Having Zipped Through Act One Of My New Play, Time to Let My Subconcisous Catch Its Breath Before Writing More, Maybe
So, the last couple of weeks, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing a new play. The good news, having finished the first act, I have yet to reach the inevitable phase of crippling self-doubt and loathing about my work as a writer or worth as a mammal that has usually come along well before this point. This may be a or good or bad sign; it’s most likely it’s no sign at all.
As I mentioned earlier, I wrote it with specific actors in mind (a thing I seldom do): three, to be precise. One has written back very encouragingly about the first (draft) of the first act. The other two haven’t, but they’re both taking care of small children, living seemingly fulfilling lives, and sitting down to read an entire act requires time and solitude – something neither woman has much excess of these days, I’m guessing. So, I’m in no way worried or upset about that.
“That’s Not Writing, That’s Typing.”
That’s what Truman Capote said when he heard how fluidly and quickly Jack Kerouac penned (or, more literally, typed, On The Road). Point taken. Just because it’s coming quickly, almost unconsciously, means it’s any good (Not to disparage Kerouac’s famous work). I’ve certainly gone over and and over and over what I write as I write it, and am forever cutting, altering or adding things (a decided advantage of writing on computer), so it’s a little disingenuous to call it purely a first draft.
Besides, Edward Albee allegedly wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfin a weekend. A freaking weekend. Maybe it was like President’s Day Weekend, but still. And Arthur Miller started and finished Death of a Salesman in roughly six weeks. So, speed is clearly not always a bad thing.
I’m up in Maine, at my girlfriend’s cottage (it’s technically a camp, she informs me, and she should know, but it feels cottage-like to me), away for about a week to get some much needed escape from my more or less self-isolating apartment I’ve spent the better part of six months in (an earlier illness of my father’s more or less kept me there since December). I’m trying hard to relax, an oxymoron, I know. But I’m partially succeeding (relaxation always feeling unintuitive to me).
A Cottage/Camp/Cabin/Building In Maine On A Lake! What A Delightfully Cliched And Pretentious Way To Spend Some Time Writing!
I assumed I would, in addition to spending some quality time with my smart and lovely girlfriend (a writer herself), spend many happy hours clicking away on the keyboard, trying to suss out Act II. The thing is, I haven’t felt the urge to write a thing since I’ve arrived. I mean, I’m been thinking about the play, though not nearly as often as I usually do when I’m working one, and even then only fleetingly and vaguely.
Instead I’ve gone on walks, read by the lake, and just tried with all my might to relax (again, I know, a potentially self-defeating approach to relaxation. I’m working it). I read a short and brilliant new novel by Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible, and it’s one of those books that’s so good, so multi-faceted, I can’t speak intelligently about it all yet. I need a lot of time to gather my emotions and thoughts on it. It’s that good, I think.
Anyway, what I realize is that, when I’m writing at my best, it’s seldom, if ever, an intellectual process. I don’t do too much plotting (just enough to see a little bit ahead, and get a vague feeling about what might happen). What I think is, I’ve basically written everything I know about the story so far. The non-thinking part of my brain needs a little while to catch up and give me some intuition. I’ve decided to allow myself to be OK with that.
Besides, Sadly, There’s No Existential Rush.
I mean, who knows when theater will get back on its feet? Ugh. Let’s not even focus on the for the moment. The truth is, like many writers, I don’t write because I like to or necessarily even want to. It’s simply that I find I have a hard time not doing so for an extended period of time.
Anyway, The Point Is, I’m Trying To TeachMyself It’s OK, Maybe Even Good, To Step Away For Brief Interludes.
This is so self-evident, it’s axiomatic. But, to paraphrase Orwell, to see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle. I’m learning to have confidence that, though I’m a firm believer of not stopping to getting in your own way when things are humming, it’s OK to try to recognize when that hum diminishes, and to have faith that it will come back when its ready to.
In the meantime, I am going relax and de-stress if it kills me.
The Long, Slow, Learning Curve Of A Man Who Thought He Was Reasonably Enlightened
Let’s get this out of the way – I’m a White, straight, cis-gender man. And let me state something else fairly obvious to most of us- I TOTALLY pull it off. I’m also lucky in that my parents taught me that racism (or any sort of prejudice), was an absolute moral abomination. That the world is an often confusing, nuanced place, but racism was a non-negotiable evil. And I’ve always tried my best to live my life with that at the forefront of my mind.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also increasingly tried to become aware of my inherited privilege: inherited not just through my parents’ hard work, sacrifice, and love (though I was privileged by that, too), but by a society – hell, a WORLD – that has been set up for millennia to give me advantages so varied and numerous, it’s impossible for me to even be aware of them all. Even now, if I tried to write out a list naming every indignity I’ve been spared or advantage I’ve been given, I know there’d be a not inconsiderable litany of items I wouldn’t even be aware of that I’d left off.
When I Find Myself In Times Of Trouble, Tobey Maguire Comes To Me
Now, if I learned anything from the first Spiderman movie (And I like to think I did), it’s that 1) the idea that spiders, no matter how much you irradiate them, can give you superpowers is, tragically, NOT TRUE, and, 2) with much power comes much responsibility. And, through no doing of mine (Lord knows, no doing of mine), simply because I am a White, straight, cisgender man, I am endowed with certain powers. The power to not be looked at with suspicion by strangers on a subway platform, or routinely followed by store security while shopping. The power of not being called slurs by strangers (any insults I’ve been given were totally earned on my own, thank you very much). Etc., etc., etc. And that’s only some of the relatively minor stuff. Everyone knows this.
My point is, every time I think I’ve got my sense of White, straight privilege correctly calibrated, a situation or a friend will point out to me I really haven’t. I have to fully accept I won’t ever be able to fully grasp it. But I do know that I have a moral obligation to try to keep learning, and to try my best, in my absolutely unimpressive and microscopic way, to make the world less like that before I check out. I need to read more, watch more, listen more. I need to interrogate myself for any unconscious acts of prejudice I’ve committed (and I have). In other words, I’ve got a lot of work to do.
