely frustrated by my actual job and need a brief distraction. “Try and hold my interest,” I tell the submission. “You’ve got fifteen seconds.” So take all you’ve learned in previous chapters about character and story arc and show-don’t-tell and pacing and stuff, and jam it all into the first half-page, because that’s probably all the time you have. As John Irving said, “try to tell the whole novel in the first line.”
What is it you want to say? Some popular themes include “Love is elusive.” “War is bad.” “Life is funny and the goofiest things can happen.” Whatever your flavor, consider shoehorning it into the first line or two of dialog, like this:
Night. A hot-air balloon. Joshua nurses his imaginary child. Gomesh helps.
Joshua: War is bad.
Gomesh: The goofiest things happen.
That way, even if your reader gives you a pass immediately, as they’re likely to do with a whole pile of submissions waiting and dinner not even started, you’ll know you are sharing your-deeply felt vision with another human soul.
Go for it!
Takeaway: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but it ends any time you plop down and turn on Netflix.