Do I Think That, As A Writer, I Have A Special Responsibility To Address These Issues?
I think my responsibility as a writer is to write as truthfully (“truthful” here meaning keeping as near to the fundamental truth of a subject rather than a documentary-like repetition of and fidelity to facts) and engagingly as I know how. I try to write characters who, in many cases, need not be a specific race. When I do write a character whom I feel must be a BIPOC, I tread extra carefully, because I’m aware that while, fundamentally, I believe people are people, of course, I’d be an idiot not to recognize such characters have experienced the world through a markedly different lens than I have.
Now, this may be true for White, straight, cis-gender male characters, too, and like any half-way decent writer, I try to be mindful of that, too (Hell, we all see the world through slightly different lenses; Hence, drama), but I go the extra yard when dealing with any character who doesn’t fit those parameters. I have smart people I depend on to check in with to see if my writing feels right to them, and I always try to be highly sensitive and open to suggestions from the actors who portray them. This is not only the ethically right thing to do, it would be artistic suicide not to do so.
Defeated, Not For The First Time, By Math
There’s a mathematical term, “asymptotic,” which describes the concept of lines approaching ever closer but never touching. That describes my approach to writing: knowing I’ll never quite get it right, at best. However, I’ve only recently come to think of my understanding of these issues that way. I’m sure I’ll never get there, but I can at least try to get nearer. So, to those of you not White, and/or straight, and/or cisgender, and/or male, I will try to be a better ally and friend. I will try to be better, period.
I’m Far Too Depressed To Write A Blog Post This Week, So I’m Writing This Instead.
Thursday was a minimum movement day. Grudging forays out of my bed were rare, unimpressive in scale and ambition, and deeply resented. Was there a reason for my depression commandeering my life with such force on Thursday? Yes and no.
I received some bad news. Let me be clear: the news was bad: not earth-shattering, not terrible, not irrecoverable, and not, by any stretch of the imagination, tragic. But it was enough to strip away the tissue-paper thin patina of performative normalcy that I often rely on to fool people (including myself) that I am, for lack of a better phrase, functionally functional.
Who Are You, And How Did You Get Into My Brain?
One of the most insidious elements of my depression is that, when I am in its clutches, it convinces me that this is the real me: the truest expression of my essence. Honestly, my depression has done such a good job over the years on that score, that I believe that to be essentially true regardless if I’m in the throes of an episode or not. The part of me that is capable of joy, or even basic even-keeledness, is sham, and a pretty transparent one at that.
I’m working on that bit. Because, I’m assured by smart people, that’s actually not true.
For me, my only way out of it, besides the fact that, as the noted philosopher/musician George Harrison observed, “All Things Must Pass,” is to actively separate myself from my depression. Sometimes I can only pry myself from it by a few inches (centimeters, actually, but like all Americans, the Metric System makes me uneasy), but it’s essential for me to do that. To look at it as an observer would. And, as much as I can muster, with some clinical detachment: “Ah yes, I am experiencing depression right now.”
We Are Stardust, We Are Golden, And, In My Case, About 14% Cupcakes
My depression is always going to be hanging around me in my life; it is the party guest who will never get the hint and leave (ironically, that’s very often me, too). But it’s important for me to remember it’s my depression, and that it, therefore, belongs to me – not the other way round.
Separation is key. Yes, it’s a part of me, but so is my eerie ability to quote from Monty Python verbatim (women LOVE when I do that, I’ve found. Hell, everyone does), my Yankee fandom (I don’t want to hear your hate about that. Donnie Baseball forever!), my poor math skills, my inability to ever spell bureaucracy correctly (auto-correct did that for me), and my potent, raw sexual charisma (well, let’s be honest: that actually does largely define me).
It’s just one thread in the multi-colored, slightly chunkier than I’d like to be these days tapestry that is me. In fact, I’m going to give it its own name: Edgar (after another depressive writer; but it’s also the sort of name the damn thing deserves). “I am vast,” as Walt Whitman wrote, “I contain multitudes.” It’s OK that it’s part of me. In fact, I know it’s given me a lot of the things I like about myself. But that’s for another post; I’m still too annoyed with Edgar to give him any props today.
What The Hell Does This Have To Do With Writing?
Actually, that’s a rather complicated question, but I take your point. This post isn’t about writing. In fact, as I said at the top, in French (because that’s how bad it was), it isn’t even a blog post. The weird thing is, I’ve been writing like crazy recently. It’s actually not so weird – it’s a chance to take a vacation from myself. I highly recommend it: being away from myself is lovely this time of year.
Anyway, it’s a lovely day, so I’m going venture outside. I hope you’re all feeling outraged by the world, but good about yourselves.
Over the course of my weekly play reading group, two actors for whom I have the utmost respect but were previously unknown to one another, have hit it off particularly well. So, in the middle of the night the other night, the idea occurred to me about how much fun it would be to see them in a play together, and that I should try to write one. Only problem was, I had no ideas for a play, and coming up with something to write about is what I suck the most at. I’d just finished a play this spring, and it seemed awfully soon for another idea to come down the pipeline.
I mentioned this desire to my friend (one of the two actors I had in in mind), and she responded enthusiastically. A little while later, apropos of nothing, she sent me a picture of the ultra-aweseome Prime Minister of New Zealand, and (half, I suspect, maybe less than half, if I’m honest) jokingly requested that her character be like her. Because, who wouldn’t want to be?
Well, I Reasoned, Maybe That’s At Least A Start.
A few hours later, out of seemingly nowhere, an idea popped itself into my head. Actually, idea is the wrong word, because, to be honest, I have no clue what that idea actually is. Still. Actually, it’s better described as more of a nebulous intuition, a vague scenario that seemed to present itself with a dramatic arc and interesting characters. It has, by the way, as those down under might themselves might say, “Fuck all” to do with Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s impressive P.M.. At least, not directly. Or more appropriately, yet.
It’s simply a private, fancy hospital suite with an unseen man hooked up to a myriad of life-support equipment, and a wife waiting patiently at his bedside to for him to die. After a moment of this, a daughter of the couple comes blazing in, obviously annoyed at…something. Dialogue then ensues.
It generally takes me 6-10 pages to figure out if I’ve got a play. The most clear sign is that the characters appear more or less fully formed, and that they seem to know a lot of important things about themselves and their present crisis that, if I’m patient, they will eventually be willing to reveal to me and thus, the audience.
Wait A Minute – That Sounds Nauseatingly New Age-y And Ridiculously “Mystical.” Yuck
I can’t honestly say that I disagree. But what can I say? In my experience, there’s a lot you have control over as a writer. That’s the craft part, and it’s vital. But the inspiration, the “spark” of something out of seemingly nowhere that gives you the courage to take a Kierkergaardian leap of faith, isn’t a part I understand intellectually. And not only am I OK with that, I’m grateful for it.
This way, unlike almost everything else in my life, I can’t get in my own way. I realize this may sound a little precious and eye-rollingly twee and mystical. But to be honest, that’s usually how it works for me.
So, I’m Now 10 Pages Into This, And You Now Know More Or Less Everything I Do about What This Play May Be
All I know is that, as of now, it appears to be a play-like thing. It may not be a very worthy one in the end, but one must always trick oneself into believing you’re writing the next Long Day’s Journey Into Night. There’ll be plenty of time for the inevitable disappointment that it isn’t in the editing, readings, and if you’re very lucky, production.
Anyway, writing for me, is always an exercise in hope. You have to start out with that hope and cling to it throughout the inevitable periods of doubt. Hope is the key. And hope, these days, let’s face it, is a rare and necessary thing.
I’d love to hear from other writers how they start writing a new work. In the meantime, stay safe, and be heard.
An Experiment:To See, If, On The Cusp Of What Feels Like An Imminent Deep Plunge Into Depression And Emotional Paralysis, I Can Mitigate Any Of It By Writing About It
Let’s face it: 2020 has been a great year for a small but no doubt real niche of face-mask enthusiasts, but a soul-fuckingly stressful one for the rest of us. For those of us who always struggle to keep our darker, more hopeless thoughts from commandeering the narrative in our heads, this has been a true crucible for our emotional health.
I always find it useful to look around at my circumstances and see what emotional response my environs objectively warrant. This way, I can decide if my depression/anxiety/despair/German-word-of-your-own-choice-that-combines-elements-of all-of-the-above is a rational response, or simply me spiraling downward because of lack of serotonin/unique, perhaps unconscious psychological triggers, like I’ve done so often and, if I may say so, so expertly my whole life.
The Answer, In This Case, Is An Unambiguous “Yes” To Both
If you can look at the state of our world and not feel at least occasionally overwhelmed by sadness and anger, then, with all due respect, shame on you. Of course, I refer to the worldwide pandemic, but just as depressing to me is our ability to make it a politically divisive issue. If we couldn’t acknowledge for months the obvious fact that the Coronavirus was even a threat, and then, once that became untenable, that taking sensible measures to slow its spread was considered partisan in nature, even I, no mere amateur cynic, couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.
So, yes, that. And now, the unspeakable horror of the brutal ad hoc execution of George Floyd on a street in Minneapolis thrusts in the face of the world the undeniable and seemingly intractable systemic racism and cruelty infecting our institutions once more. The guilt and shame I feel that such a ubiquitous fact of American life needs a murder rendered in hi-def digital quality to put it in the forefront of my mind, as opposed to the quiet little corner of my brain where I, as one of the “privileged,” can easily afford to store it, is real and maddening and disempowering.
You Should Know, As If You Had Any Doubts, I’ve Got Zilch In Terms of About How To Solve This
In a triumph of prose stating the incredibly obvious, this a self-evidently scary, pivotal time. So, yes, I think it’s OK to feel anxious. I think it’s OK to feel depressed. I think it’s OK to feel rage, even. Maybe especially. In fact, I think it’s a sign of emotional and ethical health. It shows you’re morally awake.
But the one thing I’m feeling that I don’t think is acceptable to do is to settle into paralysis. To be honest, this is often my M.O. And for some of us, it requires what feels like a super-human effort to overcome it. Just getting off the couch seems herculean. But that won’t do. The deeper I sink into my couch cushions, the further I delve down into my old, toxic, familiar mental rabbit-holes.
If I can find a way to muster the energy to propel myself into what little, little action I can to do something, no matter how microscopic it may be amid the vastness of the maelstrom, my sense is I’ll feel better. Getting out of my head and trying to do something constructive usually does.
Far, far more importantly, I won’t be sitting totally idle as world, literally, burns.
I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s feeling that way these days. And for the few who may see this, if this speaks to you in any way, then maybe that’s a good thing: a reassurance that we aren’t alone in our feeling of helplessness and aloneness. And, if I can offer any note of optimism about what we’re all watching around us, it’s that yes, there is violence and opportunists and brutes. But it looks to me like they’re outnumbered. And that’s a thought to fling in the face of the inner despair you may feel creeping up in you, as it does in many of us.
Writing In An Age In Which The World Seems To Be Ripping Itself Apart
No thinking person has to be persuaded of the power of words to sway hearts, minds, and even history. “We declare these truths to be self-evident…” “Four score and seven years ago…” “I have a dream…” “Leggo my Eggo.” These phrases still give me goosebumps.
No, I come not bury words, but to ask the age old question of what, if any, responsibility, do writers have to address the political and social ills of a given period? Who knows, Neil Simon may have had a brilliant social satire in him if he’d been so inclined, but by all indications, he seems not to have been. Yet that doesn’t lessen his “worthiness” in my estimation. For others, like Brecht, Ibsen, Miller, Kushner, Lori-Parks, Hare, and so many more, their work is inextricable from their politics. Ditto the late Larry Kramer, whose work did a very rare thing: helped to shift the culture in a new direction, and inspire legions of others to build on his foundations.
Write What You Know (You Care About)
I’m a person of rather strong political views, as anyone on my Twitter feed (and why on earth wouldn’t you be?) will quickly learn. And I’ve written a couple of plays that could be considered political in nature. My play Fellow Travelers, for example, ran in 2018 at the Bay Street Theater, and concerned the complicated relationship between (among?) Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan, and Marilyn Monroe. It dealt in great detail about the perils of McCarthyism, and how the different paths Kazan and Miller chose in dealing with those pressures forever altered their close friendship and their work.
Most people seemed to enjoy the play, which was very gratifying, and would often corner me afterwards in a bar (an experience with a wide degree of pleasantness) and remark to me with a knowing look and lowered voice how “timely” a play it was.
I suppose that’s true (my guess is in American life, reminding people about political paranoia rarely isn’t timely). And although I think it’s clear ultimately where my sympathies lie, the story was not written with a political agenda in mind or moral to teach. In fact, I went to lengths to try to give both Miller and Kazan equally compelling arguments for their choices. I wasn’t interested writing a play that was instructive or prescriptive in any way. I just wanted to write about smart, complex people under the greatest stress of their lives.
Because, And This May Be Just Me, But It’s Just Me
While I have confidence in a great many things (Beatles trivia, Yankees stats…the list thins out considerably from there), I also think of myself as having been absent the day at school the day they taught “How To Live Successfully As An Adult.” It’s taken me years to realize that, there was no class (at least not at my public school). Despite the desperate appearances many people project, in the words of the great William Goldman, “No one knows anything.”
We’re all winging it, to a certain extent, every day. It’s a realization that, depending on my mood, brings me great comfort and/or great despair. I do not always (read: often) have the answers as to how I should act and behave in the world, let alone feel I can tell others how to. I have a distinct sense that trying to be nice and give people the benefit of the doubt plays a big part, but beyond that, I can’t say too much with any sense of authority. But that’s my job as a person: to try to continually work at figuring that stuff out better. And sure, my writing, I believe, can help me with that.
But I believe my job as a writer is to tell a story in as truthful and entertaining way as I can muster.
Now, entertaining, to me, is a very elastic word. The Iceman Cometh I find highly entertaining. Ditto A View From The Bridge and King Lear. But also Noises Off, Barefoot in the Park andMonty Python and the Holy Grail. I tend to write dramas that deal with very hard and sad things, but are hopefully a lot of laughs along the way. That’s just how it’s worked out so far. But, I confess, I don’t think there are many writers who can pull off being angry about something, or being desperate to instruct us about something, at the expense of making us emotionally invest in the characters, in a way I find satisfying.
Another Thing I Feel Passionately Unsure About
There’s a more pragmatic reason that plays redolent with a MESSAGE tend to make me itchy inside. This doesn’t apply as much to television writing (where it’s less rare to begin with) as the theater. I mean, aren’t the vast bulk of theater artists (artists in general) at least vaguely singing from the same hymnal? I’m sure there’s some exceptions to this, but in Fellow Travelers, for example, at no point did I feel the need to show that The Red Scare was a bad thing. I don’t think anyone interested in coming to see this play was likely to be on the fence about that.
Saints and devils bore the hell out of me, and, I think most audiences, too. I was very lucky to meet and briefly talk on Opening Night to Jules Feiffer, who lived through that era and both knew and loathed Kazan for his actions. Mr. Feiffer sought me out afterwards, and was very kind to me when he saw the play, which I was obviously quite nervous about, especially because I go to pains to show Kazan’s existential struggle was every bit as real as Miller’s. But, being a great writer, he understood what I was at least attempting to do – to create three dimensional, often contradictory characters struggling with their uncertainty and self-interest. He could appreciate the portrayal without abandoning his core convictions that Kazan was in the wrong.
When I Was Younger, So Much Younger Than Today (Actually, I Hadn’t Been Born Yet)
Way back when, Broadway was an essentially democratic institution, or at least had the patina of it. Middle class people could go to see plays on Broadway with a fair amount of regularity. It had some cultural currency. Playwrights used to make the cover of Time. I mean. Things have changed, no?
And while these audiences expected to be diverted, they also expected to be challenged on occasion. There’s the possibly apocryphal story of the owner of Macy’s, on opening night of Death of a Salesman, turning to his wife after the curtain call and vowing to write a memo to his managers forbidding the firing of salesmen because of age.
It’s certainly pretty to think so. But today, Broadway, and increasingly, Off-Broadway, have often become destinations out of reach to all but the obviously privileged. And I get the cynical suspicion that many audiences today go to so called “serious” plays, in part, at least sometimes, as a salve to their consciences, or perhaps worse, just to have something to chat about with their peers. “Yes, that is a terrible thing that’s happening to those [fill in the blank],” they say as they impatiently wait for their Uber. “I’ll definitely have to mention it at brunch next weekend.”
And maybe that helps. I’m sure it can and does, in fact. And maybe it’s always been thus. Probably. I guess I’m just saying, if being a social justice warrior is your bag, I’m with you! However, if I saw something going on that I felt a burning need to address, there are few less direct or effective ways of doing so than writing a play about it. I mean, 1) if I get it produced, it’s possible it will be like five years after I wanted to address the issue and 2) I’m likely preaching to people who agree with me already.
Before I Start To Sound Too Cynical, Let Me Add A Little More
I attended a theater conference last year, which I was excited about: meet seem people, make some connections and friends, perhaps unleash my killer karaoke version of “Caribbean Queen” to a grateful throng. I was expecting workshops and panels on the nuts and bolts of getting your plays done and how to improve your work as an artist. Instead, I found it all a bit alienating. Like a Woke Olympics – with literally more safe spaces than play readings.
Now, I’m White, straight, and a man, so I get that I even though I think I get oppression and systemic marginalization, I know I don’t really. I try to be vigilant about this: I sometimes succeed, and surely many times fail. I believe it’s long past time to hear more voices in theater from oppressed and marginalized communities (how brave of me). I think, in fact, it’s vital for whatever culture relevance theater has left.
I’m just ultimately of the opinion that most – if not every great work of literature, even if overtly political – is successful based on how well we empathize with the characters on a human, non-political level. For all the brilliant political insight of Orwell‘s 1984,it’s the moment when Winston, the rats inches from his face, screams, “Do it to Julia!” that still hits me in the gut most.
That unquestionable masterpiece, Angels in America, written by Brecht acolyte Tony Kushner, employs many of Brecht’s techniques in the two plays. Yet, I would argue, it’s when Kushner breaks free, and even contradicts some of Brecht’s edicts, that make the plays scorch the minds and souls of its audiences. Kushner’s ability to make us feel for his indelible characters gives this two play cycle its rightful place in the Pantheon. If we don’t feel Prior’s fear and bravery, soften to the initially implacable Hannah, respect and fall in love with Belize – hell, if we aren’t moved, in spite of all logic, by Ethel Rosenberg and Louis saying Kaddish for the hateful Roy Cohn, the plays don’t work. But work they do.
Wait: Scratch That, Reverse It
But then there’s the late, great Larry Kramer, whose work as a writer and activist, as I said earlier, truly shook our culture. If it didn’t remove the scales from mainstream America’s eyes about the AIDS crisis all by itself (and it did more than its share), it paved the way for others to carry the message into the mainstream. Anyone who cares about playwriting, or theater, or the power of activism, or simply human empathy should mourn his loss. Because, despite his palpable rage – maybe because of it – he never lost his power to move with words, and to make clear the issues he was passionate about were deeply human.
I guess, in the end, that’s all I’m after as a writer. To try to make what I write about feel recognizably human. I think that’s our only non-negotiable job. Even with the characters we don’t like or agree with.
We live in an age where people are given permission, indeed often encouraged, by our “leaders” to view other groups of people as less than human. So, rather than aiming for a play in which everyone exits the theater chanting “Strike, strike, strike!” as they supposedly did after watching the premiere of Odets‘ Waiting For Lefty, I’d just like the audience to see a bit of themselves, or those they care about in the characters. And some humanity with those whom they they don’t agree with.
And yes, as I rather glibly stated before, in theaters we’re mostly preaching to the choir. But hearing the choir sing words you love and feel deep in your bones feels like a necessity these days.
Actually, in the America of 2020, reminding people of their common humanity is a political act. That’s what its seemingly come to.
My TV Writing Learning Curve During A Nasty Full-Frontal Assault of Depression
One of my current projects – arguably my central one these days – is working on new historically-based television series with, it’s recently been decided, a potential three season arc.
I wrote the original series, clocking in at about 11 hours or so, in a period of two and half months last summer/early autumn. I was generally pleased with the work, but I also knew this was only going be a first draft. It’s the story of famous family, whose most famous member, the one that would draw initial interest, is of the second generation. Nonetheless, as a draft, the best approach for me was write it chronologically, knowing that this was unlikely to fly in its final incarnation.
Few Things Are More Pompous And Self-Aggrandizing And Yet Totally Meaningless In This Industry Than Saying, “I Took Some Meetings.” But I Took Some Meetings.
And while there is, I’m happy to say, some interest in some quarters in the project (which I mean, come on, is there a less meaningful statement than that?), I’ve been working a bit with a smart, seasoned producer-director who has helped me rethink the series’ structure. Thus far, I’m totally on board. So I’m currently re-working the pilot to address our new direction, and what I’ve found is something everyone knows and says, something that I know and say, but I’m finally getting: there is a clear overlap between playwriting and TV writing, but they’re ultimately quite different skill sets.
The most obvious one is the one that, no matter how often I reminded myself of, is a trap I still fall into. My playwright’s instincts are to rely on language to tell my story, and in television, no matter how good you think the dialogue might be, that can get boring quickly. One needs to think visually whenever possible. I admit this a challenge for me. A challenge I’m happy to embrace, but a real one nonetheless. The result is every I time I look over my script, I hear my director’s voice saying “Why, exactly, do we need to know this? And why must it be told rather than shown through an action?” I’m astonished at how often I don’t have a good answer.
Words, Words, Words – Please Cut Them
Now, full disclosure: even as playwrights go, I’m an over-writer. I try not to be, but I’m also not too bothered by it because, I know the actors and directors will make clear to me through their work and comments what needs cutting. By the time a play gets to rehearsal, I seldom re-write very much. I am, however, forever shaving dialogue.
Of course, different writers have different voices, and some are wordier than others. I think that’s all kinds of OK. I don’t mind if my characters talk more than others’ might, as long as what they’re saying is important, entertaining, and moves the damn thing along. Now, in my TV series, it’s set in the 19th Century (a wordier era), and among people who wield language as their stock and trade. So I’ve got a little leeway.
But what I’m finding is, rather than feeling constrained by the fact I need to shed more lines and, sometimes, whole scenes, it excites me, because ultimately, it frees me up to get to even meatier stuff. For example, I wrote a perfectly entertaining scene about a character buying a ticket to see a play. Only after polishing the dialogue to a fine sheen did I realize: who the hell cares how he buys his ticket? We just need to see him in the damn theater. So, that scene become, “Cut To: Character finds his seat in the theater,” and we’re not only where we need to be, we’ve saved two pages. And pages are precious commodities.
The bottom line is, thank Buddha I have something new like this to wrestle with. Because, like many of you I’m sure, I’m finding myself more and more at the end of my tether in terms of emotional health. Maybe it’s the “Holiday Weekend” that feels, to me, nothing like a holiday, or maybe it is the accretion of maddening isolation, despair, and uncertainty that’s been the central motif of 2020, but I’m grateful to have some means of escape. It also could simply be a regular attempt by my depression to wrest the steering wheel from the backseat, as it it is wont to do. Probably a hybrid of all these things.
In any event, I’m grateful I’ve something as absorbing as learning the nuances of a craft I haven’t devoted as much time to as I have to playwriting to focus on.
No Matter How Bad A Moment It May Feel, It’s Only a Moment (Or Ten)
To be frank, It hasn’t proved enough thus far, not close to enough, but it’s something. And if 2020 has sought to prove anything, it’s that you should grab what you can get with both hands. Hope everyone is hanging in and staying safe out there. Have as good a holiday as you can. We’ve all earned it.
What I May Have Learned Spending The Weekend Completely Rewriting The Dialogue To This Beloved Play For My Quarantine Zoom Reading Group.
It’s a rite of passage for many young (and, in my case, not so young) playwrights: trying your hand at adapting a Chekhov play. A few summers back, just as an exercise, mind you, I wrote the first two acts of a modernized Uncle Vanya. When my then agent asked me what I was up to and I told her, she shouted into the phone: “Stop! Literally every person in New York has written an adaptation of Uncle Vanya! Cabbies. Hedge fund managers. Halal cart vendors. Every member of The New York Knicks organization. Everyone!” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. I still thought it had potential value, though, seeing if I could learn anything by essentially tracing over the blueprint of a great playwright’s great play. I can’t honestly say if it was. At minimum, it saved me from enjoying nature or interacting with family members.
Necessity (With A Dash Of Hubris) Is The Mother Of Invention
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m part of a Quarantine Zoom reading group. We read a play every Thursday evening. It’s become a highlight of my week. The people on it are all supremely gifted and terrific company. It’s definitely high up there on the small list of things keeping me sane these days.
There was some clamoring for Chekhov, and so I thought: great. I thought, given our little company, The Cherry Orchard might suit us best. The problem was, there are so many iterations out there. I even looked into buying Sir Tom Stoppard‘s translation of The Cherry Orchard (Can’t go wrong with good old Sir Tom, right?), but the copies wouldn’t arrive in time. Also, and this is hard to stress enough, I’m very cheap.
So I looked online at several public domain versions of the text, of which there are no shortage. But, to be frank, I found them all stilted and well, dull. Most of them were translated around 1915, so that could be part of the problem. Plus, to be honest, I’ve always found the fact that The Cherry Orchard was explicitly labeled a “comedy” by Chekhov himself somewhat baffling. I get comedies don’t have to be knee-slappers, but still.
From Russia, With Love of Human Suffering
I’ve always had a suspicion that many Americans (read: me) aren’t getting the full scope of the man’s genius when we read Chekhov. I think it’s mostly the Shakespeare Trap: everything is too reverential, too earnest, at least when done badly (which isn’t uncommon). I once knew an American actress who grew up in Russia, and asked her what we Americans didn’t get right about Chekhov and she immediately shouted (we were in a bar), “Oh. My. God! Chekhov is hysterically funny!!”
And I thought, really?
Much of it, she explained to me, is that Russians and Americans have very different senses of humor. Russians, she claimed, were not as into witticisms (although she claimed they do enjoy a good pun. But again, those really don’t translate). They find the heartbreak and self-deception so many of his characters endure inherently comic, which, yeah, I can kinda see that, but I think we tend to lean more into the heartbreak of it all.
That conversation always stuck with me.
So, What the Hell, I Thought, I Only Have The Respect of Theater Artists I Deeply Admire To LoseForever. I’ll Give It A Whirl.
I had two main goals when I set about re-writing (actually, that’s way too pompous a term for what I did. I’d call what I did more of a rephrasing) The Cherry Orchard: not to change the plot or the characters’ natures (as I read them) one iota, and simply try to make the language sound natural coming out of American, Canadian, and Australian actors’ mouths in 2020 while still honoring the period of the piece (no cursing, for instance, or references to Zoomba. Nor does anyone at any point refer in my version to the Cherry Orchard estate as their “crib”).
Oh, and I also wanted to try, if I could, make it occasionally funny without altering any of the characters or circumstances.
Task One: I Had To Put Out Of My Mind That I Was “Re-Writing” One Of The Greatest Plays Ever Written
This became much easier for me when I realized I wasn’t re-writing Chekhov, but someone else’s version of what they thought Chekhov wrote. That was surprisingly freeing. And, as the hardest thing for me to write – by far – is plot, and that in this case the plot was taken care of for me by a Master, I found the writing went very quickly. Whether the endeavor was at all successful or a crashing failure, I won’t have a clue til Thursday, at least. Having said this, here’s a few things I noticed along the way:
Dramaturgically Speaking, The Cherry Orchard Is One Weird-Ass Play, In Terms of Construction and, Well, Other Things, Too.
The play sets up what we think is going to be the play’s central dramatic conflict – the potential loss of the Cherry Orchard – almost immediately. Pretty high stakes. It is an ancestral estate, after all. So far, so good. But, then, like two pages later, it clearly provides the solution to the great dramatic obstacle. Like, an obvious and immediate solution.
Lopahkin, almost literally on page 10, explains exactly how the family can keep its land and save its dwindling fortunes. Yes, he admits, it will necessitate chopping down the orchard and the pulling down the ancestral home, which isn’t exactly un-fraught, but the family is saved from financial ruin 15 minutes into the play!
Except, it turns out, the cherry orchard isn’t the main issue at all. Because Lubov and Gaev (the owners of the estate) refuse to listen to Lopahkin for some never explained or even broadly hinted at reason. Perhaps because he’s the son of a Serf? Or maybe they just can’t accept that their world, one way or another, is about to permanently change. At times, it’s as if they literally can’t hear him.
I firmly believe (I’m sure this isn’t an original idea), Chekhov doesn’t give a hoot about the cherry orchard; so, what does he care about? What does he want us to care about? If I had to pick one central theme (because I think there’s a few of them), I’d say that he’s most interested in people’s unwillingness/inability to adapt to inevitable change and the toll it exacts on them.
To Quote Bob Dylan, “There Was Music In The Cafes At Night, And Revolution In The Air.”
Change surrounds these characters: a vast social shift that would culminate in the Russian Revolution. The rumblings of this conflict were none too subtle to most Russians as Chekhov wrote this. And yes, Chekhov is clearly interested in commenting on this development, especially through the character of Trofimov. In characteristic Chekhovian fashion, much of what Trofimov says is prescient and true, yet he himself is such an imperfect messenger – one minute eloquent and full of ideals, the next full of idiotic notions of being “above love” and offstage pratfalls – it’s hard to take his lofty ideals too seriously.
Even with the things Chekhov clearly agrees with politically, such as the Emancipation of the Serfs, he has a few characters (former Serfs themselves, sometimes) express great ambivalence about it. This is, of course, something all great writers do: they dig into the contradictions inside our motives and the ambivalent outcomes of all human behavior and endeavor, however well-intentioned. And yeah, tip of the cap here to Chekhov for doing that as well as pretty much anyone who’s ever written drama.
But if this were a play mainly about social upheaval, I don’t think it would resonate with people as much as it does. Nor is it, I think, Chekhov’s main preoccupation. No, as I wrote earlier, in my very humble and under-read opinion, it’s about the tragedy of change, and many people’s resistance/inability to adapt to it, both in their world and within themselves. He wants to show us the folly of how we go about trying to protect ourselves from the inevitable.
Speaking Of Turn Of The Century Geniuses With Poor Health
I keep coming back to what James Joyce answered when he was asked what his short story collection, Dubliners, published a few years after The Cherry Orchard, was about: “Paralysis,” was his one word response. It is, I think, one of the most human of traits. Both men were writing about societies on the cusp of revolution. But ultimately, it’s personal paralysis they’re both more interested in. Our inability to unstick ourselves, even when we know it’s what we should do.
What else can explain Lubov and Gaev’s refusal to heed Lopahkin’s obviously sound and, believe me when I say, repeated advice? How to justify why Lopahkin, the smartest and most confident character in the play in many ways, is unable to propose to Varya, when he knows it’s not only what he wants, but he also knows it’s what she wants, too? He just has to ask the damn question!
Is it that, finally, the successful son of a Serf cannot picture himself being worthy, or happy, living with a woman whose grandparents owned his? Or is it simpler? Is it basic human shyness and interpersonal incompetence at sharing our true feelings? Maybe it’s a mixture. It’s seldom one thing in life; it’s just as rarely one thing in Chekhov.
In the same way, what else can justify Lubov’s tragic dedication to a man she knows to be a cad? And yet, though we clearly see her devotion to him is dumb and self-destructive, and even she says it’s dumb and self-destructive, who among us can’t empathize with her plight at least a little?
Chekhov portrays one of the few characters in the play who isn’t afraid of change, the faithless, socially climbing footman Yasha, as without regard for anyone else around him, including his own mother. In order to move forward unencumbered, unweighted by the past – Lubov calls her love for her unnamed scoundrel “like a stone” – do we need to be equally heartless? Are we all, ultimately, only fully committed to and, equally, trapped by, ourselves, as perhaps the last moments of the play suggest?
Remember, it’s a comedy, people.
Other Dramaturgically Odd Choices In The Play That Would Likely Earn Him A C+ And A Terse “See Me During Office Hours” If Chekhov Were In A Grad School Writing Program
Chekhov makes reference to the tragic drowning of Lubov’s young son, which prompts her leaving the cherry orchard estate to begin with. And while it may arguably hover over the play and its characters throughout (just because there’s no direct evidence of this doesn’t make it untrue), Chekhov makes barely any mention of it after the first act. That’s a big thing to leave not only unresolved, but unremarked upon.
Plus, and here’s where I get all edgy and brazenly commit theatrical sacrilege, Chekhov’s expositional writing is often so clunky, so in your face bad, I refuse to believe a writer of his genius wasn’t doing it on purpose. Though I’ve yet to figure out what’s gained by it.
On The Other Hand…
To counter my bold assertion (so typical of me, the universally acknowledged “bad boy” of playwriting blogs), actress Jill Eikenberry offers this:
“I think in those expositional speeches, they’re just trying to figure out how their lives have turned out this way. They all think of themselves as the center of the universe. They’re Russian. Also, Chehkov was in cahoots with Stanislavsky and they were all about the inner lives of the characters. It was such a new idea. When I played Yelena in Uncle Vanya at Yale, I thought too many of her speeches were filled with ennui and self-pity. I thought the audience would hate me. But at the first preview, when I finished one of my least favorite monologues and swooned onto the divan, the audience laughed hysterically. And I thought ‘Hmm. This guy might know a thing or two about playwriting.'” Touché, Jill, touché.
Although I think it would be silly to entirely discount the comedic power of swooning on divans. It’s gotten me out of more than one sticky situation, both in my plays and my life. I recommend it highly.
Oh! And He Also Does This!
He also breaks HIS OWN SUPER FAMOUS, INCREDIBLY VITAL, CLICHED, AND BASIC PLAYWRITING 101 RULE. You know the one: “If we a see a gun at the start of the play (or start of ACT II in this case), be sure it’s fired by the end.” He breaks this rule. Not once. But twice. Twice.
The beautiful (seriously, he was kinda dreamy looking – the man looked hot with a goatee – a GOATEE) bastard (actually, by most accounts, an extraordinarily nice man) gets away with it; I think he gets away with it all. There’s no getting away from the power of his characters’ sloppy, deeply relatable humanity. Maybe, in the end, to capture that, you have to be willing to write a less than “technically perfect” play. Probably doesn’t hurt to be a genius, either.
Please! Share your thoughts on Chekhov with me. Praise my insight or call me out on my stupidity! I want to hear from you! I’d love to hear your thoughts on adapting works in general! I’ll let you know how the reading goes.
Jill Eikenberry has had, to put it mildly, a remarkable acting career in film, television, and theater. Best known to the public as Ann Kelsy on L.A. Law, she’s a five time Emmy Award and four time Golden Globe nominee (winning in 1989 for Best Actress in a Drama Series). But that only scratches the surface.
She also won an Obie award in 1986 and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in 2011. She was also brilliant in the role of Rachel in my play Jericho Off-Broadway in 2013. To this day, I can’t believe my good fortune in having her agree to do that play.
She and her husband Michael Tucker are also brilliantly funny in the web series I co-wrote and co-produced called “The Small Time” (here’s a link: www.thesmalltimeseries.com). She also brings it in a major way every week to my quarantine Zoom play reading group. As is her nature, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.
What drew you to acting? Was there a “moment” you knew you had to act, or was it a more gradual series of decisions? I was always drawn to acting as a kid. I did plays in high school and musicals in summer stock. And I played Iolanthe at Barnard, where I was studying to be a cultural anthropologist. But the “moment” happened when I played Ophelia at Columbia. I was in my dorm room memorizing her monologue “Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” and I noticed that large tears were running down my face. Now the thing is – I was not a cryer. My parents had divorced when I was 15 and I didn’t even cry about that! So, needless to say, when a friend suggested I audition for Yale Drama School in the spring, I found myself on a new career track. And the world lost a fine cultural anthropologist.
You’ve worked with a lot great actors. Are there any specific lessons you’ve learned from some of your colleagues over the years? The best acting lesson I ever got came from a playwright.I was playing Miss Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale at Playwright’s Horizons in Queens. It was directed by a young woman who believed that more is better. She wanted an obvious display of nervous behavior from me (the nightingale), and because I was a good girl, I became more and more eccentric with every passing day. The night of the invited dress rehearsal, much to our surprise, Tennessee Williams showed up. I was a wreck, naturally, but I thought I gave a pretty good performance. Actually we all did. Tennessee loathed it. Without a moment of hesitation he announced that he would take over the direction of the play and rewrite two of the scenes. The cast was of course thrilled – and more than a little intimidated. The night of the first preview – right before places – he came into my dressing room and told me to drop all the mannerisms I had been developing for the last 5 weeks. I was speechless. I mean the whole play was based on Miss Alma’s nervous condition! But what could I say? He was Tennessee Williams for Christ sake! I walked onto the stage feeling completely naked – and paralyzed with fear. The first scene was agonizing. But half way through Scene 2 I started to realize that there was nothing for me to do but talk and listen. And by the end of the performance I understood what the play was about. When I came off stage, Tennessee said, “Good. Now you can start to put the poetry back.” At the opening night curtain call he came up on stage, took my hand, and said to the audience, “I want to thank these wonderful actors for helping me finally finish my favorite play.”
Is there a specific quality you look for in the roles you take? What kind of roles excite you most? I always love to play a woman with a secret. The most fun is when I’m playing a character I can’t relate to at all. I mean it doesn’t seem fun at first because of all the resistance and agony I go through. But then – at some point – there’s a moment when this character shines a light on an unexplored part of myself – a part I might have preferred to leave in the shadows – my own secret. And there’s a huge freedom that comes from letting it show. In other words I like to play characters that teach me more about who I am.
You’ve obviously had a great many successes in your career. What roles/projects stand out most for you, if any, and why? I was a young actor at the O’Neill for a number of years. And that really stands out as one of the great learning experiences of my life. When I arrived there I was consumed with the question, “How am I doing?” I was over-thinking and over-working every part I played. The O’Neill changed me in two ways. First of all the focus there was not on the actors. It was on the play. How could each of us help the playwright find the play? And secondly, you only have 3 days of rehearsal at the O’Neill. Then the audience files in and you have to take an enormous leap. There’s no time for self-consciousness. All the actors have to rely on is the words and each other – and our instincts. I learned at the O’Neill that I could trust my instincts. It was a revelation. And it has served me in every part of my life – not just acting.
What qualities, if any, do the actors you’ve most enjoyed working with share? Generosity is important. Competitive actors are not much fun to work with. I feel safer and freer on stage with actors who are totally present – who see me and hear me and surprise me every night. And I love to work with actors who are not afraid to go deep. Their courage makes me braver. Our dear friend, the late Mark Blum comes to mind.
Is there anything you’d tell a just starting out in the business Jill Eikenberry to worry less about or more about? Worry less about what people think.(Good luck with that) Don’t compare yourself to other actors. (Totally impossible) Never stop trying to get to know yourself. (I’m still working on that at age 73) The more you know about all your triggers and all your issues, the more you can keep them from getting in your way. (Sometimes) Do all your work and then let it all go and just play. (The best feeling in the world!)
From your point of view, what has changed the most in the tv and theater industries over the last decade or so? Well of course the advent of talking pictures was a big transition for me! Sound has also changed in the theater. I did 5 shows on Broadway in the 70s and 80s – 4 plays and 1 musical – and nobody used microphones. Now they’re everywhere. I think stage acting has become more naturalistic in the theater. Maybe that’s because of the microphones – or because of the intimacy of TV acting. A friend of ours came to see Mike’s play ‘Fern Hill” at 59 E 59th last fall. He told us before the show that never goes to the theater because he hates the “acting” style. So he was shocked when he saw us up there behaving so realistically. He loved it. It occurred to me that I hadn’t really noticed the change, but it works for me. I’ve always been a 4th wall kind of actor – even in musicals. I did “Onward Victoria,” – my first and only Broadway musical – in 1980. And I knew I was in trouble when I saw that some of my older co-stars faced front the whole time. They never looked at me. The director wanted me to do the same, but it felt so unnatural. I finally found the solution. My character, Victoria Woodhall, listened to voices in her head all the time. They were her guides. So I just placed my voices in the back row of the theater and everyone was happy. Well not everyone. The show closed on opening night.
Has your approach to acting changed in any ways over your career? If so, why? I’ve gotten more heart driven – less cerebral. I have more access to my feelings and that’s where I want to live – on and off stage. I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and more with each passing decade. What really turns me on is the element of chance. Who knows what will happen tonight on stage? That’s the magic of live theater. I really hope it comes back soon.
OK, you get your pick of any role ever written to play when Broadway re-opens. What’s your pick? I’ve always wanted to play Blanche. She’s the one. I’m too long in the tooth at this point, but I can dream, can’t I?